Li Na’s Roland Garros win sparks calls for reform in China.
In many ways, Li Na is the ultimate Chinese anti-hero.
In a country that values obedience, blinding patriotism and discipline, a rebellious, red-haired, tattooed young woman who has been involved in several public fall-outs with the Chinese Tennis Association throughout her career, hasn’t always sat well with the orthodox Chinese psyche.
Yet interestingly, other than the standard demonstration of nationalistic pride and joy, Chinese media, bloggers and netizens have used Li Na’s win to bring up debate about reform and the eventual abolition of the Chinese National Sports System.
For those who don’t know, the Chinese National Sports System is a Soviet-styled “medals factory”, under which athletes are treated much like civil servants or military personnel, their sole goal in life being to churn out gold medals and keep patriotism strong. A good feature on the repressive nature of this system can be found on TIME.
It was under this system that the Chinese Government made a strategic goal to get some Chinese faces into professional tennis, an emerging market in the country, and it was also under this system that Li Na was recruited at the age of 6, not to play tennis, but to play badminton. Three years later, it was determined by her coach at the time that she was probably better suited for tennis.
But Li Na never got on well with the rigid discipline-based methods of Chinese sporting academies. “Before, whatever the coach or the Leader told us to do I did. When to get up, when to eat, when to train, everything was planned, and the only thing we could do was to obey,” she mused once to the Chinese media when asked why she chose to quit tennis for two years and study journalism in 2002. Dating was actively discouraged, a reason also frequently cited by the Chinese media in her decision to leave the sport for a man she eventually married.
A personnel change within the Chinese National Tennis Team persuaded Li Na to return to tennis in 2004, but conflicts with the tennis bureaucracy continued: over coaching, scheduling and prize money, none of which tennis players under the National Sports System had any control over. Prior to 2009, Li Na was obligated to return a whopping 65% of her prize money to the State as a condition for the State funding her early training.
In 2005, after Li Na publicly criticised these issues in the media, Sun Jing Fang, Secretary of the Chinese Tennis Association, hit back, threatening to disqualify Li Na from playing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“Li Na hasn’t seen what the country has paid and sacrificed for her training. She’s just comparing herself with foreign players. This kind of low-rent thinking is unethical, and lacks a sense of responsibility and an appreciation of her mission.”
“In China, if it wasn’t for the support of the country, there would be no tennis players to follow the professional models in other countries. We admit that the Chinese training system is imperfect, but it is already the best fusion of Chinese and Western models of professional tennis, and the most appropriate for the current situation in China.
“Team members like Li Na lack professionalism. She only cares about prize money, but hasn’t thought about her duty to her country.”
Disagreements between individual players like Li Na and Zheng Jie and the Chinese Tennis Association continued until after the Beijing Olympics, when the two sides finally reached an arrangement – Li Na, Zheng Jie and Peng Shuai were allowed to opt out of the National Sports System without being disqualified from playing for their country. By 2009, they were finally in charge of their own coaching team and schedule, and the amount of prize money they paid back to the State decreased from 65% to somewhere between 8-12%.
It’s no surprise then that Li Na’s 2011 successes have served to inflame domestic debates on Weibo (the Chinese Twitter) over the continuing relevance of China’s National Sports System:
Li Na’s victory proves that in an international, professionalised sport like tennis, our National System constrains personal growth. But in China where there is a weak foundation for tennis, without the National System, there would be no Li Na. These are objective facts. Perhaps after this wave of Li Na fever, Chinese tennis can be more grass root, more market-oriented and professional. Then we can totally get rid of the National System. But for now, this is not realistic. – Zhang Wei, Liberation Daily Sports Editor.
“True professionalization led to the Li Na legend. Let’s retire the pseudo-professionalization and the so-called National System. The key to the success of Chinese tennis is professionalization and the abolition of bureaucracy.” – Liu Zhi Xiang, vice president of Liao Sheng Evening News
“Look at Li Na: there’s no need for a National System, we only need fair competition, we only need a free environment, and Chinese people, while enjoying sports, could create miracles. Not only in sport, but also in culture, or education, science etc.” – Chen Jie, Photography Editor of BJnews
Other commentators have also caught onto the debate:
As we can see, over the years, competitive sports in China has always centred around strategies at the Olympics and winning gold medals. To align ourselves with the rest of the world (i.e. professionalise and marketize sports), we will experience a drastic fall in results. Can we handle it, psychologically? Piecemeal reforms [to the National System] doesn’t constitute true change. True change is a change in attitude to sports, and a shift in the Chinese Sports System from valuing gold medals to valuing physical education and young people’s health. Can we make such a drastic change? – Yang Ming, 163 Sports
Perhaps because of her discord with the “System”, much fuss has been made within China over the fact that Li Na failed to “thank her country” in her acceptance speech. Surprisingly, most people found it to be refreshing rather than an affront to their national pride.
As one columnist remarked:
Li Na’s win at the French Open is like a poem, one that enchanted this country and its people tonight. A lot of Chinese bureaucrats will want to add emotive decoration to this poem: “this is a victory for the whole of China”, “this is a victory for the entire continent of Asia”. Personally, I feel that Li Na’s win as the champion of Roland Garros has nothing to do with China or Asia, it’s her own victory and the victory of her team …
… when Li Na won the French Open, she was so exhilarating, so humorous. She didn’t run around the stadium with a Chinese flag, she didn’t cry tears of joy during her acceptance speech and certainly didn’t “thank her country” as anyone who is a product of the System would. Instead, she thanked her team, the audience, the staff and even the ball kids. She wished a friend happy birthday. The humanistic aspect of this may not sit well with the bureaucracy. – China Southern Daily
It’s an eery coincidence, that Li Na’s 2011 Roland Garros win over Francesca Schiavone should have come on the 22nd anniversary of the now infamous June 4 Student Protests and the resulting Tianmen Square Massacre of 1989. The haunting image of the lone student standing in front of a tank is now ingrained in the collective Western memory of the Massacre.
22 years later, with China is liberalising at its own crawling, incremental pace, 20 million Chinese people tuned in to watch Li Na become the first Chinese and the first Asian grand slam champion.
Yet as they reflected on the obstacles facing Li Na in her career, they thought not about her Italian opponent, but about the tank engine of the State from which Li Na was plucked at a young age, and against which she has rebelled throughout her career.
It’s taken a long time and not nearly enough change, but a change is gonna come.