By Stephan Scheuer
Xu WEnxiang, who travelled 1,300 kilometres to pay his respects to Mao Zedong, bows deeply before the six-metre tall bronze statue of the late revolutionary leader.
“For Chairman Mao, no journey is too long,” he says.
Two men in military uniform, goose-stepping unison, carry a wreath of flowers that Xu has brought with him and place it under the statue.
The hymn praising Mao, “The East is Red”, is heard on loudspeakers on the edge of the square in Mao’s birthplace of Shaoshan in the southern province of Hunan. A few bystanders can be heard chanting: “May Chairman Mao live 10,000 years!”
For Daniel Leese, from the University of Freiburg in Germany, this “red tourism” propagated by the Chinese leadership is merely the ideological education of the population in a new package.
“The content had to be adapted to the times,” the assistant professor, now in China to study Maoism, explains.
Thirty-seven years after his death, Mao has become quite a money-making machine. Each year, millions of tourists make the pilgrimage to several places where the controversial revolutionary leader lived and worked.
Everything is on show at a museum near the house in Shaoshan where he was born: his pyjamas, socks, even his bathing trunks. The museum says tens of thousands of visitors are counted on the busiest days.
On holidays, at the other end of town, tourists must queue for more than three hours for a chance to cast a brief glance into the room of Mao’s childhood. The late leader is celebrated as somebody who came from the midst of the people.
Yet, nothing is mentioned about the millions who fell victim to his policies, many dying violent deaths.
By official accounts, in 2012 the number of visitors to the pilgrimage sites of the Communist Party of China rose 24 per cent to 670 million. The spending by the “red tourists” came to 167 billion yuan (Bt890 billion).
The central government readily makes money available for such tourism sites, which also stimulates the local economy in less-developed regions.
And Mao’s admirers are willing to dig deep into their pockets. Xu Wenxiang, for example, bought the premium version of the ceremony at the Mao statue, including the wreath with a ribbon and his name on it, for 999 yuan.
He paid a further 1,000 yuan for the two actors dressed like soldiers for the ceremony – which lasts no more than five minutes.
“It was worth the money,” he says, standing next to the broad, red carpet-covered stairway leading up to Mao’s statue.
The Chinese Communist Party is energetically pushing red tourism, with a national coordinating group serving as a state-run organ that issues the guidelines governing the party’s cult status.
Since 2004, the government has been guiding the effort across the country. “The education in patriotism, collectivism and socialism must be deepened further,” Zhu Zhixin, head of the coordinating group, demanded at its annual meeting in 2013.
Leese says the tourism spectacles are meant to shore up the party’s image among the people.
“It’s in order to create an emotional connection,” he says. The Chinese leadership propagates its image in the schools and on television.
But with the tourism sites, the Beijing leadership offers a hands-on experience.
For Yoko Takayama of the Slavic Research Centre in Japan, the developments amount to a kind of “Disneyisation” of what Chinese Communism means.
At the former revolutionary war base of Yan’an, 900 kilometres southwest of Beijing where Mao took refuge after 1935, tourists can play a battle game with tanks and rifles.
In Zhuanbi in the northern province of Shanxi, an entire theme park has been built for the red tourists, in which they can imitate house-to-house fighting in a battleground obstacle course.
More such attractions are planned for the future.