Saturday, January 01, 2011

'Red tourism' gains ground in China

A tourist dressed as a Red Army soldier being photographed by friends in front of a mural of a young Mao Zedong in Yan'an, China. The Chinese city in Shaanxi province is home to tourist attractions that try to evoke the glory days of the Communist Party

YAN'AN (SHAANXI): The explosives had been set, the watchtower manned and the dirt battlefield cleared of rubble.

Communist soldiers armed with rifles took up positions at the foot of the barren hills. Their foes, the Kuomintang, loomed in the distance, advancing on the garrison town of Yan'an.

Then someone yelled: 'There's no electricity!' No electricity meant no show.

Hundreds of Chinese tourists streamed towards the front gate, demanding their money back. Other visitors stripped off their grey uniforms on the battlefield - they had paid US$2 (S$2.60) to take part in the production.

So went a recent performance of The Defence Of Yan'an, an hour-long re-enactment of a crucial moment in the Chinese Civil War - when the Kuomintang tried to overrun the Communists in their mountain redoubt in 1947. The show - complete with live explosions and a fighter jet that swoops down on a wire - takes place every morning on the outskirts of Yan'an, a dingy city of two million in the northern province of Shaanxi.

Capitalism is thriving in China, but red is far from dead, at least in Yan'an. The Defence Of Yan'an is a recent addition to tourist attractions that try to evoke the glory days of the Communist Party, after its leaders entered Yan'an in 1936 following the Long March.

Local officials and businessmen are profiting handsomely from a boom in 'red tourism', in which Chinese - many of them young professionals - journey to famous revolutionary sites to rekindle their long-lost sense of class struggle and proletarian principles.

'Commercialisation is not bad as long as we don't vulgarise the traditions and as long as we keep the spirit without violating it,' said historian Tan Huwa from Yan'an University.

The Yan'an area, with its distinctive cave homes and yellow loess hills, was used as the main revolutionary base until 1948, enduring bombing by the Japanese during World War II and assaults by Kuomintang troops.

It was here that top communist leaders - Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Liu Shaoqi and others - forged the ragtag Red Army into a populist guerilla force and hammered home socialist ideology.

'I'm here to be educated,' said Mr Ma Tao, 32, a pudgy civil servant who was struggling into a Red Army costume at the entrance to Yangjialing, a narrow valley in Yan'an where the communist leaders had resided in caves for several years.

'I feel proud wearing this uniform,' he said, as a friend - or rather, a comrade - snapped photos of him.

Mr Ma and his tour group, all sporting red Mao pins on their lapels, were among thousands of tourists - including real soldiers from the city of Xi'an - wandering through the revolutionary sites recently.

The Yan'an tourism bureau says on its website that visitors to the city surpassed 10 million in 2009, up 37 per cent from the previous year.

Tourism got a big lift in 2008, when the local government decided to waive ticket prices to the main sites. The same year, the city invested almost US$15 million to build plazas, museums and other showpieces. Officials and investors even wanted to hire well-known Chinese film-maker Zhang Yimou to produce The Defence Of Yan'an, but had to settle for one of his associates.

But there are those familiar with the old Yan'an who are not happy with the way renovations have gone.

'There was a stark beauty, this totally primitive cave city that was the brain for the whole war effort in China,' said Mr Sidney Rittenberg Sr, a business consultant who was the first American to join the Chinese Communist Party and who lived here in the 1940s.

Mr Rittenberg took his wife to Yan'an in 2009 and was stunned by the changes. 'They've virtually destroyed this museum to Chinese revolutionary history,' he said.

In the Chairman Mao Exhibition Hall, no mention was made of the horrors of the great famine of the 1950s or the Cultural Revolution, nor did the standard party-endorsed assessment that Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong appear. Displays or photographs showing Mao's compatriots gave no indication that those people were later purged by Mao.

'The local tour guides will not allow anyone to criticise Mao,' said Mr Rittenberg. 'It's the only place in China I know of like that. They know absolutely nothing of the history.'