Messi Mess Highlights “Fragile” Psyche of Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese Nationalists

Argentinian soccer superstar Lionel Messi’s apology to Chinese fans last week for sitting out a friendly match in Hong Kong has done little to quiet nationalist outrage on the mainland. In early February, Messi’s home club Inter Miami played an exhibition against a Hong Kong side. Messi, citing injury, did not take the pitch. After the match, video circulated of Messi seemingly avoiding a handshake with John Lee, Hong Kong’s controversial Chief Executive. Three days later, Messi came on as a late substitute in a match in Japan. A viral explosion of nationalist anger over Messi’s perceived snub of China followed. The comment sections under Messi’s official Weibo account filled with calls for him to “f*ck off.” China’s Football Association then canceled scheduled friendly matches the Argentinian national team was set to play in Hangzhou and Beijing in March. The CFA’s statement attributed the cancellation to “the reason everyone knows.” (The Argentinian team will now play in the United States instead.) 

In a now-censored essay, Zhang Feng, a reporter who writes on the WeChat blog @张3丰, explained nationalist anger with Messi through the metaphor of China’s domineering official drinking culture. In Zhang Feng’s view, China’s football woes can be traced to the ridiculous demand that great talents prostrate themselves before political leaders

You’ve come all this way but won’t even drink, what’re you playing at!

Boss Li toasts you and you still won’t take a sip, what an affront!

You won’t drink to our toasts, yet you’ll raise a glass with the Japanese, you despise us!

How tragic. As far as the Chinese people are concerned, contracts, club issues and personal boundaries are all meaningless. Only one thing matters to them: our Leader toasted you and you didn’t raise your glass … [Chinese]

Zhang’s riff is a play on a viral 2023 joke that blamed China’s economic woes on undue political interference. The 2023 joke goes: 

Q: Why are we hemorrhaging high-tech talent?
A: Because even Stephen Hawking has to stand up for toasts [to cadres]! [Chinese]

In a humorous article, WeChat author @麻雀商业评论 argued that netizens’ enduring anger—despite Messi’s apology—reveals Messi’s PR team’s failure to understand China’s national psyche. Instead of sharing the mundane truth (that Messi was injured), the author argued that the Messi team should have made Messi consult with a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine: 

Even though this would still not allow fans to watch Messi playing soccer, they’d be able to see him visiting a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Would such an unprecedented scene not be more precious, rare, and thrilling? It would tick all of the boxes: topical, newsworthy, viral, and stirring. 

[…] You need to learn to set aside facts and logic and go straight to the root of the problem—find a cure for the ailment, and supplement whatever is lacking. Veteran practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine are uniquely well suited for treating “glass hearts.” [Chinese

For more on “glass hearts” and nationalist “fragility,” see our new 20th anniversary edition CDT Lexicon

In a further reflection on why Messi’s apology failed to land in China, the WeChat account @三表龙门阵 urged Chinese fans to join the “general consensus” of global sports fans—that injury is a legitimate reason to miss games. The Messi debacle, they imply, revealed the deep gulf between China and the global sports community: 

The petty consensus in China is that you’ve come all this way, so don’t pull a face now that you’re here. Is it really that hard to offer a few New Year’s greetings? Or shake an important cadre’s hand? Haven’t we shown you respect?

Yet the general consensus among people who understand sports is that if you’re injured, it’s okay to sit out. Whether or not to meet with a politician is the individual’s choice. Taking to the field (or sitting out) is not indicative of an underhanded slight. 

Taking the costs into account, in order to foster exchange and smooth over differences, we should endeavor to conform to the general consensus [of global fandom] and abandon our petty consensus [of Chinese nationalism]. In the wise words of our forebears: seek common ground, and put aside our differences. [Chinese]

Pro-establishment Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip took to Twitter to rail against Messi for sitting out: “Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter Miami, and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong.” The hyperbolic accusation of “black hands” is the same label the Chinese government applied to leaders of the Tiananmen movement in 1989 and is also reminiscent of accusations that “foreign forces” are behind protests on the mainland. 

Some WeChat authors analyzed the incident as a further marker of the “mainlandization” of Hong Kong. A censored essay by the account @基本常识 mocked the “formalism” of Hong Kong’s government for thinking that sponsoring a soccer friendly might salvage the city’s global prestige. “Formalism” is a common Chinese political term for superficial actions that do not address root causes. The censored essay sarcastically concluded: “I’d have never expected [Hong Kong’s government] to copy [China’s] homework so thoroughly and so quickly.” 

