Austerity Threatens to Take Gloss Off China’s National Games

Birds Nest Stadium in Beijing, China.
Getty Images
Birds Nest Stadium in Beijing, China.

Fireworks are out and frugality is in at China's national games after the organizing committee rushed to comply with edicts requiring officials across the country to tighten their belts as the economy slows.

The austere sporting championships, which start at the end of August in the northeastern province of Liaoning, will contrast with China's lavish spending on major events from the Beijing Olympics in 2008 to the world expo in Shanghai in 2010 when the economy was growing at a double-digit pace.

(Read More: China Could 'Shock' Markets With Big GDP Miss)

Now, with growth dipping towards 7.5 percent and Xi Jinping, the new president, railing against ostentatious displays of wealth, the organizers of the Liaoning games – China's national equivalent of the Olympics – have gone out of their way to highlight their cost-saving measures.

The funding for the games, held every four years and the largest national sporting event in the country, has been cut by 78 percent from the original budget to Rmb800 million ($130 million), with fewer new competition venues and less spending on entertainment than initially planned, they announced.

The opening ceremonies will be held during the day to reduce the need for lighting, the first time since 1987 that they have not been at night. The organizers also vowed not to use fireworks, departing with the tradition of bombastic pyrotechnic displays at the start of Chinese sporting events.

(Read More: Poll: Will China Experience a 'Hard Landing' in 2013?)

"For the opening and closing ceremonies, stadium construction, the torch relay and all other segments of the national games, we strive to create, hopefully, a fresh fashion of organizing big events in a thrifty manner," said He Min, deputy director of the organizing committee.

Read more from the Financial Times

China Faces Tug-of-War Over Growth Strategy
China Trade Numbers Suggest Deeper Slowdown
Crackdown on Shadow Financing Caused Cash Crunch, Says China

Along with cancelling a series of conferences and exhibitions on the sidelines of the games, the number of invited foreign guests has also been reduced by half. Those foreigners who do make the guest list will have to endure relative privation. There will be "neither welcome banquets nor souvenirs for them", the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The shift to austerity falls in line with a tone set by Mr Xi since his first days in office late last year as head of the Communist party. He banned flower displays at official events and ordered that banquets should be pared back, demanding that government spending should be less wasteful.

These demands have intensified in recent months as the Chinese economy has slowed and after Mr Xi launched a new campaign against "hedonism and extravagance" among other ills.

(Read More: The China Rival With Most to Gain From Its Slowdown)

The finance ministry this week ordered all units of the central government to reduce general expenditures such as car purchases and overseas travel.

The State Council, or cabinet, followed that up with an additional order requiring all provincial governments to provide public disclosures of how much they spend on cars, receptions and overseas trips – spending items that ordinary citizens have pointed to as the most flagrant examples of the privilege and corruption rampant in the Chinese civil service.

"Our country has already entered a phase of mid-speed growth and fiscal revenues will no longer grow so quickly. It is absolutely right for the finance ministry to require central government agencies to take the lead in tightening up," Liu Shangxi, a finance ministry researcher, told the People's Daily this week.

But some of the cutbacks are less extreme than the announced figures. Although the national games in Liaoning said their spending budget was only Rmb800 million, the organizers separately disclosed that Rmb3.3 billion had been invested in the construction of 25 new sports venues.