This week two former chiefs of China’s soccer association were sentenced to ten-and-a-half years in prison for taking bribes. This is being marked as the cap to a two-year crackdown on corrupt club officials, referees and players that’s seen 56 people put in jail – all part of an effort to improve the soccer prospects of a country with 1.3 billion people that can’t manage to throw together a team better than North Korea’s. Even if you don’t care about soccer, this is a story worth paying attention to.
I’m hardly the first to note the similarities between the problems Chinese soccer faces and those of China’s government. In a nutshell, the organization of people indulging in the bribery and corruption is the same one charged with policing and disciplining itself. It seems just about everyone can see the inherent problem with this arrangement – except those on the inside.
Much like the government does when faced with endemic official corruption, Chinese soccer is tackling the problem with a one-off crackdown and parading the stiff prison sentences that the prosecuted receive. This is essentially like deploying a Kleenex to battle pneumonia and then showing off the huge snot-wad it removes. It temporarily takes care of the most obvious symptom and looks impressive, but there’s a lot more snot inside that didn’t make itself so obvious. And since the systematic problem hasn’t been addressed, the body will remain a perpetual snot, cough and phlegm-producing machine.
In both the government and soccer league there’s obviously a fair amount of self-delusion from those who genuinely do want to clean things up but think they can do so without giving up any power. “If only we can find the right recipe of role-models, stern warnings, harsh punishments, guilt-tripping, gimmicks and (non-independent toothless) anti-corruption commissions, then we won’t need truly independent watchdogs keeping us in check and slowing down our grand vision,” they imagine.
Now we’ll get to watch what happens in the aftermath of this soccer crackdown and perhaps make some wider conclusions about where China’s authoritarian system as a whole is headed. Some bold democratic reforms have been proposed for the league, so we’ll see if there’s enough support to actually get any enacted and enforced. Either way, if this relatively small corner of Chinese governance can’t be cleaned up, what chance does the greater national system have? If rampant corruption seeps back into the league and the country remains awful at soccer, then it’s probably safe to conclude that the long-term prospects of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” in its current form are equally grim.