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From Pitch to Politics: About the Messy Messi Affair in Hong Kong (Updated)

Looking back at the Messi controversy: How a friendly match transformed into a political arena following Messi’s absence.

Ruixin Zhang



In the days leading up to the start of the Chinese New Year, the hottest topic on Chinese social media was not about the upcoming celebration – everyone was talking about soccer instead. Why? Because of the Inter Miami CF match in Hong Kong, featuring none other than the Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi.

After winning the World Cup in 2023, Messi left European soccer to join David Beckham’s American professional soccer club, Inter Miami CF. Starting in 2024, the team planned a series of preseason exhibition matches, including matches against Dallas FC, Al Hilal, Al-Nasr, Hong Kong, and Vissel Kobe.

On February 4th, the Hong Kong Stadium, filled with nearly 40,000 fans, finally hosted the legendary Lionel Messi. However, according to on-site reports, Messi, wearing casual pants and shoes instead of soccer cleats and shorts, spent the entire time on the bench.

Frustration among the audience grew, leading to an outbreak of boos due to Messi’s continuous absence. By the 80th minute, some fans started leaving, and chants of “refund” persisted, overshadowing the post-match speech of Inter Miami’s president David Beckham.

As the game concluded, additional videos and images from the scene spread online, fueling further discussion among netizens. One video depicted Messi quickly leaving the stadium without engaging with fans, while another showed a furious supporter kicking over Messi’s advertising board. Enraged fans flooded Messi and the team’s social media platforms with comments, demanding refunds and an apology.

On major football social media platforms in mainland China, such as Dongqiudi (懂球帝) and Hupu (虎扑), netizens engaged in heated discussions. Some expressed understanding, stating that if Messi was injured and couldn’t play, fans should be more tolerant. However, a majority of fans voiced anger and found it hard to accept.

A Web of Confusion

So what actually happened in Hong Kong? In the days following the controversial match, different speculations arose about Messi’s absence, creating a web of confusion. Regarding the team line-up, the stadium’s player list indicated that Messi was on the substitutes’ bench, which meant that he might play in the game. However, in the official Inter Miami CF lineup released on X before the game, Messi was not included at all.

Messi is missing, artwork by the Hong-Kong based Victor Chen.

Contradicting reports on contractual obligations also came out. According to a report by Hong Kong Economic Daily, the contract only stipulated the presence of star players without guaranteeing Messi’s appearance. Newspaper Ta Kung Pao, however, reported that the contract between Inter Miami and Hong Kong stipulated Messi’s presence on the field for at least 45 minutes unless injured. Tatler Hong Kong, the organizer of the exhibition game, confirmed this, and stated that they were only informed about Messi’s absence at halftime. Soon after that, Kenneth Fok Kai-kong, current chairman of Hong Kong Arts Development Council, posted on his Weibo that the organizers were actually not informed at halftime but only ten minutes before the end of the match.

In the post-match press conference, the coach of Inter Miami explained Messi’s absence, saying that the decision was made by the medical team on the morning of the match. At a press conference in Japan, Messi himself stated that there was some discomfort in his adductor muscles, with swelling revealed in the MRI results. It was not classified as a muscle injury, but still caused discomfort. However, Messi’s official account on Weibo contradicted this by stating that the footballer has an injury to the “abdominal muscles”. The inconsistency added fuel to the fire, leaving fans feeling hurt and enraged.

As time went on, the conflicting information grew, without any clear answers emerging. Currently, the specifics of the contract between Inter Miami and the Hong Kong organizers remain undisclosed. However, on Weibo, users drew their own conclusions, making the hashtag “Messi breaks commercial bottom line” (#梅西爽约突破商业底线#) a trending topic.

A Political Battleground

The Messi storm still hasn’t blown over. Following the Hong Kong controversy, Messi came on as a substitute in Miami’s game against Vissel in Japan and his 30-minute stellar performance sparked heated debates on Chinese social media. Messi’s appearance in Japan was interpreted as him being “pro-Japan” and “anti-China,” turning a simple exhibition match into a political battleground.

A controversial video of Messi not shaking hands with the Chief Executive of Hong Kong and other government officials at the awards ceremony has been widely seen as a sign of disrespect toward Hong Kong and the Chinese government. As anti-Japanese sentiments surged, accusations against Messi flooded football forums.

