Tourist Mao: Chinese flock to Communist Party historic sites as country prepares to celebrate 100th anniversary

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Tourists in Red Army costumes organize for a group photo at the Revolutionary Memorial Hall in Yan'an - Gilles Sabrieˆ/The New York Times/Redux/eyevine
Tourists in Red Army costumes organize for a group photo at the Revolutionary Memorial Hall in Yan'an - Gilles Sabrieˆ/The New York Times/Redux/eyevine

A cluster of pensioners in dusty blue Chinese Red Army replica uniforms pose for pictures in front of a Chairman Mao statue, marvelling at the caves from which he plotted a revolution in the 1930s.

On a nearby patch of grass, dozens of Communist Party members perch on folding stools listening to a political lecture, with diligent few scribbling notes.

Every day, thousands of people are descending upon Yan’an – a central Chinese city dubbed the “Red Holy Land,” a wartime stronghold of Mr Mao – to pay homage ahead of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s centenary on Thursday.

With 92 million members, it’s one of the world’s largest political parties. But its big birthday comes as international criticism grows over China’s human rights abuses and coercive economic policies, which leader Xi Jinping is keen to ensure doesn’t turn into political instability at home.

‘Red pilgrimages’ to Yan’an have increased since Mr Xi took the reins in 2012, tripling to 73 million visitors in 2019 and reflecting a state-encouraged rise in nationalistic fervour.

The enthusiasm is on full display in “Red Show,” a 90-minute propaganda musical that runs nightly to celebrate the Party’s rise to the top. Against a backdrop of stirring tunes, actors simulate years of hardship and war with dramatic acrobatic routines before the show closes with Mr Mao and his Red Army assuming power in 1949.

China will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party on July 1st - Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
China will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party on July 1st - Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The audience is rapt, repeating the line: “China is bound to prevail!” as the curtain comes down and a spray of red confetti stars blankets the theatre.

Han Yulai, 62, says he was honoured to have been chosen by his managers to visit Yan’an for team-building, where even taxis display propaganda stickers reminding people to “always follow the Party.”

“Our past generations suffered so much; we wouldn’t be here without them," he says.

For Mr Xi, carefully calibrated propaganda about Party history – as touted at these historic attractions – is key to ensuring the Communists remain in power far beyond its 100th anniversary, and to shoring up his own legacy as one of the greats.

Mr Xi’s past speeches indicate his belief that the Soviet Union collapsed because leaders “lost control of their history, of their narrative about the Soviet Union as a regime,” said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at American University who specialises in Chinese and Russian elite politics.

“That’s why when Xi Jinping talks about Party history, a primary emphasis is using history to rededicate members to the organisation,” said Mr Torigian. “The big message has to be [about] the Party as being uniquely suited to solving China’s problems.”

Mr Xi has gone “to great lengths to strengthen his authority in the Party to make sure the Chinese Communist Party outlasts him... to put the Party in a place where it will continue to survive in the long term.”

In the run-up to China’s anniversary, the country’s cyber regulator launched a hotline for the public to snitch on each other for online comments that “distort” the ruling Party, attack its leadership or “deny the excellence of advanced socialist culture.”

A view of a "cave" dwelling where Chinese President Xi Jinping used to stay - REUTERS/Ryan Woo
A view of a "cave" dwelling where Chinese President Xi Jinping used to stay - REUTERS/Ryan Woo
An exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party includes a replica of a Chinese space station - REUTERS/Thomas Peter
An exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party includes a replica of a Chinese space station - REUTERS/Thomas Peter
A child holds a Chinese flag near the museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party - HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images
A child holds a Chinese flag near the museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party - HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

The move is part of a broader crackdown against “historical nihilism,” used to describe public scepticism over the Party’s version of past events.

Some events in the Party's history remain censored decades on, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, in which the Chinese military fired and killed thousands of peaceful pro-democracy student protesters.

Any mention of it or attempt to commemorate the event by individuals, online or offline – even by posting a picture of a candle burning – can mean a jail sentence.

Beijing also tries to tightly control what foreign journalists are able to cover. In Yan’an, Sunday Telegraph reporters were tailed everywhere by uniformed officers and men in plainclothes on foot and by car, some of whom glowered at vendors and visitors when they speak to the journalists.

What the Party does want codified in its history books is on full display at an exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary, starting from its founding in Shanghai in 1921 and running through decades of “struggle” to “serve the people.”

Highlights from more recent history included US president Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, Hong Kong’s return from British to Beijing rule in 1997, and a successful spacecraft landing on the moon in 2013, joining the US and former Soviet Union in achieving this milestone.

In one corner, a group of employees from a Chinese state-owned oil company workshop what to say in videos for social media.

“As the Party celebrates its 100th anniversary, I would like to tell the party that I’m very happy it continues to achieve more and more victories!” one woman announced.

Plaques display quotes only from Mr Mao and Mr Xi – yet another sign that Mr Xi, who has scrapped leadership term limits, is keen to cement his power for years to come.

While some Chinese grumble privately – one retiree complains that the government’s economic policies were exacerbating a wealth gap in the country – the relentless propaganda appears to be a success.

Most in Yan’an are quick to extol the virtues of the ruling Party, and proud to share their knowledge of the city’s unique history – a reason Mr Xi himself visits often.

“If I were a teacher and I had to give Uncle Xi a grade, I’d give him 120 per cent!" declares Mr Zhang, a taxi driver. "Even higher than the maximum score 100 percent!”

Additional reporting by Wen Xu

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