China Badly Wants Its Own Soccer Superstar, But Will They Accept One Who’s Muslim? – Forbes

Chinese soccer fans cheering during the 2018 World Cup Asian qualifying match against Hong Kong in Shenzhen, south China’s Guangdong province, in 2015. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Avenues of voicing dissent are closing rapidly through China, and perhaps nowhere faster than in ethnic minority communities in the mountains and plains of the west. But a platform for now sidelined voices could soon emerge from Xi Jinping’s favorite pastime — soccer.

Chinese soccer fanatics, the president included, eagerly await their first superstar. His arrival feels all but promised by a population larger than Europe and South America combined. Profit also crouches in the grass. A Chinese soccer star would be the marketing event of the century: a Messi or Ronaldo from within the world’s single largest consumer marketplace.

But it is the muted west, not the wealthy east, where you can find the street soccer culture that has bred the game’s greats before. Over the next 10 years, more and more western players will also see routes to success, as the region will develop rapidly. The “One Belt One Road” initiative, the latest chat to emerge out of Beijing, is a economic plan to connect China to its Eurasian neighbors. “Go West” titles another effort to move industrial positions westward, while the eastern seaboard focuses on innovation.

With paths towards stardom for talented minority players opening, the marketing of a face presents questions about depictions of racial minorities in a country often seen as homogeneous.

“An emphasis on ethnic identity or a tendency to downplay it are both real possibilities [in marketing],” says Dr. Kevin Carrico, a Macquarie University researcher who studies Han nationalism, ethnic policy, and cycles of protest and government backlash in China. “But if one of these players used his fame or stature as a means to speak out against state policy — for example, kneeling during the national anthem — it would not be viewed even remotely positively. That would be rapidly shut down.”

Young Uighur boys display their switch-blades while posing with a girl holding a soccer ball in Hotan, located in China’s far west Xinjiang Region, in October 2006. (Credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Image)

The beautiful game in the highlands

While soccer is popular throughout China, nowhere is that love more intense than in the west. Basketball arguably equals, or in some ways surpasses, soccer as the favorite sport of cities on the eastern seaboard. Asphalt courts are more common than sod pitches. And NBA players like Jeremy Lin and Yao Ming, both Han, haunt merchandise from every sector: soda, credit cards, English lessons, fried chicken, GPS navigators.

But soccer’s slow rise has state backing. Policy plans and funding packages now direct a national plan to make China a powerhouse soccer team by 2050. Sixty thousand new fields will be built by 2020. Moneyed academies and professional clubs speckle the eastern seaboard, boarding young players to mine for top talents. A $185 million Guangzhou Evergrande Academy is the single largest of its kind in the world with more than 2,000 trainees and a 40-foot-tall World Cup trophy outside the gates.

Young Chinese students during training at the Evergrande International Football School near Qingyuan in Guangdong Province, China in June 2014. The school is considered the largest football academy in the world. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the dusty yards and vacant lots across the west produce the grassroots, barefoot competition where most of the world’s superstars were raised, Nicholas Gineprini noted in his Italian book The Chinese Dream: The History and Economics of Chinese Football (not yet translated into English).

The Uighur ethnic minority is a Turkic Muslim people who come from the western Xinjiang province. In the small capital of Urumqi, the No. 5 Middle School is the country’s best youth team. It won the Youth Campus Football Championship from 2012, when it started, for four years straight until 2015, when they stopped running the competition. The mostly Uighur team from one of China’s poorest regions consistently bested teams from rich academies like Shanghai Xu Genbao Academy and professional clubs like Guangzhou Evergrande.

A shifting, unchanging landscape

Currently, five Xinjiang athletes play in the Chinese Super League, the most popular of which being Mirahmetjan Muzepper, the first Uighur called up to the Chinese national team. His public portrayal is lousy with ethnic stereotypes.

“I see echoes of common condescending viewpoints of ethnic minorities in the narrative of his skills and talents,” says Carrico. “There are common stereotypes: they eat more meat. They’re stronger. They’re better at sports.”

Zhang Xiaobin (right) of Beijing Guoan vies for the ball with Mirahmetjan Muzepper of Henan Jianye during their Chinese Super League match in Beijing on November 2, 2014. (Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the 1950s, ethnic minorities in China were depicted as stuck in a previous era of human development. The Han ethnic majority, on the other hand, portrays itself as the pinnacle of development.

“Minority groups were often represented in accordance with the Marxist view of the states of history as literally on different time periods on the developmental scale,” says Carrico. “Those kinds of assumptions certainly have not faded away in contemporary China.”

While representation of minorities remains a consistent theme in politics, they are largely voiceless. At the 19th Party Congress, for example, people in ethnic garb express their gratitude to the state. But they are nameless actors. Public personas from ethnic minorities are absent.

“Maybe people would be ready for a Uighur football star,” reasoned Carrico. “But unfortunately that wouldn’t translate to moving beyond simplistic stereotypes of Uighurs.”

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