A video titled “Messi’s Double Standards in Japan” by football influencer “Dishang zuqiu” (地上足球) gained significant traction. Among other things, the vlogger alleged that during Messi’s time at PSG, he used Japanese kanji on his kit, while all his teammates used proper Chinese characters to celebrate Chinese New Year. This video quickly gained over 2 million views, intensifying accusations of Messi’s anti-China stance. “I am a football fan, but first, I am Chinese,” expressed disappointed fans in various comment sections.

Despite its seeming absurdity, Messi’s absence has really become a political affair. The Hangzhou Sports Office issued a statement citing “obvious reasons” for the cancellation of the two friendly matches the Argentine national team had planned to play in China in March. The Chinese Football Association also suspended cooperation with the Argentine Football Association, removing all news related to Messi from its official website and social media.

Five days after the incident, media personality Hu Xijin posted on Weibo, stating that this matter “should not be politicized”, while emphasizing that “Messi is not that influential”, and suggesting that Chinese people should “look down upon” Messi.

On February 9, the eve of the Chinese New Year, Tatler Hong Kong, the organizer of this exhibition match, finally released a statement saying that they would offer those who purchased a ticket a 50% refund. They admitted that the contract stipulated Messi had to play for at least 45 minutes unless injured. Additionally, they revealed that upon learning Messi couldn’t play, they requested explanations from both Miami and Messi, which, unfortunately, did not materialize. The statement also expressed the organizers’ disappointment upon discovering that Messi still played in Japan, feeling it was “another slap in the face.”

In the summer of 2023, it seemed like Messi’s popularity in China had reached its peak during a friendly match between Argentina and Australia held at Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium when a Chinese fan stormed onto the pitch and embraced Messi. The incident went viral and only garnered more appreciation for the soccer superstar, who extended his arms and reciprocated the hug. Now, eight months later, Messi’s reputation in China has hit rock bottom.

The Hong Kong match and its aftermath will have lingering consequences for Messi. Not only have his matches in China been canceled, but it will also take time and effort to win back the hearts of Chinese soccer fans. “We now know how much you love Japan. China doesn’t welcome you anymore. Don’t come back,” one person posted on Messi’s Weibo page, where the footballer expressed his disappointment about not being able to play in Hong Kong and wished his fans a happy Chinese New Year.

For now, many fans are still left annoyed and puzzled, with many believing that Messi purposely did not appear at the Hong Kong match.

One Chinese football fan writes on Weibo: “I believe that Messi’s actions during this trip to Hong Kong are highly likely to be politically motivated. Whether this was because he was involuntarily influenced by powerful forces or because he is actively involved in politics himself, I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. Anyway, I’m no longer a fan.”

Update 2.19:

On February 19, the hashtag “Messi responds” (#梅西回应#, 320 million views by Monday night) went top trending on Weibo after Messi posted a video to his account. He wrote: “Happy Year of the Dragon, soccer friends! 🐲 Through this video, I want to clear up some things and once again express my gratitude to all the fans who came to support me and the team in Hong Kong, China. Thank you for your cheers, for your tifo support and love. Giving everyone a big hug 🙏🏼⚽️”

In the video, Messi states he wants to give his fans the “true version” of what happened in Hong Kong to avoid further speculation. Firstly, Messi denies that there were any political reasons for him not playing in Hong Kong or playing in Japan, stressing that he has visited China many times before since the start of his career: “I’ve had a very close and special relationship with China. I’ve done lots of things in China: interviews, games, and events. I’ve also been there and played many times for FC Barcelona and the national team.”

Messi then goes on to say that the reason he did not play in Hong Kong was because of an inflamed adductor, which got worse during his game in Saudi Arabia. As he really was not feeling well enough, he could not play in Hong Kong. As his situation improved, he was fit enough to play for a bit in Japan, “because I needed to play and get back up to speed.”

He adds: “As always, I send good wishes to everyone in China, who I’ve always had and continue to have special affection for. I hope to see you again soon.”

Although many fans do appreciate Messi’s statement, there are also numerous commenters on Weibo who still criticize the soccer player for not disclosing his injury earlier and lament the confusing communication surrounding the Hong Kong match, arguing that this video does not set the record straight.

