This week saw the start of the Masters snooker tournament, one of the three triple crown events in the snooker calendar. The Masters tournament is restricted to the top 16 players in the world – two Chinese players are currently in that top 16: Ding Junhui, at no.11, and Zhang Anda, at no.13.
On Monday, England’s Ronnie O’Sullivan, the world no.1 and widely acknowledged greatest of all-time snooker player, beat Ding Junhui in the first round, repeating his win over China’s all-time great snooker player in the final of the UK Championship last month. This resulted in the world no. 1’s eighth UK crown and his 22nd win of the high-end triple crown awards in the sport.
The December UK championship win meant that Ronnie O’Sullivan became both the youngest (he first won it in 1993 at the age of 17 years) and the oldest winner of the championship, at 47 years old. He won the crown just after the release of a documentary on his life called The Edge of Everything, which revealed his struggles with mental health issues, his battles with alcohol and drugs and the emotional strains that came with his father being imprisoned for murder when he was in his teens.
Over Christmas and the New Year, Ronnie O’Sullivan has been playing highly paid exhibition matches with Ding Junhui in Macau and Tibet, reflecting the rising Asian interest in the game, driven by Chinese financial investment and the public enthusiasm for the sport in China.
Back in the day, snooker was an almost exclusively British sport – the Welshman, Ray Reardon, dominated the 1970s, the Englishman, Steve Davis, dominated the 1980s and the Scotsman, Stephen Hendry, dominated the 1990s. Northern Ireland boasted Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor as world champions as well. Over those three decades, the only non-UK players broaching the top 16 were the Canadian players Kirk Stevens, Cliff Thorburn and Bill Werbenuik (most famous for his attempt to get tax relief for the 8 pints of beer he needed to settle his hand before venturing onto the table!) and the Irishman Ken Doherty.
Whilst the Australian Neil Robertson, has been in the top 16 for some time now, for the past 20 years, the sport has been dominated by Ronnie O’Sullivan, and his rise has coincided with an international expansion of interest that has garnered top-class players from China, Belgium and Iran into that top 16. The Chinese have now taken snooker to heart, and they are the biggest threat to the UK’s domination of the sport, with numerous new young players threatening to break into the top elite.
What’s most interesting is that the new young Chinese snooker players have been nurtured in a snooker club that has been set up in England to foster their talents. In recent years, those players have been taught the game in England and now they are on the cusp of dominating the international game. The rise of Chinese youngsters has been curtailed by a recent ban on some of those players due to a betting scam, but if not for that ban, there would undoubtedly be more young Chinese players in the top 16.
Why am I seeking to equate this change in international snooker with the progress of local government and the potential for financial benefits for UK local authorities? Well, let me explain.
China’s transformation in the global economy
While I was Head of Policy at an inner London local authority, some ten years ago, China was coming to terms with its transformation from being an internally-focussed agricultural society to a new externally-focussed industrial society. This led to much displacement of its populous and the need for it to look further afield to learn how to cope with the housing and social care needs that were arising from such a rapid transformation of its society.
As Head of Policy in the aforementioned inner London local authority, I was approached by a Chinese agency based in Sweden with a request to host Chinese delegations – formed of senior officials from regional government – who would like to visit the borough and learn about, in particular, our housing and social care policies and practices. The council leader was more than happy to accommodate this request, given the kudos that the visitation of senior government officials from a major world power would bestow on us as an exemplar of the excellence of local government in the UK. We even bought a Chinese flag to put up in the Cabinet room alongside the union flag to welcome our Chinese delegations.
Under instruction from the leader and chief executive, I pulled together presentations from senior officers from across council departments to cover the issues that the delegations were seeking to gain knowledge around and I hosted a half-day event for each visit. Over the course of a year, we hosted three visits from different Chinese regional government authorities, all coordinated by the Swedish-based agency that had originally contacted me.
