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China retail king’s woes temper Xi’s football fantasy



When Zhang Jindong linked arms with fellow billionaire Hui Ka Yan and downed a glass of baijiu in 2017, the king of Chinese retail had much to celebrate.

His Suning group had over the previous year bought Inter Milan, the prestigious Italian football club, for €270m. His streaming service, PPTV, had clinched a $700m deal to beam the English Premier League into the homes of the world’s most populous country. And back in China, he had picked up local team Jiangsu FC, deepening investment in the country’s fledgling professional league.

The acquisitions placed Zhang at the heart of Xi Jinping’s ambitions to use football — a sport the president loves — as a means to not only animate Chinese youth but to extend the country’s influence abroad.

But four years later and debt problems embroiling Zhang’s expansive conglomerate have rippled far beyond his Suning stores and websites. The unravelling of his football empire signals a starker pivot in Beijing’s approach to soft power at home and overseas: away from reliance on hitherto high-flying tycoons and corporations like Suning and back towards the guiding hand of state control.

Jonathan Sullivan, a China politics expert at the UK’s University of Nottingham, stressed that many of the central pillars underpinning Xi’s “football dream” remained unchanged.

These span scores of Chinese-built stadiums in the developing world, marketing deals boosting Chinese brands’ global exposure, cementing the country’s presence in the sport’s governing bodies and rearing a generation of footballers skilled enough to compete on the global stage.

“All of these things are long-term projects that continue. What has changed is the place of private investment in football,” Sullivan said.

In an early signal that Zhang’s strained coffers would have ramifications for his sports interests, PPTV in September lost its English football broadcast rights. This year, as a dispute related to the broadcast deal spills into the UK courts, Suning has sought $200m in emergency cash and new partners to help shore up the finances of Inter Milan.

With towering debt obligations, Zhang’s potential departure from European football would mark the latest in a string of similar exits since Beijing tightened capital controls in recent years following a torrent of outbound investment. The list includes Spain’s Atlético Madrid, Aston Villa in the UK and Slavia Prague in the Czech Republic.

Suning’s debt problems have also struck much closer to home. Jiangsu FC on February 28 ceased operations, a huge blow for fans and players just months after it won China’s top football competition, further denting the league championed by the president.

The Chinese Football Association shed little light on the development in a public notice but the club’s supporters were less opaque: “Simply put, Suning doesn’t have any more money,” one fan wrote on social media.

Zhang Jindong at a Serie A match between Inter Milan and AS Roma in 2017
Zhang Jindong at a Serie A match between Inter Milan and AS Roma in 2017 © FC Internazionale via Getty

Zhang, 57, founded Suning in Nanjing, eastern China, in 1990 as a home appliance retailer. It expanded rapidly, filling up the homes of China’s growing consumer class with air conditioners, washing machines and televisions.

But, like many businesses once dominant on the high street, Suning has struggled to swivel to ecommerce, losing out to Alibaba, JD and Pinduoduo. On the same day as Jiangsu FC’s abrupt closure, Suning confirmed a state-backed investment in its online retail unit, The bailout led to Zhang and other big shareholders selling close to a quarter of their stake in the business for $2.3bn.

Suning declined to comment. Zhang has vowed to refocus on the core retail business, including growing its ecommerce unit, Yunwang Wandian.

Zhang’s cash crunch, however, appears to have intensified as a result of being intertwined with Hui’s Evergrande, the world’s most heavily indebted property developer.

In 2017 — the same year Zhang was photographed drinking with Hui, then China’s richest man — Suning ploughed Rmb20bn ($3.1bn) into Evergrande’s mainland subsidiary. Last year a stock market listing of the unit did not go to plan, meaning Suning was denied both the benefits of the IPO proceeds and its original cash investment.

Suning’s retreat also coincided with the Chinese Communist party taking greater control over private enterprise.

Simon Chadwick, an expert in the global business of football at Emlyon Business School, said the exodus of Chinese club ownership reflected a change in Beijing, which no longer wanted businesses or entrepreneurs spearheading its football diplomacy.

“What is very clear about China is that there is always a very strong link between the interests of the state, the direction of government, and what these corporations are doing,” Chadwick said. Suning “is not a corporation that has whimsically bought into Italian football, nor [did it do so] for purely commercial reasons”.

Instead, analysts expect Beijing to prioritise exerting influence on governments, especially in the countries where it has built critical infrastructure, and at Fifa, the sport’s struggling governing body. This pressure is viewed as part of China’s strategy to stage the World Cup in 2030, the tournament’s centennial year.