This video marks Messi’s third response to the situation, following a press conference and a short Weibo post. The hashtag “Messi’s Third Response” (#梅西的3次回应#, #梅西3次表示希望再来中国#) also became a related hashtag.

Following all statements, some people have also had enough by now: “Are we done yet? Is it clarified enough now?”

Others argue that it might have been better for Messi not to post the video at all, as it reignites another social media storm just as the first one was calming down. The fact that the video was edited in the middle led to speculation about the omitted parts: what did he originally say? Why didn’t he release a video sooner? And why was Messi standing with his hands in his pockets?

In this way, the video seems to have a reverse effect, and however well-intended it may have been, it appears Messi is actually shooting himself in the foot.

By Ruixin Zhang and Manya Koetse

Featured image based on image posted on Weibo by @葡萄味的草莓萝妮

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Ruixin is a Leiden University graduate, specializing in China and Tibetan Studies. As a cultural researcher familiar with both sides of the 'firewall', she enjoys explaining the complexities of the Chinese internet to others.

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China Food & Drinks

Where to Eat and Drink in Beijing: Yellen’s Picks

From Yunnan classics to fusion cuisine, these are Janet Yellen’s picks for dining and drinking in Beijing.

Manya Koetse



Janet Yellen, the United States Secretary of the Treasury, seems to have some excellent advisors, at least when it comes to choosing spots for food and drinks in Beijing.

Yellen just concluded her second trip to Beijing within a year, and once again, it’s not her official talks but rather her choices in food and drink venues that are sparking discussion on social media.

Her initial visit to Beijing was in July 2023, during which she held meetings with Chinese Premier Li Qiang and other officials.

This time, from April 4th to 9th, Yellen’s agenda included engagements with top Chinese officials in both Guangzhou and Beijing. The primary focus was on addressing ongoing bilateral tensions and managing trade relations between the US and China. In addition to official meetings, Yellen also met up with students and business leaders.

Yellen’s selection of bars and restaurants drew interest online. Yellen is known to be a food enthusiast, and likes to visit local restaurants wherever she goes.

In Guangzhou, Yellen dined at Taotaoju (陶陶居), a renowned Cantonese restaurant where she had roast goose and shrimp dumplings.

If you’re curious about the places she visited in Beijing during her first and second trip, check out our short ‘Yellen’s Beijing’ list below.


‘In & Out’ Yunnan Restaurant

Yellen at Yizuo Yiwang, photos via Weibo.

● Name: ‘In and Out’ in English, Chinese name: Yī Zuò Yī Wàng 一坐一忘

● Specialty: Yunnan cuisine

● Notable: Yellen visited this local favorite near Beijing’s embassy area in the summer of 2023. Among other things, Yellen was served spicy potatoes with mint and stir-fried mushrooms, leading to online jokes about how the food would affect her. The mushroom dish that she had is called jiànshǒuqīng (见手青), which literally means “see hand blue”, in reference to turning blue when handled. It is the lanmaoa asiatica mushroom species that grows in China’s Yunnan region known for its hallucinogenic properties (when treated and cooked properly, they don’t cause hallucinations read more here). After Yellen’s visit, ‘In & Out’ used it as part of their marketing strategy and the restaurant released a special ‘Treasury Menu’ (or ‘God of Wealth’ Menu 财神菜单), promoting themselves as the first place where Yellen had dinner during her Beijing visit.

● Price: Dishes range from 38 yuan ($5) to 298 yuan ($41)

● Address: Chaoyang, Sanlitun Beixiaojie 1 / 朝阳区三里屯北小街1号


Grand Hyatt’s ‘Made in China’

Yellen’s lunch at the Grand Hatt, image via Weibo.

● Name: ‘Made in China’ in English, Chinese name: Cháng’ān Yī Hào 长安壹号餐厅

● Specialty: Northern Chinese cuisine, including Peking duck / Fusion

● Notable: This is the venue where Yellen had lunch with a group of female economists and entrepreneurs in July of 2023 (you can see the speech she gave during lunch here). She apparently likes this restaurant a lot, since she visited it again for dinner on April 8 of this year. For her 2023 lunch, we know that Yellen ordered steamed fish head with chopped pepper (剁椒鱼头). The famous Hunan dish was among the most expensive dishes on a special menu (850 yuan/$117) for Yellen’s visit at the time. This time around, she also had Peking Duck. The award-winning Made in China restaurant, which is simply called “Chang’an no 1” in Chinese (after its address, 长安壹号餐厅), has been around for two decades, and the Beijing head chef Jin Qiang has been there from the start – he has since welcomed numerous heads of state and government leaders from around the world.

