Over recent years, football supporters in
the Midlands will have noticed the steady march of Chinese investment into British football.
Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion are both under Chinese ownership, and
Birmingham City remain under the control of Trillion Trophy Asia, a holding company from
Hong Kong. Given the prevalence of foreign owners in
the modern game, particularly in the Premier League, and China’s growing relevance within
the sport, these are hardly remarkable developments. Yet the political machinations of faceless
officials in the committee rooms of government in Beijing are probably much closer to these
clubs than supporters realise. Wolves and West Brom are part of West Midlands conurbation,
the third largest population centre in Britain (with a population of almost 2.5 million people).
It is a strategically important region, linking North and South, at the heart of which, of
course, is Birmingham, the country’s second largest city behind London. The region is not only in need of infrastructural
investment, it is also playing a pivotal role in the British government’s flagship infrastructural
project – the High Speed 2 rail link. China has already invested in the West Midlands’
transport network, for instance by helping to fund improvements to a rail freight link
from Southampton. This makes it much easier to get Chinese products from one of Britain’s
biggest deep water ports to one of its biggest freight hubs. It also provides some indications about the
underpinning motives of football club owners from China, who have
also recently acquired Southampton. In 2017, one of these club owners reached an agreement
with government in Beijing to construct the country’s first ever private high-speed
rail link. By April this year, the corporation involved had finalised a $4.2 billion financing
for the project. The corporation in question is Fosun, the
Chinese conglomerate that owns Wolverhampton Wanderers. It could be sheer coincidence,
but Wolverhampton is also home to the former headquarters of the now liquidated Carillion,
a British company that was responsible for leading construction of High Speed 2. In March
2019, stories emerged that China has expressed a willingness to take over the HS2 project,
a British official having travelled to meet representatives of the China Railway Corporation
(CRC). One of state-owned CRC’s closest formal
strategic partners is Fosun. HS2 will be a vast project, the first phase
from London to Birmingham will cost £27 billion; the second phase from Birmingham northwards
will cost a further £29 billion. For China, its government and some of its biggest businesses,
this would be a hugely lucrative contract to secure. Fosun’s ownership of Wolves has been very
well received to this point. The club have built a competitive side, they are currently
qualified for the Europa League and, last season, reached the semi-final of the FA Cup
Cup. Unlike many foreign-owned clubs, supporters have also been encouraged by the levels of
communication between the owners and their new community. But perhaps it isn’t football that Fosun’s
senior executives are specifically interested in? Maybe the Chinese government is exercising
some degree of control over Fosun, in the same way that it has in overseeing stadium
developments in fuel-rich countries hosting the Africa Cup of Nations over the past decade. Could it be that Fosun bought Wolves principally
as a means to much greater ends? None of this should be a surprise, as we have
already witnessed Chinese investors openly admit to acquiring European clubs for reasons
other than football alone. In one case, some Chinese company officials
wryly observed how they had bought the Czech Republic with beer and football when CEFC
Energy acquired a brewer, the Pivovary Lobkowicz Group, as well as the country’s leading
club: Slavia Prague. Crucially, CEFC explained how football was
an important means of driving its business interests in Central and Eastern Europe. Later,
a Chinese organisation with ambiguous links to its government – Sinobo – took over
running of the Czech club. Coincidentally, in 2017 Sinobo also acquired Beijing Guoan
of the Chinese Super League, overnight making it one of the world’s most expensive clubs. Though some might question the motives and
limits of China’s football investments, football fans should be in no doubt about
the scale of the country’s involvement in the sport. There is reportedly some affection
for the game amongst the country’s top politicians and, of course, President XI Jinping is an
avid fan. However, it is the country’s size and voracious
appetite for resources and political power that is the real driving force behind the
its investments. Hence, as fans sit watching football in stadiums from Franceville to Southampton,
it is likely that a deep water port, reserve of oil deposits or a major rail development
is never very far away.