Learn from Li Na

At Caixin Online, Huang Yiping argues for further reform and opening of China’s financial system, citing Li Na’s June 4th Grand Slam victory at the French Open as an unlikely model:

Behind her advances were a series of reforms to the Chinese Tennis Association that began in 2009. They managed to break the old pattern of state-controlled training and selection, and opened the way for national team players to “fly solo.” Now, players can choose their own coaches and group teams, decide when to compete internationally, and independently seek out their own brand endorsements ….

Traditionally, China’s sports system leverages national strength to seize gold medals, employing the resources of an entire nation to support a small number of athletes. These select few begin their arduous training as children, and go on only if they win. If one looks at the Olympic medal count alone, the strategy appears a resounding success. But not only is this method a fundamental violation to the spirit of public participation in sports, it’s also low in efficiency. Athletes trained under the juguo system are only capable of excelling at one thing ….

If the economic juguo system persists, particularly in the form of economic control policies, not only will there be problems with future returns on investment, but financial risks will also be difficult to control. With capital controls becoming harder and harder to maintain, financial crises are inevitable.

Chinese tennis showed us the way out: go with the tide, and complete financial liberalization reforms. Of course, they must be firm but appropriate, giving full consideration to the conditions and order of marketization. Otherwise, inappropriate financial liberalization could also lead to a financial crisis. The failure of professional soccer in China should serve as ample warning.

See also CDT’s coverage of Li’s victory and Evan Osnos’ New Yorker article, “Li Na and the Politics of Saying Thank You“, which describes the same reforms referred to by Huang:

Li rejoined the national tennis team after her wedding, but then left again in December of 2008, along with three other Chinese players, under a novel deal called a “fly alone” agreement. The deal, signed with the Tennis Management Center of the General Administration of Sport of China, allowed Li and the others to choose their own coaches and set their own competition schedules. It also reportedly slashed the share of her winnings that she gave the state from sixty-five per cent to twelve per cent ….

State television plastered images of her win with the phrase “Li Na’s success was a result of the continuous reform of the Chinese sports system.” But Chinese fans were not quick to agree. “When she was fighting against the system, no one spoke for her; when she was training hard, no one paid attention. Now that she has succeeded by herself, she makes you proud all of a sudden?” the actress Ke Lan wrote.

At a post-match press conference, [Li] bantered in English with reporters, and made a point of thanking Sun [Jinfang, head of the Tennis Management Center]: “Without her decision to reform, I wouldn’t have been able to perform as I did today.”


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