Surfer/Writer/Researcher
The lineup in Hainan. Photo: Evers

The lineup in Hainan. Photo: Evers


The Inertia

In addition to the environmental concerns, it appears that insufficient effort has been made to make sure benefits flow directly into the local community and the development of a grass-roots surfing culture.

A lot of money was sourced to pay for the meetings, trips by Chinese government officials to Australia, buildings, competition running costs, publicity, car park, etc. Money has been sourced from the local Government and the Chinese Central Government, as well as corporate sponsors. As tends to be the case in China, quotes for services tend to be over-priced and the excess government money ends up in a few wealthy individual’s pockets. These businessmen tend to be the ones who have government connections (some successful businessmen also tend to be part of the government). This is common practice in China.

I am not saying the surfing organisations can avoid this way of doing business in China. My point is more about how the local people received no direct benefits despite the spending of government funds drawn from their taxes.

A way to address this failure to provide direct benefits to the local community could be calls for increased accountability. This will help ensure that as many benefits as possible can directly reach the local community. This demand can be driven by the surfing organisations. A bit of pressure from outsiders has been known to work. It won’t change things entirely, but some gains or concessions are possible.

Very few locals were employed for the contests. Event management and other staffing requirements were primarily supplied by non-local companies and businesses, some from as far away as Beijing. It can be argued that the locals do not have the necessary skills to work at these contests. However, it can be countered that these contests would have provided valuable training and experience for those wishing to learn, and so in future be able to have the contests driven and controlled by the local community.

Locals told me that no money has gone into helping develop a grass-roots local surfing community. The young people of the area cannot afford surfboards. Most cannot swim. No surfboards were donated or left behind for the young people to use. No swimming lessons paid for. No money was invested in a community-driven surfing collective whereby young people could come to learn ocean safety, hang out, learn how to surf, learn about how to care for their local coastal environment, get to ride a surfboard, etc.

ISA president, Fernando Aquerre, said about the ISA move into China, “Bringing it [surfing] to 1.3 billion that barely know surfing is part of our mission. Surfing is good for the world.”

However, surfing is not inherently “good.”  Any benefits from surfing must be worked on and developed. Planned and thoughtful action and decisions have to be taken in conjunction with surfing. Reason works better than blind faith.

For surfing communities to grow and be sustainable they must be grass-roots to begin with. Thinking that the emerging Chinese middle-class will see a contest or two and suddenly have the interest, money and leisure time to take up surfing is misguided.

The majority of the “new rich” in China exist in cities far away from “beach culture.” Young people are still encouraged to put leisure last, and education and work at the forefront. They are, after all, the first generation with such wealth, consumption ability and even a modicum of leisure time. Mind you, the vast majority of the Chinese population are far from being middle-class. The fact is, young Chinese of whatever class still have considerable family responsibilities that militate against hanging at the beach and surfing. Also, the single child policy ensures great concern over children’s activities, particularly if they are to be the future of the family. If any activity is viewed as even remotely dangerous children are steered away from it.

“Beach culture,” as those in the West know it, is still very foreign to many Chinese, and even if they do know about beach culture it is a distant dream. Surfing is still an exotic curiosity, and will remain so for a long time. Evidence for this is that there were only a small number of spectators at the contests. Spectator numbers were at their highest when they were bussed in by the government, including school children.

If the surfing organisations and the governments really want to sustainably develop surfing in China then barging in with surfing competitions is not going to cut it. They have to invest in building a grassroots surfing community.

Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Cori Schumacher for her discussions with me about the matters in this article. You can read some of Cori’s opinions about China and surfing here and here .

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