Soccer is known for being a tribal game. In recent years, Guoan’s supporters have splintered into several sub-tribes. During the first decade of the club’s existence there was only Green Hurricane, the official supporters organization, backed by the club. Today they still occupy most of the east stand midfield. At the end of games, they hold their green scarves above their heads, then bow in unison; their perfect synchronization won’t be surprising to anyone who has seen Chinese school children during their morning drills.
Fashioning themselves after Europe’s diehard ultras supporters, a group broke off from Green Hurricane in 2005. They colonized the north stand, understanding its symbolic importance to ultras worldwide. They called themselves the “Yulinjun,” a reference to the garrisons that guarded the capital in imperial times. In the last couple of years more splinter groups have formed, including the Green Wings, the Green Flags and the Union of Brothers. But the Yulinjun are still the most vocal. They, more than others, can lay claim to being Beijing’s Green Army.
“We don’t accept funding from the club. The flags, the t-shirts, we pay for everything out of our own pocket because we love the team,” says Li Pengzi, a green-haired Yulinjun member I met outside the stadium. He complains that Green Hurricane are entitled to purchase more than 2000 seasons tickets, while the Yulinjun are allotted only 370. “There’s a lot of limits placed on us. Even on the number and size of the banners we can bring in.”
The club has a curious relationship with the supporter groups. It wants to promote them, as long as they stay within its control. The leaders of each section are asked to meet with the club before every game, and are held to account if any of their members step out of line. “Fans are not important for them,” says Li. “They just don’t want trouble. They’re more worried about discipline and order.”
The Chinese state’s efforts to keep Guoan fans in check are more conspicuous than the club’s. Surveying the stadium during the match I lose count of all the uniformed personnel. Garden-variety security guards keep watch over each section. Military policemen, straight-backed and resplendent in their khakis, peaked caps and white gloves, occupy almost every seat in the front row of the entire stadium. Lest trouble kick off between the two sets of supporters, the four stands either side of the away fans are kept completely empty, save for a smattering of navy uniformed regular police.
Outside the stadium the security presence is even more overwhelming. I count four police vans and forty military police officers with riot shields at every gate. Backup, in the shape of armored trucks and coaches full of extra policemen, wait just a bottle’s throw away.
Chinese soccer has had its share of hooliganism. Brawls occasionally flare up, along with other heated incidents like the burning of scarves and even cars. In a match last season against Hangzhou, I saw Guoan fans climb atop the plastic tunnel leading to the changing rooms and throw objects at the visiting players as they left the field. Yet this extraordinary security presence seems out of proportion to the threat.
The Chinese state is deeply suspicious of youths massing together
What’s at issue is more than soccer hooliganism. The Chinese state is deeply suspicious of youths massing together, especially in the capital. Even music festivals are seen as a potential threat and are often canceled or banished to distant suburbs at the end of the metro lines.
The week before the match, Taiwanese students had broken into and occupied their parliament. Worried that their actions might inspire young people in the Chinese mainland, the state tightened its grip on the Internet and other forums of public expression. With this backdrop of state paranoia, it’s easy to see how angry football fans have come to be feared by the government.
Soccer culture offers an analogy for China today: an edgy government allows a certain amount of free expression (in the case of spectators, the freedom to shout “shabi,” or “stupid cunt,” at the ref) but is ready to crackdown at any moment. As in most other sectors, power in soccer is concentrated in the hands of state-owned enterprises and wealthy tycoons with political connections.