Zhongshan, an environment to produce superstars

During some research for an article about the Chinese athlete Su Bingtian, it became obvious that there was more than a passing coincidence between the way China’s athletic success and its overall society have developed. The research into Su’s amazing success, not just in Tokyo, but throughout his sporting and academic work in Guangdong’s Jinan University, caused the writer to think about Zhongshan, where Su was born, grew up and, like this writer, calls home. Zhongshan is a microcosm of a much bigger picture. A picture that begs closer examination. A picture in which layers of smaller images combine to present an overall pattern of achievements, a range of skills, enterprises, innovations and improvements leading to a society that is on the cusp of an extraordinary change.

To establish how this has happened, and why Zhongshan is such a great example of China’s overall development, we need to take an historical look back to the end of the Qing Dynasty. It was a time of chaos and turmoil; warlords were carving up this nation of 56 ethnicities and hundreds of different languages. At the same time colonial powers were encroaching into all regions of China; Russia in the North and West, Germany and Japan in the North, Britain in Hong Kong, Portugal in Macao. Concessions were opened in cities such as Shanghai, Xiamen and Guangzhou in the East and as far into the centre of the country as Wuhan, Kunming, and Chongqing. Foreign traders controlled these concessions completely, in most cases Chinese weren’t even allowed to enter without papers issued by the power that held the region. The city of Tianjin alone had as many as 9 concessions ceded by the Qing Dynasty to foreign powers. Over a period of less than 100 years, there were as many as 46 different parts of China carved up and controlled economically, politically, legislatively and humiliatingly, quite legally, by 11 different countries[1].

Missionaries leached their way into the country and set up missions in hundred of cities with a view to “bringing God to the barbarians” without giving a thought to the Chinese civilisation which had developed over hundreds of generations. They couldn’t recognise Chinese culture as civilisation nor could they understand it because Chinese people held different values from their version of what they considered “civilised behaviour”. A well-known book written before the fall of the Qing Dynasty described “Chinese Characteristics” using condescending chapter headings such as: Disregard of Accuracy; Contempt for Foreigners; Indifference to Comfort and Convenience; The absence of Sympathy, and many other such misunderstood notions of Chinese personality. Explaining to the readers several times throughout the book how China will only become civilised once they have accepted (our) God[2]. What China, quite rightly, and understandably calls its “Century of Humiliation” was well underway.

It was during these years and against this backdrop that Zhongshan’s personalities rose to the top of their fields to create an environment for change which set the foundations and direction of what China would become. It was these revolutionaries, innovators and entrepreneurs who made possible what Su Bingtian and his cohort are now achieving.

Sun Yat Sen, also known as Sun Zhongshan, born in 1866, is without a doubt, the most famous of that era. He was the one of the leaders of the group that eventually became the Guomindang (Kuomintang, KMT) and was, for about 3 months, of 1912, the first President of China. From the time he was president until well after his death, China was in turmoil, warlords fought each other, the KMT formed alliances with the communist party and other alliances with some of the warlords whilst fighting others and, for a while, everyone fought the Japanese. Most people though, just tried to live pragmatically through without getting too caught up in the issues of the day. Between Sun’s death, in 1925, and the forming of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 there was a constant state of unrest, even chaos. A Japanese invasion, World War 2 and China’s Civil War — nothing on an international scale and nothing on a geopolitical scale could be achieved.

In terms of sports, 1932 saw China represented in the LA Olympic Games by just one athlete, while Manchukuo, Japanese occupied Northeast China, was represented by another lone Chinese athlete. If we look back to these dark days, it’s hard to imagine the level of success being achieved now, just two generations later. But on a domestic scale, China and many of her citizens from Zhongshan, were setting the pieces in place for a new era.

From the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 until 1980, politics got in the way of sport, the Republic of China (ROC) had participated in 1932 (with one athlete Liu Changchun) and 1936 (54 athletes in 27 sports) but the PRC did not participate in an Olympic Games except for 1952 in Helsinki. Due to the politics of the day, the invitation to participate was not given to the PRC until one day before the opening games and lack of jet transportation in the era meant the it was impossible to arrange to fly a team there on time. Much to the disappointment of the recently formed PRC, travel arrangements meant the team arrived too late to take part with the exception of one event in which a swimmer called Wu Chuanyu competed in the pool. Wu was an interesting character who had the benefit of being born in Indonesia and, at various times in his career swam for the Republic of China, the People’s Republic of China and Indonesia. The Chinese football team took part in a couple of friendly games during the period and were represented in the closing ceremony.

