On Friday, June 26, when the American and Chinese women faced off against each other in the semi-finals of the FIFA Soccer World Cup, it brought back memories of the last time the teams had faced each other in the World Cup, in the final game of the 1999 tournament held in the U.S. Then, after a scoreless game, the U.S. won on penalty kicks, 5-4. This time, the U.S. won a hard-fought game 1-0. The two games bracket not just how women’s soccer has changed in the last 16 years, but also how China, the U.S., and the relationship between them have changed.
The first game was played almost exactly two months after a low point in Sino-U.S. relations, the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Twenty people were injured and three journalists were killed, sparking anti-U.S. demonstrations in cities across China, including Hong Kong. People’s Daily denounced American hegemony and called it a “violent action, completely lacking in humanity.” U.S. President Clinton tried to place a direct telephone call to Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin immediately after the embassy bombing, but it had been refused, while he accepted the call from Boris Yeltsin.
After the World Cup game, Clinton sent a letter to Jiang expressing congratulations. Jiang returned a reply on the same day praising the sportsmanship and friendship of the American women. Thus, China-U.S. relations returned to equilibrium.
Today that game is considered a defining moment in the history of women’s sport. The over 90,000 fans who watched it in the Rose Bowl may still be the largest-ever audience for a women’s sports event. In the first women’s World Cup 1991, the U.S. won while the Chinese lost in the quarterfinals. In 1996, the Atlanta Olympics were nicknamed the “women’s Olympics” due to the unprecedented attention garnered by newly-added women’s events such as soccer and softball – in both sports, the U.S. captured gold and China settled for silver. The 1999 World Cup rode the wave of the new status of women’s sports in the U.S., the new sports rivalry with China, and the ever-increasing numbers of Mainland Chinese students studying in the U.S. – who could be seen fervently supporting their team in the grandstand.
For the Chinese fans, sports were the only area in which China was able to compete with the world powers, and sporting successes were linked with Chinese patriotism. The fact that most of the early successes were by women did not matter much in the era when the public craved any kind of international recognition. With women’s soccer being a new sport, the government-supported equality of the sexes enabled China to excel, a strategy that paid off over the years in many newly-created women’s events. China’s early edge faded over time, as the worldwide participation of girls and women expanded rapidly over the years. Gender equality was already vanishing, since in 1994 China’s first professional sport league had been formed, a men’s soccer league.
Fast forward to 2015. The U.S.-China rivalry is no longer new. Chinese patriots can now be proud of many areas beside sport. The established Western powers increasingly perceive China as a military threat and Xi Jinping as conservative and authoritarian. However, a look behind the scenes of these two soccer games reveals a more complex picture. Then, the Party could manipulate a kind of simplistic nationalism to gain legitimacy among its subjects.
Now, the sport system has become a microcosm of a China teetering on the brink of economic and political reform because the old system is heading into a dead end. The sports system was largely left behind by the economic reforms. Attempts to wean sports off government support had limited success. Corporate sponsorship was slow to take off because of the lack of a Western-style sporting culture. Stringent registration procedures for non-governmental organizations discouraged the formation of sports clubs. The focus on written examinations and the one-child birth control policy produced a single-minded focus on children’s academic studies to the detriment of school sports.
With non-profit clubs and schools – the two most likely avenues for the grassroots development of sports – closed off, the only athletes with access to high-level coaches and facilities were those on state-supported teams.
We can compare the numbers of female soccer players in the Chinese and U.S. development pipeline by looking at the number of athletes on Chinese national and provincial teams and on NCAA Division I soccer teams. Both serve as the training grounds for their respective national team players. In 1999, China had 3,017 male and female football players in the pipeline, while the NCAA Division I recorded 6,150 female soccer players on 251 teams. In 2013, China had 1,389 female players, while the U.S. number had increased to 8,843 female players on 325 teams. The number of Chinese teams stays steady at around 30 because the number of provinces does not increase; in reality only about 15 of the wealthier provinces and municipalities produce athletes who attain national and world levels.
In sum, even though the U.S. population is one-third of China’s, there are more than four times as many female soccer players in high-level training, on twenty times as many teams. Even these numbers do not tell the whole story, because Division I soccer is only the small tip of a much bigger pyramid. Division I, II, and III combined had over 26,000 female soccer players. On high school teams there were nearly 380,000 girls. In U.S. Youth Soccer there were some 1.5 million girls. In the Chinese system, the next rung down the pyramid after the provincial and national teams consists of athletes overseen by local sport commissions. Based on the last published figure in 2009, if we generously assume that half of the registered soccer players were female, then they numbered 9,600.
Although there was a great deal of pride that the “Steel Roses” had managed to make a comeback and almost qualify for the semifinal, there was not optimism about the future. The day after the game, a commentary published on Xinhua noted, “The ‘quarry’ for American soccer is in their schools and grassroots clubs, where there are three million soccer players. Chinese women’s soccer has ten-plus rather sealed-off teams that don’t reach one thousand… When the Chinese and American teams met on the playing field of the World Cup, in reality, behind the scenes it was a test of the strength of the systems for cultivating talent.”
The sport system cannot be reformed without overall political reforms because it is a microcosm of a larger issue. The Chinese Party-state has, over the decades of its existence, developed effective means of permeating people’s everyday lives with methods of control and coercion. It has lagged behind in its attention to pleasure and quality of life, as seen in areas such as environmental degradation, the underdevelopment of consumerism, and fact that the General Administration for Sport devoted almost no attention to popular recreation. Sport was always a tool for serving diplomacy and building up patriotism, but increasingly the Chinese citizenry is demanding opportunities for popular recreation. Last year the procedures for registering sports clubs were finally relaxed. In January a top-level directive issued by the Inspection Group under the much-feared Central Discipline Commission requested reforms of the sport system. Xi Jinping also stated that China’s goal was to win the men’s World Cup, and initiated measures toward it, including the expansion of soccer in schools.
Both the Party and the sports world are crystal clear about the task ahead. The success of soccer is about more than sport. Behind the scenes the legitimacy of the Communist Party is on the line.
 The Chinese figures are for athletes who were registered (based on having met the performance standards) as International Master Sportsmen, Master Sportsman, and Grades 1 and 2; this more or less coincides with the athletes who are training in provincial and national teams. These are drawn from the China National Statistical Yearbook 2000 and 2014: 23-38 and 23-39. The number of local athletes refers to Grade 3 athletes (that document from the 2010 Yearbook is available only through CNKI). NCAA figures come from the NCAA Participation Rate Report, 1981-82 to 2013-14, page 115. High school figures come from the National Federation of State High School Associations 2013-2014 High School Athletics Participation Survey. U.S. Youth Soccer figures come from halving the total membership statistics.