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Communist-themed park a new feature of China’s ‘red tourism’

Cartoon statues of astronauts stand at a ‘Chinese Communist Party’ themed park at the South Lake in Hongshan District on September 29, 2015 in Wuhan, Hubei Province of China. The park, among the largest of its kind in the country and one of six slated for the city, is part of a broad push to reassert the authority of the Chinese Communist Party.

ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

By the time he turned two, Little Gaoxing could sing The East is Red, a Communist Revolution-era tune that lauds Mao Zedong as "the people's great saviour!"

Now four, his repertoire has expanded to more than 20 similar songs, including Cut the (Japanese) Devil's Head Off with the Broadsword.

"I can sing all of the Red Army's songs," he said on a recent morning in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. He begins belting out lyrics, his hand clutching a colourful plastic rifle: The Party has "led China toward the light," he sings. It's an impromptu performance straight from a long-ago era in Chinese history.

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But Little Gaoxing – a nickname used by his family – is also an emblem of modern China, whose government under President Xi Jinping is raising the volume on its efforts to breed party loyalty and making an ideological turn back toward authoritarian Communism.

In Wuhan, authorities are now adding propaganda into the city landscape, including at the park where Little Gaoxing occasionally comes with his grandmother.

But the 30 hectares of boardwalks and cherry trees that encircle a pretty lake are less green space than red space – a Communist-themed park is among the largest of its kind in China, and one of six planned for the city. It opened late last year, amid a broad new push to reassert the authority of Mr. Xi and the Chinese Communist Party.

In one corner, a cohort of cartoon-faced Red Army soldiers stand with guns at their sides and a Little Red Book in their hands. A marble book has been carved with a passage from The Communist Manifesto and signs display brief histories of local party heroes. Elsewhere, a steel cube is etched with the hammer and sickle and Communist slogans: harmony, civility, friendship.

One side of the lake is devoted to a series of red metal panels with Soviet-style art – complete with rising rockets and square-jawed figures gazing up at a bold new future – that describe a severely truncated history of the country's Communist Party, beginning from its foundation in 1921 and ending with Mr. Xi's late 2014 declaration of a "four comprehensives" strategy meant to convey the leadership of a new generation.

The panels read less like history than an attempt to situate Mr. Xi as the country's third great modern leader, his name mentioned alongside Mao and Deng Xiaoping. Virtually every other Chinese leader goes unmentioned; the panels jump from 1992, with the party's adoption of Mr. Deng's "socialism with Chinese characteristics," to the 2008 Olympics and then to November, 2012, when the party chose Mr. Xi as its next leader. Another panel describes how Mr. Xi has raised up a China Dream and sparked a great renaissance of the Chinese nation.

Mr. Xi has featured prominently, too, in the newest chapter in China's "red tourism," a kind of patriotic education that began shortly after the Communists took power. For decades, the Chinese have travelled to notable revolutionary sites, including Mr. Mao's birthplace and locations along his famed Long March.

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Now Mr. Xi's own birthplace has become an important destination – as have other places from his past. Before Mr. Xi took power, police chased foreign journalists away from Liangjiahe, where the leader lived in a cave as a teen. Now, local villagers cart around tourists in buggies and sell dinnerware emblazoned with Mr. Xi's image.

At the same time, red tourism has gone international under Mr. Xi. Last July, Russian and Chinese officials jointly launched a "red circuit" that allows tourists to follow in Lenin's footsteps, from his birthplace in Ulyanovsk to his mausoleum in Moscow.

In January, the National Red Tourism Coordination Group office said China has spent $1.9-billion on red tourism-related construction in the past decade, while the number of visitors to those sites has risen, on average, 16 per cent per year.

"It's all an effort to extend the [so-called] Red Gene," said Zhang Lifan, a historian who is critical of the Communist Party, about how Communism has become entwined in the DNA of the country. Mr. Xi belongs to "the second red generation and has emphasized this Red Gene, so now people are following."

Under Mr. Xi, China has sought to strip Western thought from academic institutions, commanded state media to promote the Party line, intensified indoctrination for officials and arrested dissidents and human-rights lawyers. On Thursday, Chinese state media called on all Communist Party members to master work methods set out by Mr. Mao in a document nearly six decades old.

The new clampdown has angered some. A revival in Communist ideology is jarring in a country with fiercely competitive, publicly traded corporations, shopping malls jammed with luxury brands and vast wealth disparities. Even the opening of the Wuhan park prompted online jeers. "It would be better to build an anti-corruption park," one person wrote.

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But the Communist Party has proven itself more than equal to the complaints against it – in part by ruthlessly silencing dissent, in part by using pervasive propaganda to promote itself as the cornerstone of modern China.

At the Wuhan park, the nine women who make up the Chun Cao Dancing Group gather to practise ahead of an evening performance. Like all of the shows on the park's large stage, which have included singing, dancing and magic demonstrations, it is paid for by local authorities.

"All of the shows are free to entertain residents here," said Ms. Li, 59, a dancer who is also a Communist Party member, and provided only a surname.

"We love our country from the bottom of our hearts," said another dancer, Ms. Zou, 54, also a party member. "Look at how well we are living today – and how harmoniously we all get along! We are not like some Western countries plagued by protests or gun violence."

At this park, there are no doubts about who deserves the credit.

"China has reached where it is today because of the Communist Party's rule," says Zhang Xukun, 62, a retiree whose long career included stints as a factory director, party secretary and workers' union chairman.

"In the future, under the leadership of the party, the country will keep moving forward, step by step, to realize the China Dream."

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More


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