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China wants to transform itself into a “leading sports nation” (体育强国) by 2035

Chinese gymnast Zhang Boheng competes at the 51st FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Liverpool, Britain, Nov. 4, 2022 (Imago)

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar will conclude this Sunday with the game Argentina vs France. The

tournament brought in 32 national teams and an estimated 5 billion worldwide viewers. But the Chinese men’s national team did not qualify for this prestigious event, despite ambitious plans for developing its home-grown sports including football.

China’s goal to become a “leading sports nation” by 2035

In September 2008, just after concluding the Beijing Summer Olympics, then President Hu Jintao had vowed to transform China from a “major” into a “leading” sports nation. China since 2006 and the 11th Five-Year Plan for Sports (体育事业”十一五”规划, 2006-2010) has dedicated Five-Year Plans (FYP) in place to develop the sports industry. Under Xi Jinping, this objective has been infused with more urgency, with repeated demands that China “must accelerate the construction of a leading sports nation” by 2035.

Sports, according to the current 14th Sports FYP (2021-2025), is considered an important pillar in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Under Xi, the concept of “leading sports nation” has also been refined and expanded in line with top-level policy priorities. While earlier the focus had been largely on developing elite sports and achieving international prestige by winning Olympic medals, the 2014 issued State Council Opinions on accelerating the development of a sports industry to promote sports consumption (“Document no. 46”) kick-started the development of a more comprehensive approach to develop a high-quality sports industry.

Today, Beijing’s pursuit of a “leading sports nation” entails four key dimensions:

  • Commercial/economic: China wants to develop a national sports industry into a “pillar industry” of the national economy and fuse it with the new ‘dual circulation’ strategy – working towards a high-quality domestic market with strong domestic players, and increasingly strengthen domestic consumption. By 2025, an increasingly digitalized industry shall reach an annual turnover of RMB 5 trillion – 2% of GDP and a larger industry than anywhere else in the world. To get there, China deploys a wide range of market, governance, regional coordination, public policy tools and government funds. The current key policy document, the 14th Sports FYP, for instance vows to cultivate “100 internationally competitive domestic sports enterprises” and “build or rebuild over 2,000 public sports parks and facilities” by 2025.

  • Fitness/health: Sports shall play a key role in improving people’s overall health, and hence is also a key pillar in China’s “Healthy 2030” plan. Sports shall become more accessible and appealing to the broader population. To that end, China is supporting the development of physical education in schools, after-school youth sports activities, and is providing free or low-cost sports facilities for public use. As per the 14th Sports FYP, public services for national fitness today ”cannot effectively meet the needs of the people for a better life”. It therefore for instance aims to have “38.5% of the population regularly participating in exercise” or provide a “2.6 square meter area of sports facilities per capita” by 2025. This shall contribute to “lifelong sports habits” and strengthen people’s fitness and leisure activities. This will, in turn and catering to all policy objectives, also provide the country with a larger base to scout athletic talent for the various disciplines, and further stimulate interest in and consumption for sports products, merchandise and events.

  • Sport competitiveness: The development of sports for Beijing is also a factor to enhance overall competitiveness in sports – especially international competitiveness. In 2017, Xi for instance emphasized “we must improve the strength of our competitive sports and the ability to win honor for China”. The 14th Sports FYP, however, still identifies a “weak core competitiveness”. To remedy that, the plan among other measures vows to construct a “new model of competitive sports development”, including the development of new training concepts, scientific sports R&D and talent development with big data, the establishment of better institutions or professional leagues and youth training centers. This modern competition system shall incentivize athletes to strive for national glory, and in turn make them internationally competitive.

  • Socialist Sports Culture: China also wants to construct a strong “socialist sports culture” – and thus showcase the strength of Chinese socialism also in sports. The 14th Sports FYP for instance vows to “make the core values of socialism more prominent in sports” by 2025. China will “cultivate several outstanding brands and works of art” that manifest China’s sports culture and promote the Chinese sports spirit – forging a “sense of Chinese national community”. Sports stars shall be cultivated and act as role models, and things like sports literature, sports museums or sports music shall be developed – ultimately strengthening China’s “cultural soft power” globally.

Despite this recent policy focus towards becoming a “leading sports nation”, the Chinese sports market is still in its infancy and has just started to really develop. But the growth potential is substantial. According to China’s General Administration of Sport (CGAS), the Chinese overall sports industry including sports facilities, sport goods and consuming sports between 2015 and 2020 almost doubled in size – from RMB 1.7 trillion to RMB 3 trillion. This trend is expected to continue. Between 2021 and 2025, the market for sportswear for instance is projected to grow by 13.7% per year – substantially faster than respective and more mature markets in Germany (+4.1%) or the US (7.8%).

Arguably, one would not expect the sports sector to be a policy priority for the Chinese government, but the policymaking in this field pursues at the same time economic, health, strategic and cultural objectives, at least representing a policy intersection between the ‘Dual Circulation’ and ‘Healthy China 2030’. It will thus be interesting to continue following sports-related policymaking and development in China, including China’s male football national team that for now only ranks 78th in the FIFA ranking.


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