The Economist drew a connection between the Messi outrage and the recent controversy around the Hong Kong-set television series “Expats,” arguing both reflect the city’s changing political atmosphere. The Hong Kong government granted the cast and crew of “Expats” exemptions to the city’ strict quarantine rules to facilitate filming on location in the city, a controversial decision that sparked public anger. Now the film is not available for viewing in the city, perhaps because “the scene of the 2014 protests could have violated the…2020 national security law,” Freedom House’s Yaqiu Wang told CNN. The Economist argued that both issues reflected Hong Kong culture’s resemblance to mainland China—a marked contrast from the recent, pre-2020 past:

All of this has made Hong Kong look worryingly like the mainland, where brands and celebrities are wary of offending thin-skinned nationalists. As well as the football, Hong Kongers have been talking about “Expats”, an Amazon Prime show about wealthy foreigners living in the city. Officials had hoped it would be good for Hong Kong’s image. In 2021 they even bent quarantine rules to allow Nicole Kidman, an Australian actress, to film on location. But some politicians have said the series portrays the city negatively. When it premiered on January 26th, Amazon did not make it available to viewers in the territory. [Source]

The background to the Messi quagmire is a corruption scandal currently engulfing the Chinese soccer world that has touched its highest levels. Former national team coach Li Tie and the former head of the Chinese Football Association Chen Xuyuan both confessed to corruption in a documentary produced by China’s top anti-corruption body that was aired on China Central Television. An anonymous “insider” quoted by The Athletic claimed that there is skepticism about the charges against Li within the Chinese football industry. Although there has been no official statement on Li’s trial or sentencing, national broadcaster CCTV has asserted that a viral claim that Li Tie had been sentenced to life in prison was an untrue rumor. At The Wall Street Journal, Chun Han Wong reported on the corruption crackdown and Xi Jinping’s personal disappointment with the national soccer team

The documentary didn’t specify what legal proceedings the authorities are bringing against the detained officials, coaches and players, none of whom could be reached for comment. The CFA, meanwhile, has asked its staff to watch the documentary and submit written essays reflecting on what they learned, according to a state-run newspaper.

[…] Xi himself has voiced pessimism about Chinese soccer. In a November conversation with Thailand’s prime minister, Xi said China had been fortunate to beat its Southeast Asian neighbor in a recent match. “I think there was a lot of luck involved,” Xi said, according to footage released by the Thai government. “Because now, about our national team, I’m not so sure about their level…there are ups and downs.” 

[…] The team lost 2-1 in a friendly match with Hong Kong earlier this month, the first mainland Chinese defeat at the hands of the city’s international team in nearly four decades, excluding a penalty-shootout loss in 1995. The game was played in Abu Dhabi behind closed doors, at the request of both soccer associations, according to local media reports, so there were no fans present to witness the upset. [Source]

At the current affairs website World Politics Review, Mary Gallagher argued that China’s current soccer predicament is a product of campaign-style governance that encourages boom-bust cycles

The focus on corruption as the cause of the failure is misplaced but convenient, as it shifts blame from Xi’s call for greatness at all costs. As in other areas of China’s economy, the corruption is the result of Xi’s top-down leadership style. First, due to the centralization of power and elimination of other factions and rivals at the upper reaches of the system, local officials and businesses are very responsive to his plans. This leads to booms, but also tends to encourage corruption because of fear of not meeting goals and expectations. When local officials and businesses try to out-compete each other, it can also lead to falsification of data, short-term achievements and waste.

[…]  The craze to improve China’s standing as a soccer power not only coincided with the real estate boom, but also became entangled in it, as now defunct companies like Evergrande invested huge sums of money to buy teams and curry favor with Xi. The bursting of the property bubble ended the flow of cheap money to the sport, leading to a decline in investment, the failure to pay players and the general decay in the national soccer league. The aftermath of the bust, in both soccer and real estate, features common characteristics: Corruption scandals emerge; leading figures are arrested and disciplined; and public confessions are made on TV to demonstrate contrition and loyalty to the system. Amid it all, the Chinese public is growing increasingly dispirited and disgruntled, as the corruption that Xi promised to clean up in 2013 continues with no end in sight.

This boom-bust cycle is a feature of China’s current policy environment, not a bug. And while China has long dealt with such cycles, it is far worse during periods of extreme political centralization, when the lack of overt policy disagreements at the top reduces experiments at the local level, even as public criticism is suppressed. Xi blames the failures of Chinese soccer on corruption, but he ignores that his campaign for soccer greatness in 2015 is what launched the mad dash to meet his unrealistic expectations. [Source]


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