By Mark Richards

Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World (But what has he got planned for your Football Team?)

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is consolidating his hold on power – and has recently cracked down on one of the country’s biggest companies. But could this have implications for English football? Five clubs in England already have majority Chinese owners: what could Xi Jinping and his drive for power mean for them?

The internal politics of the Chinese Communist Party may not seem like the most exciting place to start a Friday morning article, but bear with me…

We have written previously about Chinese Premier Xi Jinping: about his ascent to power, his determination to extend Chinese economic influence through the ‘One Belt, One Road’ infrastructure project and about his pulsating, rib-tickling 3 hours 23 minutes speech at the 19th Communist Party Congress.

That speech was, in some respects, a celebration of Xi’s first period as ruler of China – as well as an exciting commitment ‘to strive with endless energy towards national rejuvenation.’ Xi was naturally confirmed as party leader, in power until 2022. But who, we wondered, would take over from him? He was surrounded on stage by members of the Politburo, all of similar age and all applauding deferentially. Historically there has always been a younger man on stage at the Congress: someone from the next generation of Party leaders, an heir apparent. Last October, such a figure was conspicuously absent…

…And now we know why. Xi Jinping intends to rule indefinitely. He seems well on his way to a level of power that even Vladimir Putin would envy, on course to become the most powerful man in the world.

The end of the ‘personality cult’

Following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 the Chinese Communist Party introduced term limits (two consecutive five-year terms), to ensure that future leaders could not ‘rule for life’ and enjoy the same cult of personality that had been bestowed upon Chairman Mao. Now all that seems set to change, with the Party last week proposing to remove the term limits, essentially giving Xi the authority to rule indefinitely, having originally been due to step down after another five years in power. With his ‘thought’ now enshrined in the constitution, Xi is moving towards absolute power in China.

…So getting in his bad books may not be the best idea

Sadly it appears the insurance and financial giant Anbang may have done exactly that. The ‘grey rhinos’ may sound like a rugby league team having a bad day: it is, in fact, the name given to China’s biggest conglomerates (supposedly because they trample everything in their path). These companies have been on an overseas buying spree – which includes English football clubs.

It is long been rumoured that Beijing wanted to rein in the ‘grey rhinos’ – whether that is to curb excessive borrowing or simply to demonstrate state power is open to debate – and action was duly taken against Anbang. The state took control of the company and brought charges against CEO Wu Xiaohui for ‘economic crimes’ – leading to the ridiculous situation whereby the Communist Party of China now owns New York’s iconic Waldorf Astoria hotel.

Wu was supposedly one the best politically-connected bosses in China – but that seems to have offered him little protection. So let me introduce you to another player in China’s Game of Thrones, Guo Guangchang: net worth $6.2bn, Chairman of Fosun International and – ultimately – owner of English Championship club, Wolverhampton Wanderers.

A season to remember: but will it last?

I need to declare an interest here. I am North Yorkshire’s only known supporter of Wolves. After a lifetime of almost unremitting pain, they are finally giving me a season to remember: six points clear at the top of the Championship and long odds-on to be entertaining City, United and Spurs next season. But Wolves are owned by the Chinese conglomerate – and greyest of grey rhinos – Fosun.

Fosun is headquartered in Shanghai. Its interests – as widespread as those of Anbang – range from mining to investment to pharmaceuticals to real estate to private hospitals, private equity and entertainment. The ‘entertainment’ category includes Wolves, and Fosun is not alone in owning an English football team.

In the Premier League, West Brom and Southampton have majority Chinese owners. In the Championship Aston Villa and Birmingham join Wolves in having Chinese owners. And it is not just England – in 2016 Inter Milan became the first Serie A club to come under Chinese ownership when the Nanjing based Suning Holdings Group acquired a controlling interest.

What are the implications for the English game?

Bill Boaden [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia CommonsFosun is reportedly worth £56bn and made profits last year of £1.2bn: that buys a lot of left backs, but it can disappear in the blink of an eye if the company is seized by the state authorities. Every time a football club comes up for sale in the UK there are rumours of a Chinese takeover: if you want your club to compete at the highest level the days of ownership by the local property developer are gone for good.

But if the owner of your club lives in a one-party state that is moving towards a one-man dictatorship then nothing can be ruled out.

On 11th December 2015, it was reported the Guo Guangchang had disappeared: the speculation was that he was being questioned by the Chinese authorities in connection with Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption efforts. He reappeared three days later, with Fosun’s board issuing a statement that his disappearance did not ‘present a material adverse impact on Fosun’s finances or operations.’

Xi Jinping is supposedly a football fan, determined that China will win the World Cup by 2050 (so before England next win it then…) but he is first and foremost the ruler of a global superpower, and rulers rule by keeping control. If that means cracking down on some more grey rhinos so be it.

Guo Guangchang was recently pictured escorting Theresa May on her trip to China. Whether that is a sign of Xi Jinping’s pleasure or displeasure I will leave to your judgement…

But what is abundantly clear is that the increasing influence of the ‘grey rhinos’ on the English game may not be the promised land supporters believe it to be. Xi Jinping’s need for control will always come first and the most powerful man on earth will not lose sleep over a distraught Wolves fan in North Yorkshire.

Will I wake up one morning to find that Guo Guangchang has been Anbanged-up? That thanks to President Xi my football club is now owned by the Chinese Communist Party? If that happens the term ‘Beast from the East’ could take on a whole new meaning…