Covid or no Covid, let the National Games begin in China’s ancient city of Xian

·7-min read

The countdown has begun and the signs are everywhere.

In Xian, the ancient Silk Road city in northwestern China, just days remain until the start of the National Games, an Olympics-style sporting event being held in Shaanxi province for the first time.

There are reminders every few steps in the city, from the sides of buses and taxis to slogans on banners in the middle of main roads, and on television screens.

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“Because of you, the National Games will be more brilliant; because of me, Xian will be more beautiful,” one banner says.

“I am civilised, I take action, I will help bring honour to the National Games,” another urges.

It will be the first major sporting event in China in the post-Covid-19 era and it is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of spectators to a range of new sporting venues.

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Shaanxi officials are hoping to use the games as a way to promote the province and spur development in the city of 13 million people.

But on the ground, feelings are mixed, as many struggle with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, and the particularly strict travel restrictions on Shaanxi in anticipation of the games.

The heavy promotion of the games extends into the outskirts of Xian, with banners for the event flanking the entrance to Fuping county – an hour’s drive north of the city.

Fuping is particularly significant as the birthplace and burial site of Xi Zhongxun, the father of President Xi Jinping, who is expected to attend the opening ceremony for the games on Wednesday.

At a memorial centre dedicated to Xi Zhongxun, visitors bowed and paid their respects while at least four security personnel followed and photographed a visiting reporter.

Major attractions in the city have been closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: Tom Wang
Major attractions in the city have been closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: Tom Wang

In Xian itself, major attractions in the tourism city – including the museum housing the famed Terracotta warriors – have been closed since late July to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

But there are few visitors at the sites that are still open, such as the city wall.

While a sign above the entrance to the fortifications exhorts visitors to “Let’s meet at the 14th National Games, Xian welcomes you”, a park next door was entirely empty at midday last week, and none of the handful of businesses inside were operating. One shop had two signs in its window: one promoting the National Games, and the other notifying that the shop was closed due to Covid-19.

The games are promoted on the way into Fuping county, where Chinese President Xi Jinping’s father was born and buried. Photo: Sarah Zheng
The games are promoted on the way into Fuping county, where Chinese President Xi Jinping’s father was born and buried. Photo: Sarah Zheng

The owner of a cafe in downtown Xian said business had not been good in recent months, with few tourists meeting the mandatory quarantine and nucleic acid testing requirements.

“The local businesses here have been suffering for months from the pandemic, and we also do not get any subsidies from the government,” she said.

“Of course, the city’s overall environment has improved because of the National Games, but we are stuck in the city because we are afraid of our business getting shut down if we go somewhere where there are one or two Covid-19 cases.

“I just want them to hurry up and finish hosting the National Games, and then leave.”

Jin Hua, the owner of an alcohol and tobacco shop in Xian, said many people had lost their jobs in the pandemic and were buying cheaper products, and he hoped the games would bring more tourists to the city.

“At the height of the pandemic, we only saw a few customers and we were also asked to close for a few days,” Jin said. “The sales during the Mid-Autumn Festival have been good though ... and things are better than last year.”

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At the new Olympic Sports Centre precinct, residents were more upbeat, taking photos of the sleek exterior of the 60,000-seat stadium, the site for Wednesday’s opening ceremony, and the nearby 18,000-seat gymnasium and the 4,000-seat swimming and diving complex.

Wang Fawei, 20, said he was particularly proud that Xian was hosting the games, even though there might be “some concerns about Covid-19”.

His friend, 26-year-old Lu Qian, chimed in, saying the safety risks would be small given the rigorous testing for travellers into the city.

“The scale of the National Games is quite big and the promotion is done very well,” Lu said, gesturing to the stadium.

“We can also see improvements in the city’s infrastructure and environment, like the roads here have been widened and there are tall buildings here, so our mood is happier and lighter just walking around in this area now.

“I hope that after the games, these venues can be open as tourist attractions to help promote Xian, and to host sporting events to allow people in Shaanxi to better understand sport, since there are not that many people who are really interested in it.”

One of the main venues for the National Games in Xian. Photo: Tom Wang
One of the main venues for the National Games in Xian. Photo: Tom Wang

A retiree, who gave her surname as Deng, said she and her husband were checking out the new venues but would not go to the games because they still thought it best to avoid crowds due to Covid-19.

“There have been significant improvements this past year ahead of the games, including in public transport and the subway stations,” she said.

“We feel really proud as Xian people to have the games hosted here and hope that it will boost development. But Covid-19 should not be an issue, since the country has dealt with the virus well and can handle all the people who come for the event.”

According to the work plan for the games in 2016, 20.2 billion yuan (US$3.1 billion) was allocated for the 50-plus sporting venues. Three new subway lines have also been built in the city, and 18,000 5G stations constructed, according to officials.

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The performers, too, have been hard at work at their preparations for the start of the games. A 23-year-old acrobat from eastern Shandong province, surnamed Zhang, said he had been training for several months for the opening ceremony, including a practice session last Tuesday that ran until about 4am the next morning.

“I am quite excited to perform – it’s the first time for me to do something like this in front of so many people in such a big stadium,” he said.

But others in the city said their focus was still on their own businesses, not the games.

An Ziqiang, a restaurant owner in Xian who sells a local specialty of noodles and meat and bread soup, said it was not clear why, but there were “still very few diners in my restaurant”.

Health codes are enforced to enter shopping malls in Xian. Photo: Tom Wang
Health codes are enforced to enter shopping malls in Xian. Photo: Tom Wang

Asked if the games could help, he said: “It’s hard to say since the main stadiums for the event are not in my area.”

A Shaanxi man in his 40s said he had noted the improvements in the city’s infrastructure ahead of the games, but that he was concerned that property prices would go up and that costs for residents could increase.

“I have no feeling at all in my heart about the games, maybe because I am old,” he said. “Locals may suffer a little now but maybe in 10 years’ time, these games will mean that our kids will be able to live in a city with a better environment. I just want to earn money to support my family.”

Additional reporting by Tom Wang

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