YAN’AN, China (Reuters Life!) - The smell of gunpowder fills the air as a band of young communists in ragged uniforms darts between sandbags. Deafening explosions ring out in the mid-day heat.
China’s stern Communist leaders don’t usually take a light-hearted approach to armed insurrections.
But they make an exception for the twice daily re-enactment of a famous battle performed for tourists in a dusty northwestern city to boost fealty to the Party. Nine decades after the founding of the Communist Party, to be celebrated in a frenzy of propaganda throughout the county on Friday, China’s booming “red tourism” industry is transforming once-forgotten backwaters.
Tour buses today clog the streets of Yan’an, a gritty city of two million in northwestern Shaanxi province, which Mao Zedong and the Party made their base for 13 years before conquering the rest of China in 1949.
For 150 yuan ($23) a head, tourists can watch “The Defense of Yan’an” unfold, the retelling for a modern audience of a crucial 1947 battle to protect the Communist stronghold from the Nationalists, who eventually fled in exile to Taiwan.
For an additional 15 yuan, lucky early comers can dress as soldiers and take part themselves, playing out a 30-minute scenario complete with imitation rifles, a tank that bursts into flames and a model bomber that wobbles unsteadily down a wire.
Naturally, the heroic Red Army soldiers end up storming the enemy lines and the surrendering Nationalists are marched out in front of a grandstand crammed with hundreds of cheering viewers.
“Because we were born in the 1980s, we are far removed from this period of history,” said Tang Qunshan, a 27-year-old from China’s wealthy east coast, playing the part of a defeated Nationalist infantryman.
“By traveling to old revolutionary sites and taking part in activities like these, I think we can experience the spirit of those old revolutionaries,” he beamed under a lopsided helmet.
“But it was extremely hot,” he added.
China’s heaving and polluted capital Beijing is getting in on the act too, hoping to instill Party values in people via film and even food, a fun alternative to state media hectoring.
The communist propaganda movie “Beginning of the Great Revival” is being heavily promoted at cinemas across the city, featuring a star cast of mainland Chinese and Hong Kong actors.
“While I’m not a Party member, I know how difficult it was to achieve our current happy life, which came from a lot of blood and the lives of revolutionaries,” said Gao Pan, 27, after watching the movie.
The film has not been without controversy.
Theatres have been told to push back summer Hollywood blockbusters to make way for it, and Internet users have been blocked from rating the film, with censors apparently worried about any negative feedback it may generate.
“It’s been so badly edited. How can they term it a ‘gift’ (to the people)?” complained “Silly Little Chen” on the popular microblogging site Weibo.
Those with a more culinary bent can air their appreciation for the Party by eating at a “red” themed restaurant.
Red Classics, which serves hearty northeastern cuisine, heavy on stews and starch, is decorated with posters from the Cultural Revolution. Its waitresses dress as Red Guards.
“We’re totally booked out for Thursday by a work unit coming here to celebrate the Party’s birthday,” said Xiao Yan, at Red Classics’s branch in Beijing’s university district.
“Customers love our nightly ‘red’ performances of song and dance.”
THE RED RENMINBI For many of China’s older generation, “red tourism” invokes a nostalgia for their youth, before 30 years of landmark economic reforms catapulted China out of isolation to eventually become the world’s second largest economy.
“I grew up watching revolutionary films and singing revolutionary songs. You could say that spirit is in my bones,” said Tang Xingquan, 50, watching “The Defense of Yan’an” with a tour group from northern China.
“The entire performance was soul-stirring. I was transported to the scene of the old battle, with gunpowder smoke everywhere. It made me feel that the happiness we enjoy today was not won easily.”
In true modern Chinese style, “The Defense of Yan’an” scenario is the idea of a businessman from the freewheeling capitalist coastal province of Zhejiang.
Hong Jiacheng opened “The Defense of Yan’an” in 2005 soon after authorities announced plans to boost red tourism. In 2010, the attraction, one of six tourist sites the rotund Hong owns across China, raked in almost 20 million yuan.
With encouragement from the city government, he now plans to invest a further 280 million yuan in a to-scale reconstruction of Yan’an’s old city, long gone under faceless tower blocks. “I think China puts so much attention on red tourism for no other reason than to teach the younger generation that they should not forget the past, and that means remembering that they should struggle harder, love the motherland more and love the Chinese Communist Party more,” he told Reuters. Most of Yan’an’s 350 revolutionary tourist spots, such as the humble cave dwellings from which Mao and other leaders plotted their revolution, are free to the public.
Yet in 2010 alone, 14 million tourists generated more than 7.6 billion yuan in income for the city, up 40 percent on the previous year, according to the official Xinhua news agency. The city aims to draw over 20 million tourists a year by 2015.
Born near Yan’an in the same year as the Party, 90-year-old veteran Mao Guangrong fought in the original battle to protect the city, and said he enjoyed the reenactment immensely. Dressed in his green cap and suit replete with medals, Mao said he and others who helped build communist China are grateful for the recognition the tourism brings. “When I see it I think it’s fantastic,” he told Reuters in his government care home. “To see the comparison between then and now, the difficulty of those times to the good life we live now, of course I am happy.”
Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao in Beijing; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Elaine Lies