Soccer commentator turned government critic splits China with views
By Neil Connor ,AFPCHENGDU, China -- Once a soccer commentator who drew a huge following in China as he rooted out corruption in the sport, Li Chengpeng is now one of the government's fiercest critics — and lives in fear for his own safety.
March 1, 2013, 12:03 am TWN
Li works on the margins of the allowed and the forbidden in China, constantly pushing the boundaries as he seeks to tell its people the truth about their own country.
He also symbolizes the breadth of opinions among ordinary Chinese, with an army of seven million followers on his blog and his books on the bestseller lists, while hard-line Communists brand him a traitor and see him as an object of hate.
His latest book tour saw him punched in the head, a packaged knife thrown at him, and scuffles between liberals and leftists.
“I wear a stab-proof vest now for book signings,” said Li, in a rare face-to-face interview with the foreign media, sitting in a quiet, dark tea room in the southwestern city of Chengdu, his home town.
“I also employ security guards, people who know kung fu, to help protect me,” he added. “I understand there has been more discussion on the Internet by Maoists about attacking me.”
A short man of average build, Li looks and acts younger than his 44 years, but despite a sometimes fidgety demeanor speaks freely and with confidence, only distracted occasionally by his fellow tea-drinkers.
Five years ago he would have been considered an unlikely target for Communist supporters.
He was one of the country's most popular soccer commentators — with a fondness for English Premiership side Everton — and, as he put it, a “typical Chinese guy” who liked playing mahjong, eating hotpot and enjoying “writing poetry, beautiful women and making money.”
But everything changed with the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed more than 80,000 people in his home province.
Li traveled to the disaster zone to try to help and the carnage he witnessed at Beichuan High School, where more than 1,000 pupils died, affected him profoundly.
“This made me realize that life is precious,” he said.
Li became one of the most outspoken critics — along with dissident artist Ai Weiwei — of shoddy building work alleged to have led to many schools collapsing across Sichuan, and the deaths of thousands of children.
“When I am not satisfied with what is going on in the world, some darkness exists in my heart,” he said. “I questioned what I should do with my life. I was working for the state broadcaster, but would give it all up to write about real life.”
In 2009, he set up his microblog on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, where his profile soared after “Chinese Soccer: The Inside Story,” a book he co-authored exposing match-fixing in the sport, was released.
In his new work, “The Whole World Knows,” he wrote that Beijing's policy of drafting youngsters into the sports system and training them intensively to produce champions amounted to taking over their lives.
“The country only cares about their family life in so far as it can take over the mother's womb to give birth.”