Expert: Football being used to further Chinese interest in UK infrastructure

23 April 2019

Fosun
Photo: Professor Simon Chadwick of Salford University, says the Chinese government has an expressed interest in the West Midlands region’s infrastructure. One of the companies interested in winning contracts at the big HS2 railway project is Fosun, who owns Wolverhampton Wanderers. On the picture is Chairman at the club Jeff Shi (front row right).

Wolves-owner Fosun reportedly interested in HS2 contracts. UK professor sees it as obvious that Chinese owners are in football because they want something more.

“Whenever one hears a story about Chinese investment in football, it is always important to ask the question: what are their other motives?” expert says.

Henrik Lønne loenne@offthepitch.com

On 16th April 2019, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that members of China’s government and its biggest state-owned railway companies had met with the chief executive of the HS2-high speed rail network Mark Thurston while he was in Beijing earlier in the month.

It also reported that railway construction is seen as a priority sector by the Chinese government in its bid to increase sales abroad and to extend its “Belt and Road Initiative” deeper into Europe.

Football often serves as an enabler to such projects, creating goodwill and embedding prospective investors inside relevant local communities.

One of the main hubs of the HS2-network is the West Midlands, where Birmingham in particular will play a significant role.

Wolverhampton, where former HS2-contractor Carillon had its headquarters, also lies in the West Midlands. From a football perspective it then becomes interesting to note that three of the six clubs in the Premier League and Championship that have significant Chinese ownership - Wolverhampton, Birmingham and West Bromwich Albion - all lie in the Birmingham area.

Football clubs laying the tracks for Chinese infrastructure investments in the UK

For Professor Simon Chadwick of Salford University, who is a keen observer of the Chinese government and its interest in global football, it does not come as a surprise that the ownership of the largest football clubs in the West Midlands is Chinese, while the Chinese government has an expressed interest in the region’s infrastructure:

“I have long held a view that the influx of Chinese investors into English football's West Midlands region was not principally about a love for football. Rather, with the British government having instigated a major rail project (HS2), which will be routed through Birmingham and the region, football has effectively become a means through which China can begin securing hugely lucrative contracts linked to the project.

"Football often serves as an enabler to such projects, creating goodwill and embedding prospective investors inside relevant local communities. Once in this position, they can then begin to subtly and gently lobby, with a view to winning big money deals,” Chadwick said.

Football not the primary motive of Chinese investors

At Wolverhampton Wanderers, the links to infrastructure interests are even greater as the club is owned by Chinese conglomerate Fosun, which also owns a 51-per-cent share of the Hangzhou-Shaoxing-Ningbo High Speed Railway, which is planned to be built in Zhejiang Province in China.

This railway will be China’s first private high-speed railway project. Chadwick explains: 

“My feeling is that Fosun's acquisition of Wolverhampton Wanderers, was as much about the company's growing portfolio of rail construction work as it was about football. Hence, it is no surprise to now read reports linking Fosun to the HS2 project."

"Over at Aston Villa, my sense has been of a Chinese former owner looking to profit from infrastructural projects linked to HS2, such as station construction - notably shops, residential accommodation, entertainment facilities and so forth. On this basis, whenever one hears a story about Chinese investment in football, it is always important to ask the question: what are their other motives? After all, football alone will not simply be the beginning and the end for China's investors,” said Chadwick.