Further machinations behind the scenes that year caused the ROC to withdraw from the 1952 Olympics and the Olympic committee to make a decision that meant the PRC would not participate again in any Olympics again. This was changed in 1979 and PRC were able to compete alongside an ROC team for the first time in 1980. At that point in time, it must have felt to the citizens of China that the “Century of Humiliation” was to be extended, sports were blocked and embargoes prevented open trade with the world.

The Incubation of Change

Stepping back again, the first prominent Zhongshaner, to look at was Tang Tingshu, where he was born, in 1832, is now the City of Zhuhai, but it was called Xiangshan at the time. Xiangshan was renamed Zhongshan after the death of Sun Zhongshan. Tang is therefore, known as one of the “Zhongshan Five Compradors”. His business skills combined the construction of trains and train lines in Guangdong with the mining of coal and production of steel and concrete in other provinces to supply the rail and tram links his company built. In short, he was the equivalent of South China’s Rockefeller. As a skilled English speaker, able to benefit from his long-term employment with Colonial Hong Kong businesses. He was a pathfinder to the “westernization” of modern China[3].

Ma Yingbiao, born in 1860 but exiled as a child because of the turmoil to the British colony of New South Wales, which was later to become Australia, decided to return, as an adult. He had built a successful retail business in Australia and raised capital in Hong Kong to created what went on to become China’s most prominent Department Stores in both Guangzhou and Shanghai: The Sincere Company. Ma was more significant, not just because as a previously exiled Zhongshan native he returned to establish an impressive new business, but because he was a great believer in women’s rights, he was also a philanthropist and dedicated his work and much of his wealth to making the lives of Chinese women better than they had been under the Qing Dynasty[4].

Zhongshan’s Zheng Guangyin (1842–1923) was an economic reformer and another women’s rights activist who fought with his pen, rather than his sword, not only against the Qing Dynasty, but also against the economic sanctions imposed by the west at the time. His writings went on to influence Mao and help him work through the difficulties brought about 50 years later by American embargos on the newly formed People’s Republic of China[5].

Guo Le, another Zhongshan exile in Australia did very well there and returned to China to open the Wing On department store that still stands in Shanghai. The company he established is now a well recognised Hong Kong business[6]. Modelled on successful Australian businesses, Guo and his family also opened Hotels, banks and Insurance companies, as well as shipping lines which Australia and British shipping companies took exception to, forcing that part of the business into bankruptcy. Some members of his family, The Kwok family, operate trade between Australia and Zhongshan to this day. It was Wing On which established cotton and textile mills to produce and then, through their own stores sell products made in China. Something the British, with their system of buying cotton at minimal prices, milling and manufacturing in England and selling back to the colonies as clothing or fabric at high prices, were very unhappy about.

Although where he was born is also now part of the neighbouring city of Zhuhai, Xu Run (1838–1911)[7] set up China’s first ever Insurance company, was a shipping and real estate magnate and sent, by scholarship, over 120 students, more than 40 of them from Zhongshan alone, to the United States for education. He is the only Chinese person to have exhibited at the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace and, as far as it is known, the only Chinese person to have been formally received by Queen Victoria.

In the category of “Politicians from Zhongshan”, there are 9 who merit their own Wikipedia page, given this background of politics and business, we can see, Zhongshan has indeed been an historical breeding ground for revolutionary change and societal change.

These businesses thrived despite the uncertain governance of the new Republic of China. No single group controlled the country and there were dozens of factions, cliques and warlords arguing, fighting amongst each other[8]. Further insecurity was brought about by invading Japanese as well as an almost inevitable war in Europe. Zhongshan was thriving as a small port on the Western side of the Pearl River Delta. Despite the turmoil in governance, business was good for a while between the British in Hong Kong as well as the Portuguese in the neighbouring colony of Macau, but the turmoil hadn’t ended and was about to get worse.

