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Simon Chadwick | Sport feels the strain of East-West political tensions

Simon Chadwick, director of Eurasian Sport at emlyon Business School France/China, outlines the pressures being felt in the sports industry as political tensions ratchet up between China, the West and others.

The sensitivity of current relations between China and the West was dramatically highlighted within sport by last year’s Daryl Morey incident. Following a tweet posted by the Houston Rockets’ general manager supporting protesters in Hong Kong, authorities in Beijing launched punitive action against the National Basketball Association.

Not even a global pandemic has cooled the mood between the two powers. If anything, the situation has deteriorated, and the NBA continues to suffer the negative consequences of both Morey’s words and its own attempts to mitigate their damage.

Matters have not been helped by the political administrations in Beijing and Washington. An already bullish China has been emboldened by its early emergence from pandemic controls. The country has been seeking to strengthen its power and influence across a range of industrial sectors, whilst others including the United States have floundered in their efforts to control Covid-19.

China has shown itself very willing to use sport to project soft power – see recent images of the new Lotus-flower-shaped football stadium in Guangzhou as an example. Beijing remains committed to a policy of ‘stadium diplomacy’ as part of deals with governments for natural resources and other projects. And it has used action around sport to signal displeasure with other countries.

In the US, Donald Trump and his administration seem far less engaged with sport and less adept in using sport the way China does. Nevertheless, Trump’s bellicose posturing in relations with Beijing is contributing to an increasingly incendiary atmosphere, and creating a complex, challenging environment in which business must operate. It is against this backdrop, which some observers identify as a new ‘Cold War’, that the sports industry must function.

The English Premier League is another high-profile rights-holder to suffer consequences due to the great power rift. Boris Johnson’s British government has lined up behind Trump and Washington’s stance on China.

One recent episode occurred around Premier League champions Liverpool’s last home game of the season. The day before the match, Chinese state television broadcaster CCTV moved coverage to a smaller channel than originally scheduled, and behind a paywall.

In an incident last year, an Arsenal match disappeared from television schedules following social media posts in support of Uighur Muslims from Arsenal player Mesut Özil.

In another instance, Chinese streaming platform PPTV – owned by electrical retail giant Suning, also the owner of Italian football club Inter Milan – has reportedly withheld a £160m rights payment to the Premier League. This is largely due to PPTV experiencing financial challenges during Covid-19, but newspaper reports said UK-China political tensions were also at play.

The symbolism of these episodes is powerful – they should be construed as warning shots across British bows and, for that matter, those of Western sport in general.

The schism which sport finds itself caught up in is not an asymmetric one. The United States is hardly an innocent bystander, idly watching as China rolls-out an uncompromising global agenda. American concerns about and controls upon Chinese IT firm Huawei culminated in the American arrest of the company’s chief financial officer for racketeering and theft of trade secrets. Huawei has long been a sport sponsor, and is actively engaged in relationships with properties including the African Cup of Nations and Polish footballer Robert Lewandowski.

It is not only Western countries and sports industries that have felt the impact of an increasingly assertive China. India recently banned Chinese social media platform TikTok following border skirmishes between the two countries.

The old adage that ‘sport and politics don’t mix’ remains as salient today as ever. However, recent events show how difficult it is to separate the two, and how toxic the mixture can be.

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