Big reforms are under way at the Chinese Football Association, as Beijing moves ahead with plans to divorce the sporting body from the central government and open up the CFA’s top job to internal elections.

Although the CFA has claimed to be a non-governmental and non-profit organisation since joining FIFA in 1979, the group is a department of the Chinese State General Administration of Sports, which directly appoints the CFA’s chairman and reports to the highest executive branch of the government, the State Council.

After the new reforms were introduced on Monday, football-related stocks soared.

Official CFA sponsor Ledman Optoelectronic Co. Ltd. has consistently hit the 10 percent ceiling that limits movement in the Chinese stock market every day since the impending divorce between soccer and sate was announced.

Ledman shares. Photo: gu.qq.

Football in China, like much of the world, is a hugely profitable business. By doing honest business, clubs can make substantial contributions to local economies by boosting tax revenue and employment rates.

It is hoped that reducing the government’s role in football will also reduce the corruption that plagues China’s professional leagues, concentrating these benefits in the hands of an elite few while fleecing the game’s dedicated fan base.

Divorce between the CFA and the Chinese government. Photo: HKFP.

When career bureaucrat Wei Di took the reins of the CFA in 2013, he demoted or banned the clubs most notorious for match-fixing. 33 officials, referees, players and coaches were banned under his watch.

Despite Wei’s efforts to eradicate corruption, the sport’s stature suffered. The men’s national team fell to their worst-ever FIFA ranking of 109th worldwide, and succumbed to their most humbling defeat in history after losing 8-0 to Brazil.

Soon after self-professed football fanatic Xi Jinping assumed the presidency in 2013, Wei was replaced by sitting chairman Zhang Jian.

CFA deputy chairman Zhang Jilong hailed the reforms on Tuesday as “the window of opportunity for Chinese football” while China’s richest man Wang Jianlin, 20 percent owner of Spanish side Atletico Madrid, said he was “delighted” by the move.

State General Administration of Sports deputy director Cai Zhenhua with CFA chairman Zhang Jian. Photo: NetEase.

Sporting commentators, however, have been quick to caution football fans against getting their hopes too high.

Yan Qiang, deputy director of popular news portal NetEase, said: “All we’re doing is what should have been done 10 years ago, except now the pressure and attention from above has finally created the right environment and opened an opportunity.”

“All we’re seeing is changes to the form,” Yan reflected. “We still haven’t seen any changes to the substance, like how the upper levels of the CFA will be formed, what role it will play, and what the relationship with the State General Administration of Sports will be.”

Yan dismissed as “pure fantasy” the suggestion that the CFA will now be independent and free. “We could never have this situation in China,” he said.

Nonetheless, he believes that Monday’s reforms are “a healthy step” that will enable the national team to “avoid some of the government’s interference.”

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others