Whilst many people know of the atrocities committed in Nanjing, Heilongjiang and other parts of China, it’s not so well-known that in 1938, the Japanese blockaded, firebombed, invaded and occupied several cities in the region we now call the Greater Bay Area (GBA)[9]. Much of the weaponry needed for the Chinese to conduct a war with the Japanese invaders was being imported through ports in the Pearl River and Zhongshan city was no exception. From 1938 and for most of the duration of the Second World War, Zhongshan, as well as neighbouring cities (including Hong Kong) came under the control of Japanese forces and was the scene of many bloody events.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945 the turbulence might have been expected to cease. However, it was not to be, the alliance created between the communists and the KMT (encouraged by the Russian government) to overthrow the Japanese, fell apart. A Civil War[10] ensued and for the next four years, until the Declaration by Mao Zedong in October 1949, there was more turmoil, a great number of lives lost and social chaos. Zhongshan itself didn’t come under Communist control until one moth after Mao had made the declaration that the Republic of China now belonged to the people and would be known henceforth as The People’s Republic of China.

The country now belonged to the Chinese people, Mao closed all the concessions gave women equality, created laws that forbade work without payment, forbade the practice of Chinese people carrying humans, there would be no more sedan chairs or rickshaws being carried or pulled by what the colonialists called “coolies”. Other countries which had effectively stolen land, created their own laws and used their territories to gain advantage for themselves were no longer welcome. Only the colonies of Hong Kong and Macau would be allowed to remain in place because of the treaties the Qing Dynasty had signed but an intention was expressed at that time there was going to be “One China”. Reconciliation of all Chinese lands and recognition of one China, would become a key point in all future Chinese-International dialogue.

National Pride Returns to China

1949 saw the restoration of national pride inside China. For the first time in several generations the entire country was led by a popular party, which in turn was led by a popular man. International observers, anti-communist politicians and journalists may very well have reported outside of China (and still do) that it was not a nice place, that the leadership was, and is not, popular but popular opinion inside China will tell them otherwise[11]. After more than 100 years of invasions by western powers, humiliation caused by weak governance, the beginning of the Mao Era and the foundation of the People’s Republic of China gave the population a hope for the future

Through the difficult years of the great famine and the cultural revolution there was no opportunity for growth, not much in the way of new businesses and certainly nothing looked promising for sports stars, survival was all that mattered. There has been, over the years a lot of finger-pointing and blame towards the government of the day and there is little doubt that some mistakes were made, what’s less well-known, or perhaps less well understood was that China was subject to sanctions, embargoes and blockades, for the entire period. People did indeed starve to death, people did live without proper clothing, proper food, proper health facilities and had a very uncertain future, the main reason was not China’s poor governance it was a combination of factors which included poor weather conditions and no international trade with the parts of the world who could supply much needed food and medicines. This is similar to what’s currently happening to Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and more than a dozen other countries around the world today, China was labelled by the USA as an “aggressive nation” and beset by US led Sanctions from 1950 onwards.

When it suited the USA to be anti-China, they were anti-China; when it suited them to be friends of China, Kissinger and Nixon made the decision they would be friends. How this came about was through sport, in fact, through one of China’s most popular sports, ping pong.

Zhuang Zedong a Chinese table tennis player was competing at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championship in Nagoya Japan. Glenn Cowan was an American playing in the same tournament. Whether this was set up by “diplomats” or a coincidence may never be known but Glenn Cowan missed his bus back from training to the hotel so he jumped on the Chinese bus going in the same direction, struck up a conversation with Zhuang. Zhuang gave him a gift of a silk print of Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) from his home town. Many people wonder why did Zhuang have this gift in his training bag, but this will never be known. The press seized on seemingly accidental and casual incident as being the first event in a thawing of relations. Ping Pong diplomacy was born. Junior government officials could travel secretly, as part of the sports team’s support crew to discuss matters in clandestine meetings that would lead to higher-level discussions at a later time between Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, eventually culminating in a meeting between Mao and Nixon. China was back in international diplomacy, America lifted sanctions, the UN recognised the People’s Republic as opposed to the Republic of China as representing the majority of Chinese, trade was allowed and reform was slowly coming. For politicians, business people and sports stars alike, these must have been welcome developments.

The era coming after this normalisation of relations with the USA is always going to be known as “Open and Reform”. Conceived and initiated by Deng Xiaoping, who visited Zhongshan on a tour in 1984 and famously quoted, when asked to return along a path he had hiked, that he: “never went back the way he came”. An indication that China was changing for the better and would not go back to the old ways. Something which makes all Zhongshan people proud to remember and discuss.

As a result of Deng’s policies, China set in motion a process of becoming the powerhouse of production throughout the world. Rapid developments in infrastructure were required but more importantly, changes in ideology, changes in society that for the last 40 years had held China back from success on the global stage. All this was about to change.

