Chinese media reported this week that police are formally investigating three high-level Chinese football officials for corruption, including Xie Yalong (谢亚龙), the former vice-chairman of the Chinese Football Association. Mid-level football officials have been implicated in the corruption scandal as well, indicating that the government is serious about cleaning up systemic corruption in Chinese football.
It was sometime earlier this year, I believe, that a journalist asked me which I was more hopeful about — Chinese national football or China’s higher education system. I said I was more optimistic about the prospects for national football. And if I were asked the same question today, I would stick with my original answer.
Football may draw a lot of interest and attention, but it is still a matter of choice rather than of necessity. Sure, if watching football is your passion, you can tune in to international matches. If playing football is your passion, you can put together your own match. But most of the rest of us can go through an entire year without giving a moment’s thought to the world’s most popular sport.
Education, unlike football, is serious business. Every family and individual has to grapple with education. For many, our universities in China are a source of anger and frustration. Plenty of Chinese, having lost confidence in our institutions of higher learning, have voted with their pocketbooks, packing their kids off to overseas universities. The vast majority of people can’t opt out, however, and national college entrance examinations are still a critical rite of passage for most.
While higher education is a practical concern facing everyone, reforming our universities is a far more difficult problem than reforming Chinese football. Reforming Chinese football means going in aggressively and cutting out the blight, exactly what we are seeing happen right now. It’s quite a simple matter really. But not so with our university system. People have criticized corruption in our universities for years, but there has never been a concerted effort to reform them.
In fact, Chinese soccer and Chinese education suffer from the same basic disease. In a completely non-commercial environment, the conditions aren’t right for corruption to gain a foothold. Even if you wanted to extort bribes, no one would pay up. At the other end of the spectrum, a completely commercialized market environment is not so conducive to corruption, because in such a system resource allocation is not in the hands of regulators and supervisors. Industry players, in other words, can get all the resources they need from the market.
Our current system of commercialization under institutional control is a breeding ground for corruption. In this sort of commercial environment, gaining access to resources means jumping over administrative hurdles in order to gain all sorts of necessary approvals. Football and education are very similar in this respect. Even though universities rely on tuition money for survival, these revenues can only be utilized with state approval. Kickbacks for the funding of research, the pocketing of research funds, and even corruption in student recruitment — all of these are frightfully common in China.
Why should corruption in national football become a top priority while we turn a blind eye to corruption in our universities?
Football isn’t just the world’s number-one competitive sport. Under our national sports system it is a matter of China’s national pride as well. The unique role of national football means that it commands the attention of state leaders. Corruption in our universities, however, does not invite the same level of attention or resolve. It may be everywhere, but no one wants to face it head on.
The world of Chinese football and the world of Chinese higher education are not so different in their underlying rottenness. Behind their bright and fresh facades, our universities suffer from the same institutional decay. But so long as this corruption is kept out of the open — as corruption in national soccer was until recently — no one will have the courage to face it.
A version of this article originally appeared in Chinese at Southern Metropolis Daily.