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A Look At China's 'Red Tourism' Industry As The Communist Party Turns 100


Summer vacation season is well underway. And in China, that means Red tourism - that is, tourism revolving around sites important in Chinese Communist Party history. This month, the party turns 100 years old. So NPR's Emily Feng visited some of these sites to learn what history might tell us about the future.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: I'm standing at a grand stone plaza when I meet a local retired history professor, He Siyu. He's leading a group of party members to sing revolutionary Red songs.

HE SIYU: (Through interpreter) Even though we're retired, we still have the responsibility to carry on the revolutionary spirit.

FENG: The revolutionary spirit is supposed to be especially strong here in Zunyi. In 1935, the Communists took over the city. And they held a conference where Mao Zedong began to take control over the Communist Party, moving it away from the control of Soviet Russia. Mao also beat back other ambitious Chinese officials. Now, on the eve of the party's 100th birthday, Professor He has come to the conference site to wish the party strength to face the new challenges that are cropping up.

HE: (Through interpreter) Whether it's the issue of Xinjiang or Hong Kong or Tibet, foreign forces have inevitably created anti-China sentiment. But within China, these are nonissues because of the strong leadership of the Communist Party.

FENG: The Chinese state has refurbished some 180 or so officially designated Red tourism sites like this one in the last decade - sites like the Yan'an caves, where the Communists lived for 13 years, or the pit stops along the route to Yan'an. Red tourism is not just an exercise in patriotism. It's a way to prove the political pedigree of party leaders like Chairman Mao and, increasingly, current leader Xi Jinping, who is China's most powerful leader since Mao.

WANG XIU: (Through interpreter) To put it succinctly, Chairman Mao rose as leader of the Communist Party here in Zunyi. Without Mao, China's path forward would have been very difficult.

FENG: This is Wang Xiu, a Red tourist here who's dressed up in a rented costume to look like a revolutionary soldier. He explains Zunyi is where Mao Zedong thought was first brought up - the party's guiding philosophy that Marxism could be adapted to Chinese society, not just European industrial ones.

WANG: (Through interpreter) Our current leader, Xi Jinping, is the inheritor of the political road set out by Mao Zedong thought, which all started here.

FENG: Justifying the right to rule is not so clear-cut in nominally communist systems. There are no popular elections to choose leaders. And unlike a monarchy, the title of party chairman is not inherited. Instead, leaders must demonstrate their connection and loyalty to Communist history and their commitment to revolution. Many Red tourism sites like Zunyi celebrate Chairman Mao as the inevitable choice - the only person who could have led China.


FENG: From Zunyi, Communist soldiers fled over thousands of miles of dirt roads and icy mountains to here, the city of Yan'an in the heartland of China's northern plains. The Long March, as the trek is now called, has taken on biblical status in party lore. And once in Yan'an, the party managed to survive in the area's barren plains. Today, tourists clamor for pictures and reenact scenes of their manual labor. Here's Sun Wei, an oil and gas engineer tilling soil for pumpkin sprouts as his Communist ancestors would have done 90 years ago.

SUN WEI: (Through interpreter) Activities like this increase our sense of teamwork and cooperation.

FENG: These acts of valor and grit are meant to inspire a new generation of Communists. And current party leaders and low-level cadres make annual trips here to burnish the revolutionary credentials. In 1969, a then-16-year-old Xi Jinping came here, too, though not by his own choice.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Xi Jinping is now the leader of China. But as this tour guide explains, during violent political purges in the 1960s, he was sent to a Yan'an village. He was one of about 17 million young adults ordered to serve rural peasants during this period, called the Cultural Revolution.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The village is tiny - a few hundred residents who once lived in mud and clay houses on the plains. It's now an open-air shrine to Xi with a parking lot that can accommodate hundreds of buses.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).


FENG: Tourists can visit the metalworking cooperatives Xi helped found to make modern farming tools.


FENG: They can also see the covered well Xi dug to turn animal waste into natural gas.

UNIDENTIFIED TOURIST: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Xi Jinping dug the well with his own hands. Take a look, a tourist tells me. And of course, visitors can see the humble caves dug directly into the hard earth that Xi and other cadres lived in for nearly seven years here.


FENG: Hung on the cave walls is a picture of Chairman Mao, leader Deng Xiaoping, and then finally, Xi. It's like a political family tree - Xi as the equal of and the next generation to two other foundational party leaders. Tourist Yu Anli likes the arrangement.

YU ANLI: (Through interpreter) Chairman Mao had almost magical abilities and amazing foresight. He saw China's big changes would fall on the next generation of leaders, like Xi Jinping.

FENG: 32-year-old Liu Yunlun has come with her officemates to learn about Xi Jinping, too.

LIU YUNLUN: (Through interpreter) For us younger generation, there's some emotional distance from Chairman Mao. But we're living at a time when Xi Jinping is at the core of the party, so we experience his leadership more viscerally.

FENG: Even for nonbelievers, the message at Red tourism sites like this one is clear - serve the party as well as Xi Jinping did, and rise high, but not too high. After all, there can be only one chairman.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Zunyi, China.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLD PANDA'S "I AM REAL PUNK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.