Bell on the Chinese way of sport

The always enjoyable Daniel Bell has an essay in Dissent called “The Politics of Sports: Watching the World Cup in Beijing.” Before elaborating further, I just want to note as an aside how much I look forward to Bell’s essays from Beijing. Bell is one of my intellectual heroes, and he has an extremely sharp eye for observing societies, which in recent years he has cast upon China and East Asia in general.

In any case, in this essay Bell dissects how the Chinese view international athletics. I have previously looked at how at Japanese attitudes towards international competitions, so I found this essay particularly useful for the sake of comparison. The Japanese too are greatly interested in how their national teams perform in international competitions (and how Japanese nationals perform in foreign professional leagues: witness the nightly recaps on how Japanese baseball players in the US and footballers in Europe perform). But at the same time, I haven’t noticed a prevailing pattern in Japanese attitudes to competitions in which Japanese teams or players are not involved (although there is apparently some interest in American football, based on there being university football teams and broadcasts of NFL games).

But Bell finds something interesting about the teams Chinese fans support internationally:

Chinese fans support traditional soccer powers such as Germany, England, Brazil, Argentina, and Italy. It is difficult to overestimate the passion for such teams. In the 2002 World Cup, the CCTV hostess Sheng Bin wept openly at Argentina’s early exit. When England went down in defeat against Portugal in 2006, my son’s piano teacher’s husband was so depressed he could barely get out of bed. Partly, the preference for traditional soccer powers can be explained by the love of the game: Chinese fans support teams that have performed well in the past and are likely to generate exciting games in the future. But there may also be a special form of internationalist nationalism at work. The support for established teams may be an expression of a more general appreciation for nations with long and rich histories and cultures.

Bell suggests that the flip side of this attitude is an aversion to supporting underdogs in sports and in politics, which is hardly surprising given that the CCP has tried to cultivate the impression that it is the natural heir to five thousand years of Chinese civilization, and the rightful counterpart to other nations that are heirs to great civilizations. A good example of Beijing’s about-face since Cultural Revolution is the creation of Confucius Institutes beginning in 2004. It seems that the more the CCP appears as the guardian of Chinese civilization, the more legitimacy it expects to enjoy at home and abroad.

Accordingly, expect the Beijing Olympics to be steeped in Chinese history, presenting China as a worthy world leader.

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