Red tourism in Xi’s China

IN ITS HEYDAY in the 1960s and 1970s, the village of Dazhai was called a place of miracles. Millions of revolutionary pilgrims came to hear how local peasants had carved terraced grain-fields and reservoirs from its rocky hillsides, armed with little more than hand tools and love of Chairman Mao Zedong. Dazhai’s barely literate Communist Party secretary, Chen Yonggui, was summoned to Beijing and elevated to the Politburo with the rank of vice prime minister. Back then Liang Jiwen was a schoolboy, the son of a Dazhai official. He recalls dignitaries arriving each day in his corner of Shanxi province, in the dust-dry Taihang mountains. He and classmates would wave flowers and sing red hymns at the roadside. “We did not get much studying done,” he recalls.

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Then came the fall. In 1980, as part of a broader purge of ultra-leftists that followed Mao’s death in 1976, official Communist Party newspapers called Dazhai a fraud. Investigators charged that its miraculous grain harvests were invented. They described massive cash subsidies channelled to the supposedly self-reliant village, and thousands of soldiers sent to build its engineering marvels.

Now Dazhai is trying for a third act. Local officials have drawn up plans to include their village in a China-wide official campaign to promote “red tourism” and teach party history to the masses. They are pinning particular hopes on their former “people’s commune”, a well-preserved complex of cave dwellings built in 1966. An evocative place, its entrance gate still decorated with Maoist slogans, it was admitted to a national register of protected sites in 2013. It is still closed to the public, but plans are afoot to buy out current residents. Among them is Jia Cunlian, a widow who has lived in a cave-home there for 30 years. She remembers Chen, the Mao-era boss, as “the best of people”, who shared exotic gifts that he had received with villagers, such as melons or raisins. Still, she prefers the present day, saying: “Life was hard back then.”

Since the 1990s, most visitors to Dazhai for tourism have been elderly. The village has tried to woo them with nostalgia: family-owned restaurants serving rural dishes, including tree-bark noodles once eaten during times of famine. But local leaders have grander ambitions now, involving what would amount to Dazhai’s political rehabilitation. To achieve that, officials are willing to offer doses of candour. Shi Yonghong, who heads the cultural relics bureau of the surrounding county, Xiyang, admits that Mao’s call to “Learn from Dazhai” led to excesses by the mid-1970s, such as when communes in other parts of China dug terraced fields out of flat plains in their anxiety to obey the chairman. Mr Shi blames officials in these places for misinterpreting the policy, adding that Dazhai never asked to be a national model. But even that grudging admission of long-ago problems is offset by his claims that Dazhai not only fed itself during the hungriest years of the 1960s, but “sold surplus harvests to the state”. He offers no further details to back up that long-debunked assertion. Instead, he talks vaguely but grandly about the “Dazhai spirit”, which he defines as hard work and not asking for government handouts.

In an office thick with cigarette smoke, overlooking a snow-covered village square, Dazhai’s deputy party secretary, Li Huailian, chimes in. She describes the village’s story of hardships as a way to understand what President Xi Jinping means when he tells gatherings that the good times of today did not fall from the sky. Dazhai is prosperous because its people have always been diligent and followed party orders, she declares. “Where the party tells us to go, we go.” At first hearing, that is a rather insipid summary of her village’s tumultuous past. But these local officials know what they are doing. They want Dazhai to be a celebrated red-tourism site, promoted alongside revolutionary bases on the route of the Long March. To achieve that, they need to grasp the role that history plays in the Xi era. To Mr Xi and his team, the past exists to provide reasons to admire the party, not to furnish evidence for judgments about its rule.

Not just popes who like to claim infallibility

Real history is dangerous stuff. Past adulation of Dazhai and of its boss, Chen—a zealot who ordered 141 political executions and said that revolutionaries could grow grain on sandy beaches—is a reminder that to Mao, party rule was a faith-based project. It often put ideology above expertise and common sense, with horrific results. Dazhai’s denunciation in 1980 reflected moves by China’s then-paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, to create a rational, technocratic state. Deng’s gamble was that the party did not need personality cults to maintain support. Instead, he sought a mandate based on making China strong and prosperous. To make a case for market-based reforms that he believed vital to that project, he was pragmatically willing to allow Maoist mistakes to be named.

Mr Xi favours a synthesis of these two approaches. As the party approaches its 100th anniversary in July, its leaders urge the public to contrast China’s economic rise and social stability with economic decline and political chaos in the West. That is a Deng-style appeal to performance legitimacy. Yet that co-exists with boosterish talk of “the brilliant achievements and valuable experience accumulated by our party”. Maoist disasters are not mentioned. In the Xi era, when Chinese scholars dwell on past mistakes they are guilty of “historical nihilism”, a career-ending offence. When foreigners remember old horrors, the charge is that they seek to overthrow Communist rule. Last month Mr Xi gathered senior leaders to stress the importance of studying party history correctly, to pass “red genes and revolutionary fire” to later generations.

Mr Xi seeks a mandate that is both pragmatic and faith-based. The common thread is absolute loyalty. By the logic of the Xi era, the Chinese are able to benefit from wise party rule today because they always trusted the party, even when it erred. Objectively, Dazhai does not deserve to be a place of pilgrimage again. Still it may happen. In China, the past is what the party needs it to be.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Red tourism in Xi’s China”

The Economist

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