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The magic of Chinese numbers

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

In 1937, Carl Crow’s amusing guidebook on doing business in the Middle Kingdom became a bestseller thanks to its title “400 Million Customers”. Australia’s Ross Terrill also managed a sales hit in 1971, calling his book “800 Million”. Whenever Beijing entices with three-digit numbers, they trigger Pavlovian reflexes even in sober contemporaries such as sports managers Karl-Heinz Rummenigge or Thomas Bach.

How many people live in China? According to the census conducted by Beijing every ten years, for which seven million census takers (most recently in 2020) visited all households nationwide, there were 1.4 billion.
Really? Even Mao Zedong once had his doubts. When US reporter Edgar Snow asked him on January 9, 1965, how large the population was in the People’s Republic, the Great Chairman told him a state secret: He had been told, “680 to 690 million”. But he did not believe that: “How can we be so many?” With statistics it is such a special thing. Farm families have an advantage if they only report their births, but not all deaths.

Chinese figures are therefore often accompanied by the addition “左右” (left and right), are therefore only an “approximate” approximation of reality. But it is precisely the superlatives that make foreigners rave about the potential of China and its market.

This also applies to sports. At the beginning of 2017, FC Bayern München invited us correspondents to the opening of its China representation in the “German Center” Shanghai. Club boss Karl-Heinz Rummenigge explained why his club was so late in gaining a foothold in China, when Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United had long been flying the flag: He had a good reason for this: His Bavarians had now reached “136 million fans” in China’s social media. Now they can get started and ensure “sustainable background noise”. Rummenigge did not say how he arrived at the figures. According to the statistics, one in ten Chinese would be enthusiastic about the German record champion. The FC doesn’t even dare dream of such a ratio at home. As of February 1, 2022, the club had 358,399 registered club members in Germany.

The magic emanating from China’s sheer masses also worked on IOC chief Thomas Bach. After meeting President Xi Jinping in 2015, he told everyone that Xi wanted to turn 300 million of his countrymen into active fans of ice and snow by the start of the 2022 Winter Games. Bach spread these glad tidings everywhere as if it were a matter of proselytizing infidels.

Xi actually kept his word. During the virtual exchange of New Year’s greetings with Bach, he announced on January 25, 2022, that he succeeded. “Early on, while we were still bidding to host, I once told you: For China, the biggest goal of these Winter Games is to get 300 million people to participate in ice and snow sports. (早在申办时,我就提出,中国这次办奥的最大目的,就是带动3亿人参与冰雪运动). Bach reacted with delight, saying this would open a new “era for global winter sports… This is an unprecedented, great achievement and will become an important legacy of Beijing 2022 for the Chinese people and for the Olympic Movement.”

Beijing had a two-meter-high monument with a 72-centimeter bronze bust of IOC chief Thomas Bach erected in the “Beijing Dongsi Olympic Park” (东四奥林匹克社区公园) in mid-January in gratitude for the Winter Games.

Beijing ensnared Bach by every trick in the book of Chinese attention. First, in mid-January, it had a two-meter-high monument erected to the IOC chief with his 72-centimeter bronze bust in the “Beijing Dongsi Olympic Park” (东四奥林匹克社区公园). Bach stands there as third in line alongside his predecessors Rogge and Samaranch on an equal footing. At the inauguration ceremony, it was said that Bach had brought the “splendor of the Games” to China’s capital for the second time.

As a third surprise, Xinhua reported on February 12 that China, in good socialist tradition, had overachieved its plan: Xi had once promised 300 million winter sports fans. But by the end of January – according to the statistics bureau – “more than 346 million Chinese had participated in winter sports activities since 2015”.

The IOC reported the figures triumphantly in its press release: China had “smashed” its once ambitious target figure of 300 million. In addition, it generously rounded up another record figure: “Winter sports have been included in the curriculum in almost 3,000 schools in China. But China’s “People’s Newspaper” had only written the day before about “more than 2,000 schools“.

China’s dream is written on the wall plaque erected in 2015 directly in front of Taizicheng village (太子城) in Chongli district. The village is fully developed as a venue for the Winter Games, with a high-speed railroad station. On the blackboard in front of the bare mountains is the dream wish: “We want to become China’s Davos.”

It’s no wonder that not a single critical word can be heard from the IOC about the Games. A little more skepticism about the figures would have been welcome. Even state media, such as the English-language China Daily, kept their distance. It reported that the statistics bureau had just surveyed 40,100 people from October. The results, China Daily said, “suggest” that 346 million people were attracted to winter sports. Foreign media warned more directly to better scrutinize China’s success stories. Britain’s Economist wrote of an “avalanche of risks threatening China’s ski industry”. Investors had “poured mountains of money into the snow business. Will it melt away?”

The Chinese figures also delighted the international organizers of boxing world championships in Beijing and Formula One races, for which Shanghai built an extravagant arena. But the wildest hypes at home and abroad were for soccer. President Xi had declared kicking a state duty for China’s image and demanded the nation’s rise to world soccer power by 2050. He had a football reform steering group established in 2015 to include soccer in the curriculum for elementary and middle schools. Xi called for introducing the sport to 50,000 schools and building 60,000 soccer fields nationwide.

Sport as a political task: Chinese caricature of the kicking Head of State Xi Jinping, who before he started China’s winter sports fever, fueled the soccer fever.

Money poured in for the import and transfer of international soccer stars and coaches. Super-rich corporate leaders from Alibaba, Wanda to Evergrande bought into or outright took over more than three dozen illustrious soccer clubs at home and abroad for billions of US dollars. Today, almost all of the clubs have been sold again at a loss. The awakening ended in bankruptcy. Seven years have passed since Beijing established the football reform steering group in 2015. Unfortunately, little remains of all its plans other than the news of its establishment, as if it never existed,” wrote the online website “Duowei Xinwen”. 今天,距离中国足球改革领导小组成立已经过去了7年,很遗憾,除了成立,很难再查到任何消息,仿佛不曾存在一般.

China’s magic of big numbers coupled with even bigger promises continues to captivate the gullible. This is also true for businessmen and investors. In their own way, large Western entrepreneurs have tried to make the numbers at least add up for them. Under the name “Oil for China’s Lamps,” John D. Rockefeller, for example, had his company, Standard Oil, deliver kerosene oil lamps to more than ten million Chinese for free or for a few cents after 1900. He then exported and sold them expensive lamp oil, on which he had a monopoly.

Almost 100 years later, the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever copied the business model. It gave away ice cream chests to tens of thousands of stores in China’s major cities, with the stipulation that only its Wall’s ice cream (known as Langnese in Germany) be sold in them. Unilever supplied them through franchising from its ice cream joint ventures in China.

As with Rockefeller, the math worked out for Unilever, but only until countless competitors made life difficult for them. China’s large numbers lose their magnetic power just as quickly when the conditions are no longer met. Or, as in the case of sports officials, when they weren’t right in the first place.

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