“Reform and Opening” created the social system that allowed people to focus on more important things than survival or work. With these improvements in social standards bought opportunities for leisure, for interest and participation in sports and for people who were outstanding talents to be recognised, selected by the country and trained to the most elite levels imaginable.

Fast forward to Beijing 2008: Only 28 years in only their 8th full appearance at an Olympic Games, China held a home ground advantage and being the host city gave China the opportunity to play a larger team in the games. These advantages would definitely have helped, but the end of the day, it was their sporting prowess which had developed to become world-beating. The USA won more medals than China with 112 in total, but under the system of medal recognition that has been in place since the beginning of the modern Olympics, the team placed at the top of the table was, for the first time, China with 51 Gold Medals, compared to the USA’s 36. Note however, that the United States media still proclaimed a win based on the previously unrecognized method of tallying the total medals.

Western journalists and “China-watchers” often proclaim that China is unfairly targeting young people to become sports stars yet what they will never understand when they write headlinese such as “China’s success in Tokyo 2020 tainted with politics”[12] is that there is no taint. Young people in China aren’t coerced, they aren’t forced, they aren’t threatened to take part in these games. Nor are they punished if they don’t win, they are there because they want to be there, failure to them is a matter both personal and national pride, but to the country they aren’t failures at all, they are the achievers, win or not, they are achieving what their parents and grandparents had no opportunity to achieve, that they do so is a point of both personal and national pride.

As happens in every developed country throughout the world, China has set up associations and organisations to source, develop, train and present to the world the best talent available in the country. This wasn’t possible during times of war, conflict, subjugation or crises, but has, only relatively recently become possible. Chinese athletes now strive to be selected in the same way every other country’s talent strives to be their best. There is not a single Chinese athlete who does not wish to stand on the podium and see their flag raised higher than the others.

If we want to look anywhere for the politicisation of sports we should look outside of China. No Chinese athlete has refused to accept their medal, none have “taken the knee” to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with their government. None have “raised a fist” in defiance of their own government’s policies, in fact, it’s the opposite. Some have been criticised for wearing a Mao badge[13] and many Chinese people feel that criticism is unfair, if it’s ok to wear a crucifix and the body of Jesus around your neck because you believe strongly in that ideology, then why is it not ok to wear a badge of Mao? Why is it ok to wear a Buddha if you believe in his ideology and not a Mao badge? These are fair questions being asked by millions of Chinese people. Olympic rules state that religious or political artifacts aren’t allowed. China’s athletes did break that rule, they accepted and were duly cautioned. What’s hard to accept is the number of people who also break the same rule with religious artifacts without being punished.

During the years after “Open and Reform” China’s economy has surged from almost the lowest possible point to become the 2nd largest economy in the world. The region around Zhongshan has surged in special ways. What used to be called the Pearl River Delta, with three of the country’s five Special Economic Zones, designed to make international trading more accessible, is now known by the wider, more appropriate name of the Greater Bay Area, this wider definition has included Hong Kong and Macau, both autonomously governed Special Administrative Regions (SARs). Infrastructure to allow swift and easy transportation throughout the GBA is in place, no city is more than an hour from Guangzhou through an incredible system of High-Speed Trains and an expansion of roads, building of bridges, highways and even intercity metro lines from the provincial capital. Assimilation programs are in place to benefit not just mainland cities in the GBA but to encourage wider acceptance by HK and Macau citizens. Grants to help them start businesses, special funds to establish new and innovative ideas have been implemented. Incubator, industry and technology hubs are set up in all the GBA cities with inducements such as free rent, housing allowances, tax concessions, recognition of international credentials and many more enticements on offer to help both Mainlanders and those citizens who are crowded into the smaller, more limited markets of the SARs do business in the wider community of the mainland. When people outside of China worry that the Chinese government might “take-over” the SAR’s it’s because they don’t understand that the SAR’s are keen, anxious even, to do business on the mainland and are widely encouraged to do so. For example; 9000 HK and Macau graduates were employed by Chinese government departments in 2021[14]. China isn’t “taking them over” they are assimilating into the GBA and doing so with a great sense of urgency and optimism.

Where does it all lead?

Business and the economy are not the only things that have surged; On every metric the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) uses to measure societal growth, China has seen improvements and the GBA has led the way. Because business surges, GDP rises, living standards become better and society improves overall. Profit from these businesses is reinvested and further improvements are found. Unlike some countries, when large profits are made in China, much of these are ploughed back into the community, this manifests itself in fantastic infrastructure. Poverty alleviations schemes are created to distribute the wealth of a richer region to benefit the people of poorer regions with more opportunities. Thus, creating overall improvements to society which benefit the majority rather than the minority.

