Red Tourism in China


A review of Production, Transmission, and Consumption of Red Tourism in China: A Model of the Circuit of Red Heritage and Tourism, by Shengnan Zhao.

In 2010, Hu Jintao paid homage to the site of the Gutian Conference where, eight decades earlier, the CCP had given Mao control of the Fourth Red Army. During the visit, a snake slithered across Hu’s path, an event that tour guides later claimed was an auspicious omen. Two years later, villagers from nearby Rongwu launched a bid to build a massive shopping mall where they currently lived. In exchange for a slice of the profits, they were ready to tear down their homes and move to the backside of their hill. What connects these two incidents is a circuit of political hierarchies, guanxi networks, economic incentives, sanctioned histories, and superstitious folktales that together comprise red tourism—the repackaging of Maoist heritage for tourist consumption. In China, the CCP has injected billions of RMB into sites like Gutian, hailing the resultant rise in tourist traffic with much fanfare. “The scenery of red tourism forms a provocative stage for the establishment of nationhood,” writes Shengnan Zhao (p. 215). While previous research has focused on textual analyses of memorial sites and the political contexts behind them, Zhao studies how these narratives are transmitted and consumed by their target audiences. Combining observational fieldwork with quantitative analysis, her dissertation evaluates the structures of tourism from the ground up, bringing into focus the local officials, tour guides, and tourists who reinterpret the stories they are fed.

Each main chapter offers a different perspective on the tourism circuit: production, transmission, and consumption. In the first part, Zhao examines how government patronage has shaped red tourism in Gutian. Local officials mediate between the lofty goals of Beijing and the needs of local villagers, forming a feudal hierarchy governed as much by informal guanxi relations as it is by institutional power. In this system, celebrity endorsements are particularly important. When Jiang Zemin visited the site in 1989, a CCTV performance troupe in 1999, and Hu Jintao in 2010, central funding and tourism grew exponentially. As a result, local officials are incentivized to continuously build, demolish, and then rebuild the same infrastructure that will attract further grants from Beijing, a so-called process of “red washing.” Facades of adjacent homes are retiled, hotels hang Red Army-themed plaques in their rooms, and the main road is strictly regulated to minimize traffic jams and pollution. These projects have mixed benefits for the local economy. While central funding provides a powerful stimulus, Zhao finds that tourism in Gutian has been neither profitable nor sustainable. Simple decisions must be approved by multiple layers of bureaucracy, leaving local officials feeling disempowered. Farmers have been displaced from their land, but there are few opportunities for service-sector employment. The villagers of Rongwu, who agreed to have their homes razed in order to build a shopping center, are unlikely to find private investors to back their plans. Zhao argues that the centrality of “celebrity endorsements” to tourism development has given Gutian generous injections of funding, but it has also paralyzed more ambitious projects, deprived the local government of its autonomy, and multiplied bureaucratic inefficiency.

The second part explores how tour guides mediate between government objectives and the interests of tourists. Distinguishing between unsalaried tour guides and contracted site interpreters, Zhao probes the dual staffing system that underlies Gutian’s tourism apparatus. Whereas tour guides derive their income from tips and shopping commissions, site interpreters enjoy the relative prestige and job security of working for the public service (shiye danwei). Interpreters are trained by museum historians, subjected to a series of tests and, to mitigate the boredom of memorized rhetoric, are encouraged to research and craft their own narratives. These structural disparities and power inequalities, Zhao argues, shape the narratives that are told at the tourist sites. As freelancers, tour guides often rely on folk tales and superstition to retain the attention of their clients—some even recount stories of Mao’s illegitimate children, or the auspicious myth that autumn leaves never fall on the conference site. Site interpreters, on the other hand, are forbidden from telling these stories. As their primary function is to give tours to high-level officials, they are also often reluctant to take on tourists, who they perceive as aggressive and entitled. “The more you talk, the less feeling you have. Sometimes you only feel that your lips are moving,” one interpreter said (p. 132). Among tour guides and site interpreters alike, Zhao finds little use of humor, drama, interaction, and other oral techniques that may capture the imaginations of the tourists.

In the third part, Zhao turns to the experiences of the tourists themselves. Who participates in red tourism, and what do they gain from it? Data from 241 surveys were clustered according to the primary activities that tourists pursued onsite—political education, nature appreciation, entertainment, and a mixture of the above. These four behavior patterns were then compared to the motives of the visitors, their ability to recall political and non-political content, their impressions of the site, and their support for the CCP. Only 11% of tourists were purely interested in political activities; those interested in leisure, nature, and local Hakka culture came away with few changes to their political outlook. Members of the CCP or Communist Youth League did not behave very differently than their non-political counterparts. And in a series of focus groups, Zhao found that visitors had mixed perceptions of nationalism and red heritage. While most tourists seemed to appreciate the sacrifices made by early revolutionaries, what also mattered was that the current administration deliver on its promises: “The government deserves being loved by us only if the government makes people satisfied,” one tourist said (p. 180). Some even thought that the political aspects of Gutian were secondary to its excellent fengshui. Zhao observes, “Visitors were not pure political pilgrims or amateur political scientists who practiced passionate worship or sought a detailed understanding of communist heritage” (p. 208). Despite the ideological goals of Beijing, tourists consume red culture as utility-maximizing agents, as fenghsui pilgrims, and as family vacationers whose political orientations are as varied as their reasons for traveling.

Tourism is one of the most direct ways to politicize heritage, Zhao writes (p. 213). If Gutian is to become an economically sustainable, ideologically compelling destination for its visitors, then the CCP needs to hone its strategies (p. 227). It needs to use media displays and interactive storytelling to maximize engagement, and it should conduct further market research in order to gauge the secondary interests of tourists. Yet Zhao’s work reveals that some of the deepest problems with Gutian are structural: tour guides are underpaid, local officials are disempowered, development is not yet profitable, and tourists’ political opinions are often shaped by current government performance, not the rhetoric of the past. Her dissertation contributes to a growing trend in East Asian area studies that brings anthropological insights to the study of politics. Rather than a one-way transmission of ideology from Beijing to the grassroots, Zhao echoes Richard Johnson’s model of meaning-making as a circuit. Like Johnson, she holds that symbolic and social relations are authored and modified by multiple actors. With her attention to the agents of red tourism and her sensitivity to the structures that shape their behavior, Zhao offers us a compelling, detailed portrait of the CCP’s biggest domestic PR campaign—both its lofty hopes and its bureaucratic underbelly.

Rachel Wong
Harvard University

Primary Sources

Fieldwork conducted in 2012 at Gutian Conference Memorial Museum (Fujian, China)

Dissertation Information

Arizona State University. 2014. 266pp. Primary Advisor: Dallen Timothy.

Image: Photo by Author.


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