After the third visit – each of which drew on some three to four hours of senior officers’ time – I began to realise that the drain on our resources in hosting and delivering these events was not being repaid in any significant way. The local papers had gotten bored with covering our press releases about Chinese delegations coming to the borough to learn about how great we were, and senior colleagues from across departments were getting a bit annoyed with me asking them to impart their expertise to our foreign visitors when they had a lot of work to do back in their own departments. It became clear that the Swedish agency kept the money from the Chinese government to run these knowledge-sharing initiatives.
So, when the request from the Swedish agency came in for their proposed fourth delegation, I asked to be reimbursed for the cost of our officers’ time, or no further visits would be hosted by us. I didn’t hear from them again. I assume they found another borough that was, initially, as star-struck as we were to have such a request from a major foreign power and delivered similar presentations until they probably also realised they were being taken for a ride.
So, what can we learn from China’s development in snooker and local government?
The UK is the origin of snooker and still dominates the game. Ronnie O’Sullivan is still the world number one and is still beating the best of the Chinese, but they are placing their best young players in the UK to learn the game from the masters and drawing the elite of world snooker to their highly-paid exhibition matches in Asia. Money talks and it is highly likely that China will dominate the game within the next decade or so.
To my mind, this process of gleaning knowledge and expertise from the originators and leading players of this sport reflects the actions of China’s government in seeking to gain knowledge and expertise from the UK as a pioneer and expert in local government policies and practice as well.
Even though we aren’t the originators of local democracy (Greece has fallen by the wayside in recent decades!) China clearly sees us as an exemplar that it can learn from – whether it be snooker or local government services, especially housing provision and social care. China has evolved, relatively recently, from an agricultural to an industrial society, with the resultant loss of extended family networks that previously negated the need for public service provision of housing and social care.
As a nation with a population of one billion people (an eighth of the planet’s total population), China evidently needs to know how to accommodate and service its population, especially during a period of rapid economic and social change – and they also have the resources to pay for that knowledge and expertise (just maybe don’t use a Swedish agency as the middleman).
So what can we learn from all this?
The simple answer, at least from my experience, is don’t sell yourself short! Collectively the UK local government sector has a lot to give to the wider world in the form of knowledge and expertise, and we shouldn’t be giving it all away for free. I’m sure the WPBSA (the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association) and the TV companies are making money from China’s investment, so why shouldn’t we when we had, or if we have again, the chance to do so by sharing our local government expertise?
If, ten years ago, when I had that approach from a Swedish agency, would I have wasted the time, energy and resources in hosting those three events had there been a ‘central casting’ hub to which I could have referred the request that would have generated income for my borough? The fact is that there wasn’t that ‘central casting’ host in place, and we weren’t offered any money. Were you one of the other boroughs that the Swedish agency approached? If you were, then please let us know! I’d love to hear about your experience as well.
If there had been a UK-based agency, managed by UK councils, co-ordinating the Chinese visits, then I’m sure it would have been more sensible and efficient and would have, at least, covered the costs of the delivery of the half-day presentations, if not delivered profits for the host authorities.
I don’t know now, ten years later, if China is still looking to learn from the UK’s local government. As UK authorities, you have a lot of knowledge and expertise to impart to other international areas, but you should be paid for that. Before the Chinese delegations came over, I also hosted a visit from Romanian government officials (following the country’s accession to the European Union in 2008) – however, this time, that shared learning was all paid for by the EU. I don’t know if China is still looking to learn from UK local authorities, and I don’t know if, post-Brexit, we can still offer our expertise to future EU accession states, e.g. Ukraine, and benefit from EU funds that flow from that, but I do know that the UK is still seen as an exemplar of local government services across the globe and we should ensure that the value of expertise is reinvested back in the sector.
Let us know if you have been approached by foreign governments for your expertise. Given our international position in the local government sector at LGIU, we think that maybe we can help coordinate the sharing of UK authorities’ expertise with the wider world.