● Price: Appetizers start from 58 yuan ($8), seafood dishes around 500 yuan (69 yuan), Peking Duck 388 yuan ($53)

● Address: Grand Hyatt, Dongcheng, 1 East Chang’An Avenue / 东长安街1号东方广场


Lao Chuan Ban

Yellen at Chuan Ban, image via Dianping.

● Name: Chuan Ban, Chinese name: 川办餐厅 aka ‘Lao Chuan Ban’ (Old Chuan Ban 老川办)

● Specialty: Sichuan food

● Notable: Chuan Ban, established as part of the Sichuan provincial government office and open to the public since 1995, is renowned for its authentic Sichuan cuisine. During her visit to Beijing, Yellen and her group dined at this famous restaurant on April 6 this year. They enjoyed a variety of dishes including Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐), Sichuan-style cold noodles (四川凉面), clear noodles in chili sauce (川北凉粉), smashed cucumber salad (拍黃瓜), and Zhong dumpings in spicy sauce (钟水饺).

● Price:Dumplings for 18 yuan ($2.5), beef noodles for 16 yuan ($2.2), salt and pepper shrimp for 46 yuan ($6.3), fried lamb chops for 188 yuan ($26) – there’s something for everyone in different price ranges.

● Address: Dongcheng, 5 Gongyuan Toutiao, Jianguomennei Dajie / 东城区建国门内贡院头条5号


Jing-A Brewery

Yellen having a beer, image via Weibo.

● Name: Jing-A Brewery, Chinese name: 京A

● Specialty: Craft beer

● Notable: After five days of meetings during her 2024 China visit, Janet Yellen enjoyed a beer together with US ambassador Nicholas Burns at Jing-A, a brewery founded by wo Beijing-based American friends in 2012. In one of her tweets, Yellen explained that the microbrewery imports American hops for their beers — “a small representation of how the U.S.-China bilateral economic relationship can benefit both sides” (link).

● Price:Beers starting at 35 yuan ($4.8), snack dishes starting at 58 yuan ($8)

● Address: Jing-A Brewpub Xingfucun, Chaoyang, 57 Xingfucun Zhong Lu, Chaoyang, Beijing / 朝阳区幸福村中路57号

By Manya Koetse

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©2024 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at

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China Media

Party Slogan, Weibo Hashtag: “The Next China Will Still Be China”

The “next China” phrase has become part of Party jargon without being clearly defined, leaving it open to various interpretations.

Manya Koetse



After Wang Yi’s remarks during his Two Sessions press conference, the sentence ‘the next China will still be China’ has solidified its place as a new catchphrase in the Communist Party jargon. But what does it actually mean?

Over the past week, the Two Sessions have dominated news topics on Chinese social media. On March 7, a hashtag promoted by Party newspaper People’s Daily became top trending: “Wang Yi Says the Next China Will Still Be China” (#王毅说下一个中国还是中国#).

The hashtag refers to statements made by China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi (王毅), also member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, during a press conference held alongside the Second Session of the 14th National People’s Congress.

In his opening remarks to Chinese and foreign media, Wang emphasized that China’s role in a time of geopolitical unrest and shifting international relations will be one of peacekeeper, pillar, and progressor.

The Wang Yi quote is promoted by ChinaDaily on social media.

Wang’s comment about “next China” was a response to a question about China’s economic development, modernization, and diplomacy strategies. Wang replied that China remains a vital engine of growth. His comment that “the next China is still China” appeared to highlight China’s enduring importance on the world stage despite ongoing changes domestically. Wang mentioned the emergence of new industries, businesses, and increased international engagement as evidence of China’s ongoing evolution.

Wang also warned that “expressing pessimistic views about China will inevitably backfire, and misjudging China will result in missed opportunities” (“唱衰中国必将反噬自身,误判中国就将错失机遇”).

However, he did not elaborate on the specific meaning of his “next China” phrase, which is typical for Communist Party catchphrases and slogans that can often be interpreted in various ways across different contexts.

The “Next China Will Still Be China” Phrase

The phrase “the next China will still be China” has become more prominent in Chinese state media, from Xinhua to CCTV, since November 2023.

