The Indian Premier League has just commenced an annual competition in which regional cricket teams across the country play each other over a month long contest. Indians are well known for their love of cricket, and the limited 20-overs (each team gets to bowl just 120 balls) mean matches are over in about 3-4 hours. It also makes for some dramatic finales, as the team batting last tries to surpass the score of their rivals with a limited number of balls to do so.
The country, needless to say, almost comes to a stop as hotels, bars, and restaurants are packed with customers watching each match. Yesterday, the Mumbai Indians just edged past the Rajastan Royals in a thrilling match during which Yusuf Pathan, an Indian Muslim cricketer, scored the fastest century in the competitions history; yet still managed to be on the losing side. In the evening match, the Delhi Daredevils took on the Kings XI Punjab in Mohall, and in another thriller, got an important away win. All four teams yesterday played with a mixture of racial and religious ethnicities, all united within their chosen sport.
The sport unites India, and in many ways embodies the sense of being Indian in a way that the Chinese almost completely lack. That’s not to say that China hasn’t tried. As a consequence of striving to put together a soccer team that could compete in the World Cup soccer finals, the Chinese developed a national league, made up of teams around the country. However, despite reaching the World Cup soccer finals eight years ago, the then Chinese team performed so badly – not even scoring one goal – that interest was lost. The Chinese only enjoy sport if they are winning. Nowadays, the national league is corrupt, taken over by gambling syndicates, with bribery and players and referees throwing matches. Teams are being expelled, and attendances at all time lows. China’s international ranking according to FIFA, is 83 – below teams such as Malawi, Belarus and Panama. The Chinese attempt to build a national league has failed.
Other instances of Chinese sporting oddness have occurred at the last two Olympics. At Beijing’s summer Olympics, I remember well a packed Birds Nest stadium emptying en masse when it became apparent star Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang was injured and could not compete. Rather than watch other world athletes at their prime, 80 percent of the Chinese spectators left. Also, at the Winter Olympics, when we learned the Chinese Olympic Committee issued guidelines to their athletes on what to say when presented with medals: Firstly, praise and thank your Motherland. Secondly, praise and thank your Mother.
Watching an entire nation enjoy and become enthralled about a national competition is an amazing experience. The feelings of elation if your team wins and of temporary despair if they lose (especially against close rivals) is something every sports fan can relate to. But within that, a national camaraderie exists, a feeling that China cannot seem to generate. It is almost implausible to consider a Chinese Muslim as a religious, boundary-crossing superstar in China. Yet Yusuf Pathan is just that in India. His exploits, hitting a century from just 37 balls, made front page headlines. In secular India, Hindis, Zoroastrians, Jians, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims alike revere him for his sporting skills and bravery. Sympathy that, despite his achievements, he finished on the losing side spilled out in the media. There is honor in losing in India. I see little of that in China, let alone participation in national sports by athletes from China’s ethnic and religious minorities.
And here is the rub. While India – crazy, mixed up, secular, diverse, and colorful –embraces its differences, China does not. Perhaps it’s considered threatening for China to have a national league under a one-party state. Perhaps regional ‘tribalism’ would develop and grow stronger feelings for a local team than towards the bland, apparently Han-exclusive Chinese teams that the various central government-controlled sporting bodies field. It is worth noting that no ethnically regional team competes in the only true, widely supported national sport China has, which is still soccer. The Chinese Super League is comprised of teams from exclusively Han dominated areas. No sides from Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia or Guangxi – all autonomous regions or provinces with sizable non-Han populations – take part.
The Chinese basketball association, perhaps the only other national league of any note, is also compromised of purely Han teams with one exception – the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, whose team is made up almost exclusively of Han players, not Uyghur. Consequently, the spectacle of Indian unity, the strength of the nation, such as Muslim Yusuf Pathan’s noble sporting conquests, cannot be part of the Chinese psyche. It is unimaginable for such a thing to occur in China at the expense of Han atheism and total loyalty to the Communist Party.
China still does not know what it means to be Chinese. The state intervenes instead, and educates its Han citizens on their Motherland, while at the same time partially excluding its minorities. In India, being Indian is a right. It is a celebration of the diversity of the country, and this freedom is encouraged through its national sports – one reason they are so successful. The one-party state cannot and does not understand nor want any encouragement of regional division. India thrives on it.
In short, the essence of being Chinese is something bestowed upon certain favored sectors of society and individuals as a political issue. It does not permeate Chinese society equally. In India, being Indian is a birthright and, as such, is taken most seriously by the government, religion, race, and creed. The difference in each nation’s attitude is staggering.
This article was written by Chris Devonshire-Ellis, founder of the China tax and accounting firm, Dezan Shira & Associats.