As China's ruling Communist Party (CCP) moved away from its founding ideology during the Reform Era, the rhetoric and symbolism of socialism remained in place, serving as a vital basis for regime legitimacy. Since the start of the so-called New Era, the use of socialist language and symbols has become even more important, playing a key role in efforts by the Party-State to consolidate its power in the face of perceived internal and external threats.
The result is a state of increasing ideological awkwardness, embodied in the banner phrase for the most recent CCP National Congress in 2017, "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era". It appears to incongruously fuse together several quite different ideologies, including but not limited to socialism (of course), state-led capitalism (through the "Chinese characteristics" euphemism), and neo-traditionalism (through the "New Era" hallmark). Even for the CCP's ever-creative theorists, this new "Thought" represents a triumph of ideological harmonisation. It is also noteworthy as being the first time since Mao that a sitting leader has had his own named ideology enshrined into the party constitution.
Such harmonisation and personalisation are encapsulated not just in the words of CCP political rhetoric, but also in imagery and physical spaces. One of the best examples of this can be found in western China's Shaanxi province, the sacred heartland of Chinese communism. Of particular importance are Yan'an (the CCP's revolutionary base during the seminal mid-century wars) and Liangjiahe (a village in the greater Yan'an area, where current leader Xi was sent to work during the Cultural Revolution). Both sites have seen a surge of tourism in recent years, as I witnessed for myself on a visit in November 2018. What follows here is a series of photos and written observations from my experience.
Liangjiahe has a heavy security presence, with large numbers of police patrolling the village, on foot and in buggy vehicles. Before even entering the village site, I had to register with a duty officer, who scanned my passport and asked details of my visit to the village. I was, very conspicuously, the only foreigner at Liangjiahe that day.
Soon after entering the site, I was approached by two other tourists to accompany them. The man pictured left here told me he worked for the county police and had come to visit Liangjiahe on his day off. He clearly knew some of the uniformed officers on patrol, and I suspect he may have been working in plain clothes.
There was no shortage of tourists, especially for a chilly day in November. The average visitor appeared to be middle-aged or retirement age, as might be expected on a weekday. Some donned light blue, Mao-era overalls, a recent fad for so-called red tourists in China.
One of the main draws for these tourists is to see where and how Xi and other sent-down youth lived during the Cultural Revolution, inside traditional Shaanxi cave homes.
Xi's former sleeping quarters, are now arranged to somewhat resemble a traditional ancestral altar scene.
Mao-era objects are on display, including crockery, cigarette packets and a grain mill.
Also displayed are many propaganda posters of Mao, evoking an ideological continuity between him and China's current leadership. Xi has by no means distanced himself from the "Great Leader", despite his own father being purged under Mao's rule.
While claims of a revived Mao-style personality cult are exaggerated, Xi’s unique and widespread presence in party-political propaganda does surely reflect a conscious attempt by the CCP to portray the governance style of its central leadership in a highly personalised way. At Liangjiahe, this is reflected in numerous pictures of Xi.
Also of note are several enormous red banners quoting Xi:
The village's former primary school has been turned into a museum documenting momentous events from Xi's time in Liangjiahe, such as the digging of a well, and his entry into the party.
If Liangjiahe is a shrine to the CCP's current spiritual leader, Yan'an is the mecca of Chinese communism, owing to its role as the Communists' wartime military base. Today it is common for trainee soldiers to visit the city and its museums, as pictured here.
Other visitors at various revolutionary sites include red tourists, retirees and school pupils.
This auditorium was the venue for the CCP's 7th National Congress in 1945, the last to be held outside Beijing.
These are the sleeping quarters and wartime meeting rooms inside Yan'an's revolutionary bases.
As at Liangjiahe, personalised artefacts and photos are on display in Yan'an, including the site of Mao's vegetable garden and Zhou Enlai's leather jacket.
Yan'an is one of the only places I've been in China where tourist sites and museums are free of charge. It's also the first place I've seen a "tourist complaints office"!
Apart from these designated tourist sites, the rest of the city is heavily adorned with classic communist symbols and the latest party slogans, including references to Xi Jinping Thought.
This primary school displays various images of Xi and past leaders with strong symbolism and the motto, "Red genes, passed on from generation to generation".
Finally, this propaganda at the railway station must win the competition for most characters to ever be squeezed onto a standard propaganda banner!