China, since reform and opening, has never had a problem with people getting wealthy, but when those people and companies are wealthy, government policies dictate that some of the wealth trickles down to the people who worked to create it rather than adding to the bottom line of some corporate entity or the overall value of an individual owner. In this way, people everywhere and at every level of society have seen phenomenal growth in living standards, even though there is still lots of work to be done, no one in China is complaining, the pace of improvements is picking up and has accelerated over the last 40 years, and particularly over the last 10 to 12 years.

These lifestyle improvements set the scene for wider changes. Su Bingtian is an example of an athlete whose extraordinary ability has been recognised, fostered and encouraged. He didn’t need to find a job because his work and his sport are what employs him. As an academic who studies improvements in the training of athletes, his career in sports and his employment career are welded firmly together. They allow him the opportunity to improve his already amazing skills and perform at the very pinnacle of international sports as well as focus on the development of the next generation of athletes. This is as good for all of China as it is for cities like Zhongshan.

We now know that the environment in China has allowed sports people to grow in strength and stature, both domestically and globally. The particular region where Zhongshan city sits has enabled many young people to achieve fame in a wide range of sporting achievements.

In the relatively new and unusual sport of footbag, the current world championship holders are a pair of young athletes from Zhongshan, Li Wentao and Zhong Jiayao. Li was the first in China to achieve world fame in this sport. In 2017, he was the only Chinese athlete to attend the World Championship, coming away with a Sliver Medal. In 2019, with his partner Zhong, they have won three World Championships.


Back in the table tennis arena, Jiang Jialiang is another Zhongshan Olympian who won many championships and medals between 1982 and 1989 including two world championships. Jiang now works for a Hong Kong TV station and is a well-known Cantonese commentator on the sport that Zhongshan fostered and encouraged him to play.

Guan Yingshan is often regarded as the best figure skater in history and, although she competed under the American flag, due to her parent’s emigrating there when young, she’s another person from Zhongshan. She won the title at the National Figure Skating Championships and the World Figure Skating Championship when she was only 15 years old. Unfortunately, she had an unhappy marriage in America and is on record as saying she wishes she had married a Chinese man. One wonders if a Zhongshan man might be lucky enough sometime in the future!

Around the same time that HK was being handed back to China in 1997, Lu Yufu was winning the 33rd World Gymnastics Championship in Switzerland. A proud moment for Zhongshan because this was the first time a world gymnastics championship had been won by a Zhongshan athlete. He and his teammates went on to win many more titles.

In world sports, Liang Guihua, is not a well-known name but this personal hero, and friend of the writer, is another Zhongshan sporting superstar. He is the winner of world championships, has held world records and won four Paralympic medals including Gold Medals at the Games held in both Rio de Janeiro and London in the cycling velodrome and more recently a Bronze medal in Tokyo.

It’s obvious that the city of Zhongshan, having thrown up so many business leaders, sporting champions and political leaders must hold some inspirational quality. But what’s more obvious is that the last 40 years, the changes that brought China to the forefront of the world’s technological, economic and sporting stages are only the start, there are many more great years and great achievements ahead. The environment is set for it, the people embrace it and the country encourages it. Watch this space!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concessions_in_China

[2] Chinese Characteristics: Arthur H Smith 1894 (Re-released in 2003 by Eastbridge Books)

[3] http://www.cityofzhuhai.com/2018-09/19/c_274544.htm

[4] https://www.virtualshanghai.net/References/Biography?ID=173

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_Guanying

[6] https://arrow.latrobe.edu.au/store/3/4/5/5/1/public/stories/guo_bros.htm

[7] http://www.cityofzhuhai.com/2019-01/07/c_313926.htm

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_warlords_and_military_cliques_in_the_Warlord_Era

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canton_Operation

[10] http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/china-after-1945#:~:text

[11] https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/07/long-term-survey-reveals-chinese-government-satisfaction/

[12] https://www.ft.com/content/dcc7984f-26f4-4548-951a-a3ed8889e46b

[13] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-58075743

[14] https://www.humanresourcesonline.net/more-than-9-000-jobs-across-gba-open-for-hk-and-macau-graduates

[15] http://www.zs.gov.cn/ywb/government/towns/content/post_1832317.html