While the hit to private capital in football threatens to temper Xi’s ambitions in the sport, Sullivan was sceptical that the Chinese leader would suffer any fallout.

“Xi’s power is sufficiently entrenched that it would take a lot more than this to damage him,” Sullivan said. “It is damaging to the football reform programme that he encouraged, but it is not hard to shift the blame . . . on to private companies and/or Covid.”

Given booming investment into China, foreign cash might soon reach Chinese football clubs, Chadwick added.

“What China is doing right now is cultivating the conditions in football to draw in investment from overseas,” he said. “We could see Jiangsu resurrected with Volkswagen as the shirt sponsor or a US private equity business as the owner.”

Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing

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Emerging Markets

Indian foreign minister self-isolates after Covid cases detected in G7 delegation




India’s foreign minister on Wednesday said that he was self-isolating after two members of the country’s delegation to the G7 meetings in London tested positive for coronavirus.

The face-to-face meetings in the UK capital began on Monday and are scheduled to end on Wednesday. Representatives from G7 countries such as Canada, Germany and France are attending alongside Australia and India as the UK seeks to strengthen its ties within the Indo-Pacific region.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, confirmed on Twitter that he was informed on Tuesday evening that he had been exposed to a possible Covid-19 case.

“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode,” he added. It is understood that the rest of the Indian delegation will self- isolate for the remainder of the G7 meetings.

Jaishankar held a socially distanced meeting with UK home secretary Priti Patel on Tuesday, where two agreed on a “migration and mobility deal” which will provide a “bespoke route” for young professionals from India looking to live and work in the UK. He met Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, earlier this week.

“We deeply regret that foreign minister Jaishankar will be unable to attend the meeting today in person,” a senior UK diplomat said. “(He) will now attend virtually, but this is exactly why we have put in place strict Covid protocols and daily testing.”

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Blinken rejects claims of ‘cold war’ between US and China




America’s top diplomat Antony Blinken has rejected claims the US is entering a cold war with China during a visit to London to discuss with G7 counterparts how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing.

In an interview with Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf for The Global Boardroom, Blinken said he resisted “putting labels on most relationships including this one, because it’s complex”.

“This is not about initiating a cold war, this is all about doing our part to make sure that democracy is strong, resilient, and meeting the needs of its people,” he said, referring to Washington’s intention to hold a “democracy summit” later in the year.

Joe Biden, US president, has promised to “win” the 21st century in what he has portrayed as a “battle” between democracies and autocracies and has pointed to Chinese activities that the US says are damaging the international order.

Relations between the US and China deteriorated under the Trump administration and the countries remain at loggerheads over security, human rights, intellectual property, and rules governing trade and commerce.

“We’re not asking countries to choose [between the US and China],” Blinken added in remarks at the FT Live event on Tuesday, which were broadcast after G7 countries opened their meeting with a session on China.

Ahead of the event, a US state department official said the G7 session on Tuesday morning was intended to be a forum to discuss how to work closely with allies and partners to address shared challenges from a position of strength.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, far right, is meeting with G7 leaders in London to discuss how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing © Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty

Blinken said the US recognised that countries have complicated relationships, including with China, and that the US did not believe other countries’ economic relationships with Beijing “need to be cut off or ended”. However, he said the US wanted to foster and protect basic rules governing commerce, the environment, intellectual property and technology.

Biden has surprised many foreign policy experts by taking an approach to China that has more in common than not with the harsh stance taken by former president Donald Trump. One big difference has been a significant effort to work with US allies and partners to create more leverage to deal with Beijing.

His approach has been welcomed by allies in Asia, such as Japan and Australia. But there is concern in the EU about the bloc being caught between the US and China, particularly in Germany.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has said the EU and the US do not agree on everything and that it was “absolutely clear” that their interests were “not identical” when it came to China.

The G7 comprises the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, and this year the UK has also invited Australia, India, South Korea, Brunei and South Africa to attend as guests.

Biden recently convened the first leader-level meeting of the Quad — a group that includes the US, Japan, India and Australia — as part of this effort to work with allies to counter Beijing.

Evan Medeiros, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said the Biden team’s engagement with the G7 formed part of its effort to assemble coalitions to tackle the China challenge.

He said the administration was pursuing the right strategy by saying the US did not want a cold war and did not want countries to pick sides, but he added: “The reality is everybody is going to have to make choices when it comes to China.”

But Bonnie Glaser, Asia programme director at the German Marshall Fund of the US, highlighted concerns among some that Washington’s stance was “too aggressive and too confrontational”.

