As China prepares to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of its Communist party in July, a rapidly-growing number of Chinese, many of them young professionals, are now journeying to famous revolutionary sites to reconnect with the past.
The government, which is strongly supporting the drive, believes a healthy dose of “Red Culture” could help unify Chinese society, which is fraying under the stress of growing inequality.
In Yan’an, Chairman Mao’s former wartime headquarters and the symbolic “birthplace” of the revolution, hundreds of daily visitors re-enact the battles between Communist forces and their enemies. According to the Chinese National Tourism Administration, the number of visitors at the country’s top ten “Red Tourism” sites are growing by more than 50 per cent a year.
in June, a large Red Tourism Culture Festival will be held in Hunan, the province where Chairman Mao was born.
But even outside of established sites, Red tourism is thriving. On the southern island of Hainan, which is better known for its luxury hotels and beaches, a Red tour includes a visit to Pan Xianying, a 95-year-old mother of seven who is one of three surviving members of an all-female Red Army unit.
Mrs Pan was around 15 when she joined the army and fought in Hainan’s 140-strong female force, that was later celebrated in a popular revolutionary ballet: “The Red Detachment of Women”.
The local authorities in her village, Qionghai, decided to put her on show earlier this year in order to profit from the Red tourism boom.
Chen Doushu, the head of the agency organising the tours, said Red tourism reflected a desire by many to look fondly back at the past after more than three decades of rapid change.
“Chinese people cannot forget their history, and the best way to do that is to go and remember it, to study it. That’s where Red tourism comes from,” he said.
Meanwhile, in the far western province of Xinjiang, the authorities have applied to spend some £20 million to turn a former nuclear-weapons facility into a Red tourist site. The area, in the mountains of Heshuo, was an army research centre in the 1960s.
Red tourism became a priority of the Chinese government in 2004, and more than 2.15 billion yuan (£198 million) has been spent on sprucing up sites such as Chairman Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan.
The effort has created over 2 million jobs and has generated a “Red” industry in Chairman Mao busts, revolutionary clothes and other memorabilia, as well as “revolutionary food” such as red-braised pork, a favourite of the Great Helmsman. Some estimate that the “Red” industry may be worth more than 10 billion yuan (£923 million) a year.
However, this year the campaign to emphasise the country’s “founding myth” and spread unifying propaganda has accelerated rapidly. Li Changchun, China’s propaganda chief, said that Red tourism was a “political project to strengthen the people’s conviction of sticking to the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
In Chongqing, the local Communist party secretary, Bo Xilai, has ordered state radio and television to promote 36 “Red songs” praising the Communist party. Residents are being urged to download the tunes from the internet while newspapers have been ordered to print their lyrics.
Meanwhile, Chongqing television was recently ordered to drop soap operas and sitcoms from its prime time slots and instead air classic revolutionary dramas and musical shows.
“Some appear to have misunderstood the message in our campaign,” Xu Chao, the official leading the Red song drive, told the Global Times, a state-run newspaper.
“‘Red’ doesn’t only represent revolution, Communism or socialism. It also includes elements that represent happiness, harmony, being positive and healthy. The term is actually quite inclusive.”