By Shushu Chen

“Those who work with their brains rule; those who work with their brawn are ruled.” This popular Chinese saying, from Mencius, shows the low esteem in which China holds sports and physical education.

Various influences throughout the nation’s history have helped to shape this attitude: Confucian cultural emphasis on moral virtue and intellectualism over physical development, civil service examinations that overlooked men’s physical education, and a tradition of foot-binding that physically disabled Chinese women for a millennium.

So China’s development of mass participation (as distinct from a focus on elite sport) has not been plain sailing.

Table Tennis Ping Pong
File photo: Lain via Flickr.

Despite a traditionally dismissive attitude to sports and exercise, China has enjoyed notable elite sport success in recent years. An important reason for this success is Juguo Tizhi, roughly translated as “nationwide support for an elite-sport system.”

Victories in the arena of elite sport, and Olympic medal successes in particular, have been the primary objective for China’s sports development for more than 30 years. Mass participation has taken a back seat.

Following the first sports reform in 1979, China’s sports development pivoted on the principle of “prioritising elite sport, leading to subsequent general development.” In 1995, China finally accommodated sport for all by introducing the National Fitness Programme, which promoted exercise for the benefit of economic development and aimed to improve the nation’s overall health and fitness.

The conception of the National Fitness Programme, with accompanying legislation, signalled the sport-for-all agenda’s active role in policy-making. However, sport for all was still subsequently deemed a lower priority than elite-sport development.

In the 2000s, fresh concerns about citizens’ health (in particular that of children and young people) put the issue of developing mass participation back into the limelight.

In 2002, the General Administration of Sport published Opinions on Accelerating the Development and Improvement of Sports Work in the New Era. This publication reiterated that the development of sports should serve ordinary Chinese people and should give the development of national fitness top priority.

Tai Chi Taichi
File photo: Gveret Tered via Wikimedia Commons.

But China’s successful bid in 2001 for the right to host the 2008 Olympic Games kept political attention and state financial investment for the most part still on elite sport. Realising a 100-year-old dream of hosting the Olympic Games and achieving medal successes at the Beijing Olympics (including topping the gold-medal table) fulfilled China’s sports policy goal of becoming a major sports country.

Yet, apart from some sporadically issued policy statements relating to the agenda of developing sport for all, the ideal of mass participation had received little more than lip service.

Following the 2008 Olympic Games, sport for all gradually began to build momentum again in China. The State Council made August 8th national ‘Sport-For-All Day’; and, in 2009, it launched a specific sport-for-all-related regulation which—as the very first regulation on developing sport for all—was different from the often vague and inadequately implemented policy statements published previously.

See also: It’s Yao Ming versus the officials in his effort to reform China’s basketball scene

The new regulation defined the responsibilities of relevant bodies in the national fitness system, laid out a systematic national fitness test programme, and formally addressed other issues in relation to sports facilities and sports-related business.

The London 2012 Olympic Games cemented China’s second-place position in the gold-medal table and confirmed, via an impressive array of Chinese medal wins, the nation’s Olympic prowess. A public debate followed about how Chinese elite sport’s interests could be combined with the potentially broader benefits of developing sport for all.

2008 beijing olympics mascots
The 2008 Beijing Olympics mascots. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

With these issues in mind, the agenda of developing sport for all was finally singled out as a state priority. During the preparation of the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, President Xi proposed “using the 2022 Games to get a population of 300 million in China to play winter sports.”

This ambition for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games was bold and significant, to say the least; linking an Olympic event with developing sport for all had not been explicitly addressed when the 2008 Summer Olympic Games were hosted.

Following President Xi’s remarks, a few months later a strategic document titled Opinions of the State Council on Accelerating the Development of Sports Industry and Promoting Sports Consumption was published.

This represented a watershed in the policy status of mass participation in China and signalled a clear government desire to develop sport for all, spurred by growing concern about children’s deteriorating physical fitness and a steady increase in the percentage of overweight adults.

See also: As Winter Olympics loom, China plunges into snow business

In the wake of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, despite China’s unsatisfactory performance (where it dropped to third place in the gold-medal table and was overtaken by Great Britain), people’s discussions on social media have generally indicated the nation’s increasingly relaxed and inclusive attitude to sporting achievement. This suggests the end of an “only gold Olympic medals matter” era.

Some influential figures have also spoken out: for example, Yao Ming (a retired professional basketball player, now president of the Chinese Basketball Association) said that “the development of a world sports power cannot rely merely on winning Olympic gold medals.”

Gou Zhongwen (recently elected Director of the General Administration of Sport) stated that “the next stage of sports development should focus on the term ‘the people’s sport’.”

Yao Ming. Photo: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.

Two major reforms are now on the cards. The next National Games — the most high-profile multi-sports event in China — will include 19 new sports, including dragon boat racing and tai chi, to encourage ordinary people to participate and compete. The Chinese Athletics Association will organise an “I am running for the Olympics” campaign which will select two marathon runners with no previous professional training to represent China at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

The China Sports Press described these reforms as “unbelievable.”

Although China’s aspirations concerning sport for all have made headway, this has been slow going. Combining the agendas of mass participation and elite sport was first touted as an idea about ten years before China adopted it fully by implementing relevant reforms. It may now appear, superficially, that a golden age of sport for all has arrived.

However, realisation of the ideal at stake will require major concrete reforms, such as provision of more sports space and facilities, improving awareness of sports (particularly in rural areas), addressing unhealthy lifestyles and cultural biases regarding the value of sport, and increasing the role of physical education in schools.

In terms of realising its vision of sport for all, China may have learned to talk the talk; but now it must learn to walk the walk.

Shushu Chen is a Lecturer in Sport Policy and Management at the University of Birmingham in the UK. This article originally appeared on the China Policy Institute Blog.

The Asia Research Institute is an international network of policy experts based at the University of Nottingham in the UK. It provides a platform for commentary and analysis on current events in China and East Asia and aims to provide multiple perspectives from academics and practitioners across the globe. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CPI or University of Nottingham.