Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping has argued that red tourism could provide the country with a “spiritual red baptism.” Image Credit: Bloomberg

Beijing: Dressed in a red guard uniform, Gao Hongli and a group of fellow kindergarten principals are laughing and whooping.

They’ve travelled to Jinggang Mountain in Jiangxi province as part of a 100-strong delegation of preschool heads to learn how members of the Communist Party’s first rural “soviet base” lived in the late 1920s.

“It feels deeply emotional to be here,” Gao said. “We’re going to take the red spirit we’ve learned here back to each of our kindergartens.”

As China prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic on Tuesday, the party has been exploiting its history to reinforce ideology — especially to those in positions of influence. Behind the holiday spirit is President Xi Jinping’s campaign to bring the party, and the country, in line — a campaign that also includes feared anti-corruption measures and endless political inspections.

The party is encouraging this patriotic nostalgia to bolster support in an economic slowdown and to cement backing for Xi as he combats months of civil unrest in Hong Kong and external challenges from a more assertive US under President Donald Trump.

“Efforts under the Xi administration to revive and amplify communist orthodoxy are directly tied to the CCP’s concern over its political legitimacy and regime stability,” said Jude Blanchette, author of ‘China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong.’ “Xi fears that if the Chinese people aren’t consistently reminded of the great and glorious achievements of the CCP, they will treat it with indifference or worse, hostility.”

As Xi put it in a 2016 speech: “Only by experiencing the hardships of revolutionary era can people truly receive education.”

The Chinese leader has argued that red tourism could provide the country with a “spiritual red baptism.”

To push this vision, the government earmarked 2.64 billion yuan ($370 million, Dh1.36 billion) to develop red tourism between 2016 and 2020, turning it into big business. Trips to sites associated with the country’s communist revolution accounted for 10 per cent of domestic tourism spending in the first half of 2018, according to government statistics. State media estimate red tourism sites get 800 million visits a year.

Xi’s endorsement has encouraged Chinese business leaders to join the trend and send employees on red tours to show loyalty to the party.

Chiefs of 45 Chinese technology companies including Tencent Holdings Ltd-backed Zhihu and Kuaishou went on a trip to Fujian to study CCP history and ideology in June. Wang Jianlin, the billionaire founder of Dalian Wanda Group, is planning a $1.7 billion theme park in Yanan to mark the 100th anniversary of the party’s founding in 2021.

Mountain Retreat

At Jinggang Mountain, the tree-topped outpost where the then-outlawed Communist Party took refuge from the Nationalist government in 1927. Many believe that it was here that the revolutionaries adopted the tactics that would bring them to eventual victory in 1949.

“Until then China had followed the Soviet urban strategy of revolution, but in Jinggang Mountain they found the strategy of the countryside surrounding the cities,” said Cao Hong, a retired professor at China’s National Defence University, travelling to the town on the dedicated train from Beijing, which had displays on the party’s history and ticket conductors trained to sing revolutionary songs.

Cao, who said he’s a blood relative of former leader Mao Zedong, was on his way to deliver a series of lectures at the Jiangxi Cadre College in the town. He said those early 20th century strategies for revolution still contain potent lessons for today. “You can learn about the original meaning of the revolution and learn about party discipline,” he said.

Also on the train were representatives of private and state-owned companies heading to Jinggang Mountain for study and outdoor training sessions in party culture and revolutionary techniques. “It’s about creating a corporate culture with Chinese characteristics,” Cao said.

Liu, an employee for a private online publishing company, who asked not to be identified by her full name, said she’d been chosen for red culture training as a reward for strong performance and because her editorial role at the company requires a strong grasp of party principles. “It’s a very good opportunity. Not everyone is able to go,” she said.

Ever since China began economic reforms more than 40 years ago, its leaders have promoted communist values as a way to insulate the party’s rule from the forces of international capitalism and western culture. But after Deng Xiaoping began opening the country’s economy in the 1980s, the wealth generated created a middle class with more material aspirations.

Since taking power seven years ago, Xi has worked to reassert the party’s supremacy. Communist Party cells have assumed a greater role in private and state-owned companies and universities have introduced additional classes on Marxist theory. At a party meeting in October 2018, Xi echoed Mao’s edict that, “east, west, south, north and centre — the party leads everything.”

On Jinggang Mountain the red resurgence looks somewhat like a cross between a holiday camp and an army training station. Ubiquitous little red badges mark out visitors who are party members, many of whom have hired red-guard uniforms for their three-to-seven-day stints at the schools.

Secrets and Sacrifice

Groups from private companies, state enterprises and government departments queue up to climb the steep steps that lead to a shrine for revolutionary martyrs, where, against a backdrop of trees and mountain views, they lay wreaths and publicly renew their oaths to the party. With fists raised, they pledge to “keep the party’s secrets” and promise to “sacrifice everything for the party.”

In the town’s clothing stores, antique shops and government-run tourist sites are the traditional Mao memorabilia, hammer-and-sickles images and statues of workers. But it’s the tributes to Xi that stand out. Xi’s image is on everything from plates to posters and books.

In a small room at a former military headquarters, cadres even line up to sit in a chair in which Xi once sat to talk with locals.

“Xi Jinping is really a great man. We love him, we deeply love him,” said Liu Fang, after taking her turn. She was on a tour with an industry association under Guangxi’s United Front Work Department. “Since he came in with his eight rules for cadres everything has changed. We must all thank him. Although it is harder to make money now, our lives are better.”

The adoration mirrors the role Xi has made for himself at the core of the nation’s life since he became leader of the Communist Party almost seven years ago. He’s abolished constitutional term limits, allowing him to remain leader for life, enshrined his “core” status into the party’s governing charter and become the first leader since Mao to have his personal “thought” written into the constitution during his lifetime. State media have referred to him as “the people’s leader,” mirroring language used to describe Mao decades earlier.

But outside the corporate packaged tours and political junkets, things look less idyllic. The town’s residents, like many in China, are feeling the pinch of the economic downturn.

Business slump

With few individual tourists, businesses owners say they depend on the organised groups of party members. When the training classes restart in the afternoon, restaurants empty and the streets become quiet.

“Cadres don’t spend money,” said Zhao Nian, 39, who runs a jewellery store in Dajing village, near the mountain. “Their food and accommodation is paid for and high-level people like that are given gifts. They don’t need to buy stuff from people like us.”

Dai Longjie, 34, who runs a drinks and novelty-clothing-rental store said his income has halved this year.

“It’s been really quiet,” he said. “It’s not easy for anyone to make money in any industry.”

In his hometown of Lushan in Jiangxi province, he said there have been layoffs among textile and construction workers. “I don’t know if it’s government policies or what the problem is, but a lot of people can’t find jobs at the moment,” Dai said. “People are sitting around with nothing to do.”

And idled factory employees is not a scenario that fits well with the long history of the workers’ struggle.