The Chinese sports media and Chinese sports administrative organizations are supposed to have a cooperative relationship, but in reality, they often come into conflict, separated by economic interests and cultural differences.
Wang Junsheng, the former deputy president of the China Football Association (CFA), once told the sports journalists who attended a press conference, “We are actually a family!” Ma Dexing, the chief soccer reporter for the Titan Sports Weekly, speaking in a television interview in 2002, responded, “How can the news media and the CFA be a family? It is simply impossible!” Regarding the relationship between the news media and sports administrative organizations in contemporary China, Wang’s view is quite representative in the Chinese elite sport circle, while Ma’s view is prevailing among Chinese sports journalists. During the past decade, many conflicts have occurred between the Chinese news media and Chinese sports administrative organizations, and those conflicts have become high-profile news events that were widely reported. It is easy to imagine that the tension between these two institutionalized organizations will mount as the 2008 Beijing Olympics—a huge media event—draw near. This essay is a brief analysis of the relationship between the Chinese news media and Chinese sports administrative organizations within a political, economic, and cultural context.
In China, the news media and sports administrative organizations are both part of the government, and this feature makes them fundamentally different from their counterparts in the West.
In China, the political function the news media fulfill is to be the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping initiated certain reforms and liberalization, the Communist Party has encouraged the news media to make their reports less politicized. However, the party’s control over the news media is still tight and effective. All the news media are state owned: all the radio and television stations are run directly by the government; all newspapers are subjected to stringent registration requirements; all the leading personnel of the news media are appointed by the party. The political function elite sport fulfills in China is to win glory for the state. Since 1978, the Chinese government has tried to make many areas of social life less political. However, elite sport is not one of those areas. On the contrary, the political function of elite sport has increased. In the 1980s, many heavily politicized slogans were proposed, such as “win glory for the state,” “rejuvenate China,” and “make it to the top in Asia and advance into the world’s forefront.”
The economic reforms that were begun in 1978 have brought great changes in China. Today, many government departments, including the Chinese news media and Chinese sports administrative organizations, are allowed and encouraged to pursue economic benefits.
Commercialization has changed the Chinese news media remarkably. Today, the Chinese news media report on elite sport in order to attract a greater audience rather than to spread the news of Chinese sports people’s winning glory for the state. Most of the Chinese news media choose sports news as the breakthrough point of journalism reform, because they believe sport lacks political importance and sensitivity. Negative and critical reports of Chinese elite sport have become common, and this is a choice made based upon survival strategy in the market rather than journalistic conscience. However, in spite of the media’s new focus on commercial success, they remain the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, which retains control over them.
Elite sport, for its part, is called the last island of planned economy in the ocean of market economy because of its heavy dependence on government subsidies. However, it too has been involved in the process of commercialization. In 1993, the National Sports Committee, the predecessor of the General Administration of Sport, started to reform the administrative system of sport, with the goal of having sport “face the market, enter the market, and be industrialized.” Because Chinese sports authorities have absolute control over competition resources and human resources, they have advantages that their rivals in the market lack, and commercialization has not weakened their administrative power.
Chinese sports administrative organizations want positive media coverage of Chinese elite sport because they believe it can help them get more government subsidies and more commercial sponsorship, competition revenue, and advertising revenue. However, because they are still mainly funded by the government, they do not depend on media coverage to the degree that their Western counterparts do.
Comparatively, the Chinese news media face more commercial pressure. The vast majority of Chinese news media are no longer subsidized by the government and have to make a living in the market. Therefore, they have to cater to their audience’s taste. However, they dare not ignore the interests of sports authorities either, because their main sources of sports news are controlled by the sports administrative organizations.
Of all the professions in China, journalism and media-related work offer the greatest labor mobility, and among Chinese journalists, sports journalists have the greatest mobility. Another distinctive characteristic of Chinese journalists is that most of them are well educated—almost all Chinese journalists who are younger than 35 are university graduates. However, the majority of Chinese sports journalists have a very limited knowledge of sport before they start to report it. Even experienced sports journalists cannot understand a sport in the same way or at the same level as professional coaches and athletes do. To make up for that, some young sports journalists are willing to try almost anything to zero in on the private lives of star athletes. Sometimes, they even create false stories out of nothing.
As for Chinese sportspeople, there is a wellknown saying: “Their arms and legs are overly strong; their minds are overly simple.” Mainly due to their lack of basic knowledge and formal education, Chinese sportspeople have some distinctive characteristics. First, they are easily influenced by extreme and radical ideologies such as narrow nationalism and cults of personality. Due to the heavy politicization of elite sports, they are used to being regarded as national heroes, practically deified. Second, Chinese sportspeople tend not to know how to get along with other people, especially those outside their circle, properly and politely. Chinese athletes live and train in a relatively circumscribed environment and have few chances to experience an ordinary social life. When they have to face the outside world, they often feel nervous and uncomfortable, and their nervousness often develops into a defensive or even aggressive attitude toward those they cannot really understand. Third, Chinese sportspeople generally lack a strong sense of sporting principles such as fair play. They are encouraged by their coaches to win at any cost.
When Chinese sports journalists, who are in general open-minded, well educated, and maverick, and Chinese sportspeople, who are in general narrow-minded, poorly educated, and conservative, become interviewers and the interviewed, reporters and the reported, the sharp contrast between their educational backgrounds and ways of thinking makes it difficult for them to have a friendly relationship. Chinese sports administrative organizations often criticize the Chinese news media for ignoring the political importance of Chinese elite sport and forgetting their duty to extol the great achievements of Chinese elite sport. In fact, it is not difficult to understand why the Chinese news media are so critical of Chinese athletes, given how hard journalists have struggled in the market for almost 30 years. The stubbornness shown by Chinese sportspeople is not common in other areas of Chinese society and therefore often criticized by the Chinese media in turn.
The similarity of the political functions of the Chinese news media and Chinese sports administrative organizations means that their relationship must be fundamentally cooperative. However, the difference in the degree to which they must operate in a free-market situation, pursuing economic ends, often puts them in confrontation. At the same time, sharply different professional characteristics also cause tension and conflict between Chinese athletes and Chinese sports journalists. It will be interesting to see how the relationship between the Chinese sports media and Chinese sports administrative organizations develops as China’s economic situation continues to change and as the Olympics draw nearer.
Source: Wu, Ping. (2007). China’s sporting family. Guanxi: The China Letter, 15, 1.