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        The Village Super League and the rural awakening

        By Simon Robinson | Xinhua | Updated: 2024-03-12 14:45
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        In 2023, the "Village Super League," or "Cun Chao," was to become a national sensation.[Photo/Xinhua]

        Every year when the "two sessions" roll into town, terms like "government work report," "GDP growth target" and "fiscal budget" become the buzzwords of the day.

        There are also great stories waiting to be told: vivid stories of rebirth and rural revitalization.

        Thus to better share these stories with the world, I will share my own story of China's rural awakening through a universal language understood by all -- the language of soccer.

        The story begins in the southwestern province of Guizhou, which is perhaps best known for its Lao Gan Ma chili sauce and fiery spirits.

        This province was historically a victim of geography. Its rocky landscape and barren fields even gave birth to a common saying known throughout the land: the ground was not flat, and the people had no silver.

        Silver they may well have lacked, but the people of Guizhou have since struck gold.

        In 2023, the "Village Super League," or "Cun Chao," was to become a national sensation.

        Beginning as a simple gathering of local soccer sides to see who was the strongest, this grassroots event caught the eye of the nation's netizens, and suddenly the sleepy county of Rongjiang, the venue for the matches and home to just 385,000 locals, became a hive of activity.

        But this was no cynical cash grab. The players are all amateurs, entry to the stadium is free, and there is no prize money for the winners -- instead, the winning side is awarded a cow to take back to their village, and the runners-up a plump pig.

        When I flew down to Rongjiang in late July, villagers entered the stadium immaculately dressed in their ethnic garb, proudly holding aloft baskets of their local produce. Singing and dancing filled the streets, and food was everywhere.

        The entire town was bursting with the authenticity and atmosphere that focus groups and fancy ad campaigns try so desperately to replicate. Guizhou may have once been known for its shallow soil, but its people were undoubtedly down to earth.

        From July 1 to 16 alone, as finals fever heated up, the county received more than 900,000 visitors and earned over 1.07 billion yuan (about $149 million) in tourism revenue, unthinkable numbers in the pre-Cun Chao era, while Village Super League online content generated more than 58 billion page views in 2023.

        As we arrived for the final, every room in town was booked. Our camera crew even slept four to a bed. Yet no one minded, as we were part of something special. After all, who could sleep when the countryside was awakening?

        Indeed something special is happening on a much larger scale, far beyond the great banyan trees of Rongjiang county.

        All across the country, rural communities have been charting their own paths to economic development, tapping into their own unique strengths and their own unique conditions.

        In Guizhou's Gusheng Village, a few hours' drive from the Cun Chao festivities, I met with locals who spoke passionately about the fruit forests that have turned their once barren hills into lush fields of loquat and plum. The new highways and tunnels piercing through the mountains have given them access to new markets.

        I spoke too with forest rangers who recalled the terrible mudslides that once engulfed the village, which, thanks to the erosion-fighting properties of the newly planted forests, have now become a thing of the past.

        Their stories echoed those I had heard in countless other regions.

        In Aksu prefecture, Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, I met cotton farmers who spoke of how mechanization has greatly increased their efficiency, and how many locals are now able to explore other pursuits, freed from the tedious task of picking the cotton by hand.

        In Anji county, East China's Zhejiang province, we met with villagers who spoke of how the local environment has been transformed. Once ravaged by the mining industry, it has been born anew, and the booming tourism industry is benefiting every household with a green dividend.

        Even the county of Litang in Southwest China's Sichuan province has undergone a similar transformation. When I visited there a decade ago, it was an unknown backwater, a diamond in the rough waiting to be discovered.

        It has become the jewel in the crown of western Sichuan, its stunning vistas and warm welcomes drawing countless visitors from across the country, their tourist dollars funding great infrastructure projects that benefit locals and outsiders alike.

        These are but a handful of the stories that I have personally witnessed, and whatever corner of the map you visit, there are similar gems being unearthed day after day.

        And as the Village Super League begins anew in 2024, with triple the teams chasing the bovine grand prize, China's great rural awakening seems to be reaching a fever pitch.

        So get out there and see the action for yourself!

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