Chinese enjoy freedom of fandom

New pro-sports teams inspire regional pride and behavior no longer considered bourgeois.

It's a moment of collective ecstasy: Soccer striker Sun Feng scores with three minutes left. Ripping off his jersey, he sprints to the stands as 60,000 fans, oblivious to pouring rain, just go bonkers over their "Northwest Wolves."

Chinese have long been sports crazy. The country is holding its breath for Friday's decision that may give the 2008 summer Olympics to Beijing. But only in recent years have regional pro teams sprung up in the People's Republic; for the first time, sports fans here are getting passionate about their local heroes.

Pro teams are on the rise in China's regions, in parallel with the rise of free markets. Observers say there's a new "regional emphasis" as local governments compete for private business, and soccer clubs are part of this awakening of local identity. When the Wolves beat the big city clubs, says one fan, "We think we are great, too."

Here in Xian, most famous for its silent, tomb-guarding terra cotta warriors, the soccer team has inspired all kinds of new expression: mascots, Internet fan clubs, half-time shows, and rivalries. Soccer statistics are memorized, old games rehashed, strategies analyzed.

That may sound fairly tame. But having started only a few years ago here, such rituals are treated as something very fresh. "We usually dress and act [more] formally. So it is a fun surprise when rich people put paint on their faces," says a Xian ticketbuyer, after watching fans made up like movie stars drive around the stadium parking lot in open cars. "When you root for your team, you can express yourself without any limits."

As well, sports copy has become one of the freest - and least censored - forms of writing in China. Fans say they love the idea of shouting at the top of their lungs and chatting in the stands with friends. Not long ago, such activities might have seemed bourgeois.

"Only in a soccer stadium can you express yourself so fully, with no penalty," says one fan. "You can shout at the coach. You can shout at the umpire. You can even shout at the head of the soccer association, and he's nearly a government official."

For much of the 20th century, China underwent various projects to create a unified "national identity." Under founder of the republic Sun Yat-sen, and then more severely under Mao Zedong, regional differences and traditions were supplanted or "erased" to create a modern China.

Now, "Regionalism is making a comeback in language, dialects, and even in local products like tea, and art styles," says Dru Gladney, professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii.

By consensus, no local sports team in China has more enthusiastic fans than Xian. This is a proud heritage city of 3 million, capital of the mighty Tang Dynasty in the 7th century, and once one of the most cosmopolitan stops on the Silk Road. Of late, however, Xian has felt a little forlorn. Now something of a metropolitan outpost - "the gateway to the northwest" - it has yet to benefit from the 1990s investment boom in the east and south.

So it was a great morale boost when, last year, the Wolves played well enough to rise out of Division 2 into the more celestial Division 1.

Pro soccer, with its large outdoor venues (and its PepsiCola sponsorship) is even hotter here than basketball, although the Chinese national squad regularly shows up at the bottom of world soccer proficiency. The World Cup finals next year, to be held in South Korea and Japan, adds Asian regional excitement.

"We still love Ping-Pong, too," says Donald Duan, a sports editor in Beijing. "But it doesn't compare as a team sport."

One unknown is whether Chinese pro teams can survive financially in coming years. Sources say the public financing of some teams has been shaky; many are not managed well.

Xian's is one of the few teams in China with private business backing, the Guo Li Co. Team owners were savvy enough two years ago to bring in a Brazilian coach, who, in turn, brought with him several Brazilian amateur players (Xian can't afford overseas pros), one of whom is now the leading scorer in Chinese soccer. Marcos - not even local sportswriters know his given name - last year led Xian to Division 1. He accounts for more than 90 percent of the Wolves' scoring.

Local fans, who consider themselves rugged and passionate, take credit for their team's good fortune and play. But as in many parts of the world, Xian fans have also gone on city-wide rampages when a game is considered lost by an unfair referee call.

Still, at the Shaanxi International Exhibition Center stadium, there's a non-threatening party atmosphere: Spectators buy cheap plastic horns and huge yellow flags, yelling along with a cadre of freelance cheerleaders, including a zealous flag-draped young man known as "Iron Whistle."

Fan identification with the home team mirrors a shift of power now under way in China.

While party leaders in Beijing maneuver to maintain control, the new business elite in cities and regions are developing clout. That clout is one reason President Jiang Zemin last week at the Communist Party's 80th anniversary celebration officially opened the party to private entrepreneurs, another concession to realities on the ground.

Beijing's own halls of power may themselves soon take on more local flavor and character. One example: Many top jobs in the National People's Congress, to be filled next year in a leadership succession process, are likely to be younger party members. Instead of cutting their teeth in the manicured surroundings of the Zhongnanhai compound, where Beijing's top officials live, they are provincial secretaries or mayors, says Cheng Li, a China expert at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

Officially, Chinese are still encouraged to think of themselves as a single unitary people. That spirit, as well as local pride, was on display at one Wolves post-game press conference, where the winning and losing coaches must appear together.

The Wolves's Jessie Carlos first praised the opposing coach, a South Korean. Then, looking a little lost as one of only two non-Asians in a packed room, Coach Carlos smiled: "As usual, I have to thank the fans of Xian, the greatest in China."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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