“I definitely have the impression that the Germans and some other Europeans are really quite unhappy about the US approach to China,” she said.

In March, the US, EU, UK and Canada co-ordinated the imposition of sanctions on Chinese officials over the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region, triggering retaliatory sanctions from Beijing.

Biden administration officials including Blinken frame the future of the US relationship with China as “competitive, collaborative and adversarial”, depending on the issue in question.

Washington wants to co-operate with Beijing on foreign policy issues including Iran, North Korea and climate change while also defending US interests in the military, technological and economic spheres and pushing back on human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Blinken said that “a democratic recession around the world” had occurred over the past 15 years, but admitted the US had its own challenges “visible for the world to see” when it comes to democracy, in a thinly veiled reference to the disputed presidential election and January 6 Capitol attacks.

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A broken state is failing India under Modi too




The writer, Morgan Stanley Investment Management’s chief global strategist, is author of ‘The Ten Rules of Successful Nations’ 

Over the past month, even as the pandemic raged, nearly 150m Indians voted in five state elections. The ruling Bharatiya Janata party wanted to draw out the voting in multiple phases so that prime minister Narendra Modi could appear as widely as possible. He made more than two dozen personal appearances in the key battleground of West Bengal alone.

Rarely has a party tried harder to take over a single state’s government. The BJP mobilised its vast political machine with a lavishly funded army of cadres. Yet, when the final tally was announced on Sunday, it had failed to dislodge West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee. In the later phases of balloting, the BJP lost momentum as the virus spiralled out of control, showing Modi’s government was way behind the curve.

Over the past six weeks, India has suffered one of the biggest surges of Covid-19 any country has seen, with cases rising by around twelvefold, according to official figures. The real numbers are probably many times worse. A crisis of this magnitude would stress even the world’s best healthcare system. In India, it has exposed a pre-existing frailty — a broken state.

A few developed countries, such as France and Italy, also suffered rapid case surges during their later waves of the pandemic. Even so, they managed to lower death rates from the first wave as their health systems had readied for the shock. In India, by contrast, the second wave has brought with it scenes of devastation reminiscent of the dark ages.

When I watch video clips of overwhelmed hospitals blocking their gates and leaving desperate patients to die, I am haunted by thoughts of my grandfather. He died of a heart attack under similar circumstances, turned away from a public hospital where there was no doctor on night duty and an orderly tried but failed to install a pacemaker. But that was in 1993. India’s underlying tragedy is how little progress has been made since.

Among the world’s 25 biggest emerging markets, India ranks last for the number of hospital beds per 1,000 citizens, fifth from last for doctors, and fourth last for nurses and midwives. Even if you drop richer emerging markets and compare India to other large countries with average per capita incomes of between $1,000 and $5,000 — which includes Pakistan and Bangladesh — India still looks mediocre on these basic healthcare measures.

Government spending generally rises as a share of the economy as countries grow richer. Indeed, India spends about as much as a typical nation in its income class, about 30 per cent of gross domestic product. So the problem is not the size of India’s state, but how it spends.

When Modi came to power in 2014, he mocked the welfare populism of his predecessors. Yet within a few years he was vying with them in his promises of generous freebies, from gas to food or houses. Today, welfare spending accounts for 9 per cent of GDP — far higher than the miracle economies India would like to emulate, like South Korea and Taiwan, when they were at similar levels of development.

Modi has, meanwhile, done little to modernise India’s state, which in many ways still operates in ways that hark back to British rule. The model for many state agencies dates to the late 1800s, the healthcare system to the 1940s. In past elections, I’ve travelled thousands of miles on India’s back roads and seen too many understaffed public health clinics — operating rooms without surgeons, X-ray machines without radiologists — to be surprised they have now faltered.

Modi promised “maximum governance.” But rather than reform India’s outdated state, he has centralised power like no other leader in India’s democratic history. He set himself up as the nation’s saviour, who would solve its every problem. But even a Formula 1 driver cannot make much progress in an Ambassador, the old Indian-made jalopy. The reality is that the BJP can no longer claim to offer a superior model of governance. This shortcoming is now starting to show in the polls.

The good news is that private groups, as so often, have rushed in during this pandemic to provide what the government does not. Expats are sending money and medical resources from abroad. Residential associations provide whatever they can to ailing neighbours. So far, the Indian stock market has barely flinched over the rising death toll. This is probably due to a collective intuition that India will survive this crisis too — but that will not be thanks to its leader or the broken state.

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