Is China The Future of Football? Lessons from Development Economics

From 1978 to 2006 the economy of China grew at an average rate of approximately 9%. The growth has been incredible and wholesome, income per capita has increased five-fold, poverty has dropped from 53% to just 8%, a drop of some 400 million people, when the Chinese decide to do something, they do it properly.

So how did this astonishing growth come about? Nearly every development policy seems to cite China as the proof of its own merit.

China’s first attempts to develop their economy were not successful. In the 50s their industries were highly inefficient and the lack of democracy led to some 30million people dying during a famine*. But there were small successes in both health and education and these were to prove essential components of later growth. Early on there was the presence of demonstration. Japan had developed rapidly and successfully whilst South Korea grew quickly through its focus on export-orientated globalization. Later the focus of growth shifted to China itself as foreign global firms were seduced by the unrivalled market size along with vast, cheap, surprisingly skilled (due to earlier successes) and motivated work force. And once a few companies had set up in China, the country became even more attractive. Everything was set up for rapid economic growth except for one crucial ingredient, government backing. Following the horrors of Tiananmen Square there was a loss of confidence and a fear that reform would be halted and investment slow. However, upon Deng Xiaoping’s proclamation that “you should be bolder and grow faster” things went into overdrive. Almost instantaneously China switched from a lower growth equilibrium to a higher one. Markets were freed up and the learning spillovers from new enterprises were abundant.

This is of course a very brief overview of the development process in China but I just wanted to highlight what for me was the key part in the Chinese development story; the government’s proactive industrial policy, and the excessive power of the Chinese state. Dani Rodrik postulates, “development requires more than a good night watchman,” and I believe so does the growth of a new footballing superpower.

So what is the current state of Chinese football? China are a sleeping giant, they lie 77th in the Fifa world rankings, only 11 places behind Scotland, they have reached just one World Cup, 2002, in which they lost all of their games and whilst some have tried, a Chinese player is yet to build a successful career outside of China.

So how is the sport developing? And how can this process be sped up? Well ominously China won the 2009 Fifa Development Award, this may well resemble the early successes of 1950s China in terms of setting up some of the infrastructure and grassroots skills that may be called upon in the future. China have also achieved the moderate success of winning the East Asian cup twice in the last four years, I wonder how it ranks against Scotland’s infamous Kirin cup victory? Furthermore, China’s women’s team is 13th in the world and was runner up in the ’99 World Cup.

There has of course been demonstration from South Korea and Japan as the two countries have achieved reasonable success in recent World Cups and have implemented popular and competitive leagues in their country. However, the focus of the global firms, football clubs, has once more moved on from Japan and Korea to China, eyeing profits from its massive market.

It is all set up; the grassroots award has been won, the workforce is vast and diligent, the global clubs have moved in and the learning opportunities are abundant. But it appears in China things don’t happen until the government says so. So President Hu Jintao, just say when.

*Amartya Sen has argued that a serious famine has never taken place in a country during a time of true democracy; this is due to freedom of press.

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