‘Red Tourism’ Flourishes in China Ahead of Party Centennial

on Jun26
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The group of tourists, dressed in replica Red Army costumes, stood in front of a red hammer-and-sickle billboard. With their right fists raised, they pledged their allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party.

“Be ready at all times to sacrifice my all for the party and the people, and never betray the party,” they recited, standing proudly next to a giant statue of Mao Zedong in the northern city of Yan’an, the base of the revolution until 1948. Then, they shuffled off before another group came to do the same.

Mass swearing-in ceremonies aren’t typical group tour activities, but this is “red tourism” in China, where thousands of people flock to places like Yan’an to absorb the official version of the party’s history. At these sites, schoolchildren are told how the Red Army, later renamed the People’s Liberation Army, was created. Tourists gaze at an ensemble of chairs used by Xi Jinping, China’s leader, and other guests when they visited Mao’s home. Retirees take selfies with flower-adorned statues of Mao and Zhu De, the Red Army commander.

“The thing about China is that there’s only one origin story, and it’s not up for debate,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia and an expert in Chinese politics. “History is at the core of propaganda in China. It’s vital for the party that people feel an emotional connection to that history, and you’re only going to get that on the ground.”

It was in Yan’an that top Communist leaders endured bombings by the Japanese during World War II. It also marked the near-endpoint of the Long March, when the Red Army retreated from the Nationalist troops, known as the Kuomintang.

Wang Biyao, 29, who works in a consulting company in the northern city of Xi’an, traveled to Yan’an recently with her parents, who are among the party’s 92 million members, to commemorate the centennial. Ms. Wang said she had felt moved looking at the photographs of Red Army soldiers at the Yan’an Revolutionary Memorial Hall.

“Under such difficult conditions, the faces of these revolutionary ancestors looked so positive and optimistic,” she said. “It’s made me think that this is worth learning, that no matter how tough the conditions are, they can never beat the people’s fighting spirits.” Ms. Wang plans to join the party soon.

In a recent show at the Wanda theme park, tourists got close to actors recreating the hardships that the Communists endured during their escape from the Nationalist forces. The show ended with a giant Chinese flag descending on the audience, who reached up excitedly to touch it.

China’s entrepreneurs have spoken proudly of the “revolutionary culture” in Yan’an. State media covered a June 2018 visit by the tech titans Pony Ma, of Tencent, and Liu Qiangdong, of JD.com. Both men dressed in Red Army costumes for the occasion. Jack Ma, of Alibaba, has said he went to Yan’an to see how the party “rebuilt hope and confidence.”

Beyond fueling party devotion and lore, “red tourism” has been good for business. In 2023, the industry’s revenues are expected to reach $153 billion, according to the Qianzhan Research Institute, a data consultancy. That represents an average annual compound growth rate of 14.1 percent from 2019 to 2023. Wanda said it was planning a second “red” attraction.

In Shanghai, where the site of the party’s first congress has been turned into a museum, a long line of people waited outside on Thursday for a chance to see the newly expanded space. Tickets to the new wing of the museum, which opened on June 3, are sold out through the centennial.

In Jinggangshan, a small eastern town known as the “cradle of the Chinese Revolution,” tourists and schoolchildren recently traipsed around in steel gray-blue military costumes, red-starred hats and army-green satchel bags. A tourist prayed in front of a shrine dedicated to Mao and his third wife, He Zizhen, in the late chairman’s old home.

Several visitors were employees of a small finance company who had traveled from Shanghai for a team-building trip, combining a day of “red tourism” with another day of meetings.

They had just finished lunch in a restaurant with a giant, beatific portrait of Mao overlooking them. One employee said she was very supportive of the party. “We are very blessed to have good leaders,” she said.

Her boss was less enthusiastic. When asked what he thought about Mao, he declined to say.

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