Global Times: Major ball games catalyst for rural revitalization amid China’s mass sports plan

GUIZHOU, China, July 3, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — Village sports have been recently making headlines for their immense popularity among fans and the passionate participation of locals. The Global Times talked with industry insiders to learn why these local grass-roots leagues have thrived and how they can benefit China’s rural revitalization and professional sport.

As China is years into the drive of rural revitalization, modern sports events taking place in the otherwise unlikely places like mountain villages have recently popped up. How sustainable are these events and how much can they contribute to China’s grand national revival plan?

These non-professional leagues have taken the country by storm in recent months, earning billions of views online and triggering an influx of tourists who arrive not only to watch the amateur matches, but also enjoy local cuisine and experience some intangible cultural heritages from the countryside.


As people enjoy this new craze, potential organizers for more of such grass-roots events have gotten a shot in the arm with the release of a new initiative from the government.

According to the initiative recently published by the General Administration of Sport of China and 11 other ministries and commissions, more than 100 rural sports events will be established by 2035 in a bid to boost nationwide rural revitalization.

In the short term, the initiative aims to boost mass sports in rural areas by 2025 and streamline sports mechanisms to further facilitate rural revitalization.

A number of prototypical sports events for rural revitalization will be established, with the long-term goal of running over 100 model rural sports events across the country.

Action plans centered around the initiative include construction of related infrastructure in villages, promoting the development of rural outdoor sports such as mountaineering, cycling, water sports, aviation sports and camping, cultivating village sports educators and hiring retired athletes as mentors.

The new plan corresponds to the National Fitness Program for 2021 to 2025 announced by the State Council of China in August 2021.

The major goals are to get 38.5 percent of the overall population to participate in sports regularly by 2025, showing China’s ambitions in making sports and fitness a key pillar of national development.

The general public will enjoy more convenient fitness options by 2025, with the goal of achieving full coverage of fitness facilities in counties, villages, and communities all located within a 15-minute walk.

With the support of these national policies, it looks like it will be plain sailing for organizing more rural sports events. However, nationwide grass-roots sports competitions are not something that can be built in one day.

Love and passion

Cun Chao (Lit: village super league), a village soccer league established in Rongjiang county, Southwest China’s Guizhou Province, has become a huge sports phenomenon since May.  The craze has had a positive impact on local tourism. During the recent Dragon Boat Festival, hotel reservations in Rongjiang increased by 15 times compared to the same period in 2019, according to China’s major travel platform

An army of media reporters across the country flocked to the county to cover the league as former Chinese men’s soccer team captain Fan Zhiyi led a local team from Northwest China’s Qinghai Province to compete in the county during the Dragon Boat Festival.

Fan was taken aback by the popularity of the event.

“It’s soccer at its purest form. That’s why everybody loves it,” said Fan, who was the first Chinese man to win the Asian Player of the Year in 2001.

Fans of these rural matches attributed its sensation to local people’s pure love and passion for soccer. No professional players. No tickets. The players hail from different ethnic groups and all walks of life including drivers, students and farmers aging from 15 to over 40 years old.

“This is the day for which Rongjiang has been waiting for a long time,” Xu Bo, the magistrate of Rongjiang county, told the Global Times.

“It’s not a game of chance, but the result of trial and error. We’ve learned a lot of lessons from previous failures,” said Xu.

Since 2021, five local events have been organized in the county to attract tourists but all failed to prevail. Bullfighting, a folk event in the Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture where Rongjiang is located, was canceled over safety concerns. A half marathon held in March was a flash in the pan and didn’t fuel economic growth. An effort to emulate the thriving basketball tournament in the neighboring Taijiang county was shelved since it was deemed too similar in nature.

Wang Dazhao, a Beijing-based senior sports commentator, told the Global Times that it’s actually very difficult for a county to organize a soccer or basketball tournament due to the lack of fields and the small number of participants.

“Selecting a suitable event is crucial. Only those that are based on local conditions and involve the masses can truly promote rural revitalization,” said Wang.

Sports plus culture

Before trying for mass promotion of rural fitness, it’s better for these grass-roots events to be handled by local villagers as it is easier for them to access sports facilities, Wang said, noting it will take a long time given the economic gap between rural and urban areas.

 Xu noted that combining sports and culture was the key to success in Rongjiang.

“It’s been proven that, no matter if it is a sports or culture event, it is difficult to make a single thing a phenomenon. The soccer league made a splash because we combined sports and the culture of Rongjiang together,” Xu said.

“Soccer has a long history in Rongjiang and a huge fan base. The county has a diverse array of ethnic culture as well. So holding a soccer tournament involving all ethnic groups is exactly what Rongjiang was looking for,” Xu noted.

Whether it’s a soccer or a basketball tournament, sports have the power to knit people into a community, as these examples across China have shown. And this close-knit community is the perfect foundation for rural revitalization.

“Village soccer and basketball games represent the original form of sports returning to community-oriented activities,” Sun Lei, a Beijing-based soccer commentator, told the Global Times.

“These team sports, relying on kinship and geographical ties, have fostered community sports culture and the essence of sports as a form of entertainment for the masses. Naturally formed communities also enable sports to become a way of socializing.”

Sun also noted that many villages and towns in South China’s Hainan Province also have a deep love for volleyball, with regular matches attracting thousands of spectators. The participants include everyone from locals to talented individuals who have broken into professional sports.

Volleyball is ingrained in the rural life of Hainan. Wenchang, dubbed the “hometown of volleyball” in China, will host a local volleyball tournament on June 30 with 20 teams from local towns playing a total of 52 games. Wenchang is home to all kinds of volleyball courts, be they under a coconut tree or on the beach. Local villagers have even developed varieties such as “bench volleyball.”

Players are mainly township residents and villagers. In addition to the anticipated volleyball matches, this year’s competition features a mobile market covering all the destinations taking part in the tournament with the goal of promoting regional tourism, culture, food and specialty industries. To create a better tourism experience, this tournament will host local township cultural performances. 

Jiang Yiyi, a professor of leisure sports and tourism at Beijing Sport University, told the Global Times that combing grass-roots sports events with local culture is the way to make a lasting impact on rural revitalization.

“The Naadam festival, and lion dance in South China’s Guangdong Province are good examples of regional events that blend sports and local culture,” said Jiang.

The Naadam festival, usually held from the 4th to 9th of the sixth month of the lunar calendar, is one of the most exciting and colorful festivals in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. At the center of the festivities are fierce horse races as well as archery and wrestling competitions. It has become a mass artistic and sports event participated in by people of all ages.

In addition to enjoying sports competitions, people also make good use of the gathering to make business connections or to exchange goods.

The soccer league in Guizhou gained immediate popularity because it’s a combination of local culture and a popular trend, she noted.

“We can not only watch soccer on the field but also enjoy ethnic performances off the field.”

“With floods of visitors drawn to Guizhou, we need to improve the public service sector to drive tourism and the consumption of local specialties. We can’t make it a one-off event,” she said.

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SOURCE Global Times

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