President Xi Jinping first introduced it during the San Francisco APEC Economic Leaders’ Week, stating that “China has already become synonymous with the best investment destination; the next ‘China’ is still China” (“中国已经成为最佳投资目的地的代名词,下一个‘中国’,还是中国”). The quote had previously come up in various investment and business communities.

The quote gained further traction when CCTV turned it into a hashtag on Weibo, emphasizing the message of “choosing China is choosing the future (“#下一个中国还是中国#, 选择中国就是选择未来”). It was also used by Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin during one of the regular press conferences.

The slogan was also the central theme of a recent speech held by academic and China expert Martin Jacques for the state media initiated TED-like ‘China Talk’ series. Jacques’ talk, simply titled “The next ‘China’ is still China,” reflects on China’s transformation over the past 75 years from poverty to a global leading economy. Jacques emphasizes China’s unique ‘civilizational roots’ and its different approach to modernization compared to the West, which consists of nation states. He asserts that despite all the major transformations China has seen and is about to see, China’s fundamental characteristics will remain unchanged, rooted in its “civilizational template,” such as the relationship between state and society, the role of the family, and more.

In this speech, promoted by state media over the past two weeks, “the next China is still China” signifies that despite China’s changing role in the world, its core essence, approach, and identity as a civilization remain unchanged. On Weibo, some commenters understand the sentence in a similar way, stressing that China will not betray its roots and turn into “the next America.”

However, in other contexts, the phrase is mostly used with a greater emphasis on the economy.

For instance, in Qiushi/Qs Theory, the Party’s theoretical magazine, the quote was called “an important conclusion,” highlighting “the profound capacity of China’s economy” and echoing the “general consensus of the international community.” The Qiushi publication by Shen Dan (沈丹) uses the exact same words as those employed by Wang Yi, indicating that “China remains the largest engine of global growth” (“中国仍是全球增长的最大引擎”).

While not explicitly stated, the sentence and its context serve to counter popular foreign media headlines suggesting that China’s remarkable economic development has ended and that “India is the next ‘China'” or that “Vietnam is the next ‘China’.” Instead, it suggests that China’s economic miracle will continue.

Various headlines in foreign media.

The phrase carries significant weight in the message it conveys both domestically and internationally. On one hand, it serves as a strategy to push back against negative foreign sentiment regarding China and pessimistic views on the economy. On the other hand, it sends a strong signal to Chinese consumers and businesses, encouraging confidence in the domestic economy and the future of China.

Part of Xi’s Catchphrase Canon

The “next China is still China” catchphrase stands as another slogan representing Party language and can be added to the long list of Xi Jinping’s ‘hot’ phrases (热词).

In January of this year, The Economist noted that the latest Communist Party phrases and slogans set the tone for economic campaigns and even define entire epochs of growth. They commented: “At a time when China’s leaders are attempting to drag the economy from the doldrums, there is even more reason than normal to pay attention to party-speak.”

The article describes how some phrases that come up in Xi’s speeches, especially those stressing China’s important role in the world and the country’s rapid economic growth, become part of Party jargon and are commonly used in local documents as political buzzwords. One well-known example is “Great changes unseen in a century” (“百年未有的大变局”), which entered the Party lexicon in 2017, when then-State Councillor Yang Jiechi described it as a guiding principle of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy.

State media, both in Chinese and English, play a crucial role in propagating these types of popular phrases, incorporating them into various articles, videos, hashtags, and headlines.

But despite its current ubiquity and various ways to understand the “next China” slogan, not all netizens are confident that its meaning holds true. One top comment on Douyin said: “China’s birth rates have already fallen to some of the lowest globally, which doesn’t bode well for the future at all.”

However, others are more optimistic, believing that China will remain true to its essence and that its success cannot be copied thanks to the nature of Chinese people: “Hard-working, brave, energetic – that is what defines the Chinese people and that is what can never be replicated.”

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes


Shen Dan 沈丹. 2024. “The Next “China” Is Still China” [下一个“中国”,还是中国]. Qiushi, February 1 [March 11, 2024].

The Economist. 2024. “A Guide to the Chinese Communist Party’s Economic Jargon.” The Economist, January 11 [March 11, 2024].

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Background photo by David Veksler on Unsplash

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