The group of tourists, dressed in replica Red Army costumes, stood in front of a red hammer-and-sickle billboard. With their right fists raised, they pledged their allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party.
“Be ready at all times to sacrifice my all for the party and the people, and never betray the party,” they recited, standing proudly next to a giant statue of Mao Zedong in the northern city of Yan’an, the base of the revolution until 1948. Then, they shuffled off before another group came to do the same.
Mass swearing-in ceremonies aren’t typical group tour activities, but this is “red tourism” in China, where thousands of people flock to places like Yan’an to absorb the official version of the party’s history. At these sites, schoolchildren are told how the Red Army, later renamed the People’s Liberation Army, was created. Tourists gaze at an ensemble of chairs used by Xi Jinping, China’s leader, and other guests when they visited Mao’s home. Retirees take selfies with flower-adorned statues of Mao and Zhu De, the Red Army commander.
The 100th anniversary of the party’s founding on July 1 has given Mr. Xi an opportune moment to reinforce the value of such pilgrimages. The centennial has also prompted China’s biggest property developers to cash in as they jazz up typically staid “red tourist” attractions, like dull exhibition halls and cave dwellings, and make them friendlier for the era of Instagram and TikTok.
This month, Dalian Wanda, a property developer, unveiled a Communist Party theme park in Yan’an. In it, mascots dressed in Red Army costumes parade down “Red Street,” a long shopping boulevard where visitors can take pictures and buy snacks and souvenirs.
“I think patriotic education is necessary, whether one is a child or an adult,” said Gao Wenwen, a 26-year-old teacher who recently visited the park. “Many people might find it boring, but if you combine patriotic education with what people love to do, which is eating, drinking and having fun, they will feel rewarded.”
The pilgrimages are in keeping with Mr. Xi’s call for Chinese citizens to learn from the party’s history. Even before he came to power in 2012, Mr. Xi said every “red tourist” attraction was equivalent to a “lively classroom that contains rich political wisdom and moral nourishment.”
Since then, Mr. Xi has harnessed the power of propaganda to put the party back into the people’s lives. Wary that the party could be losing its relevance for Chinese people — particularly the young — Mr. Xi has said revolutionary education should start with babies, “so that the ‘red gene’ can penetrate into their blood and hearts, and guide the young people to establish a correct outlook on the world.”
With international borders still shut because of the coronavirus, Trip.com, a travel website that is popular in China, said this month that the number of bookings for “red tourism” attractions had more than doubled in the first half of the year from a year earlier. The company said it expected the numbers to climb ahead of the centennial celebration next week.
Most tours are carefully curated to show a sanitized version of the party’s history. On display: a museum in Shanghai where the first party congress was held in 1921 and Mao’s homes in the mountains of Jinggangshan and Yan’an. Not on display: any reminder of the bloody party purges in Yan’an, the millions of people who starved to death during the Great Leap Forward, or the persecutions and deaths unleashed by the Cultural Revolution.
“The thing about China is that there’s only one origin story, and it’s not up for debate,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia and an expert in Chinese politics. “History is at the core of propaganda in China. It’s vital for the party that people feel an emotional connection to that history, and you’re only going to get that on the ground.”
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It was in Yan’an that top Communist leaders endured bombings by the Japanese during World War II. It also marked the near-endpoint of the Long March, when the Red Army retreated from the Nationalist troops, known as the Kuomintang.
Wang Biyao, 29, who works in a consulting company in the northern city of Xi’an, traveled to Yan’an recently with her parents, who are among the party’s 92 million members, to commemorate the centennial. Ms. Wang said she had felt moved looking at the photographs of Red Army soldiers at the Yan’an Revolutionary Memorial Hall.
“Under such difficult conditions, the faces of these revolutionary ancestors looked so positive and optimistic,” she said. “It’s made me think that this is worth learning, that no matter how tough the conditions are, they can never beat the people’s fighting spirits.” Ms. Wang plans to join the party soon.
In a recent show at the Wanda theme park, tourists got close to actors recreating the hardships that the Communists endured during their escape from the Nationalist forces. The show ended with a giant Chinese flag descending on the audience, who reached up excitedly to touch it.
China’s entrepreneurs have spoken proudly of the “revolutionary culture” in Yan’an. State media covered a June 2018 visit by the tech titans Pony Ma, of Tencent, and Liu Qiangdong, of JD.com. Both men dressed in Red Army costumes for the occasion. Jack Ma, of Alibaba, has said he went to Yan’an to see how the party “rebuilt hope and confidence.”
Beyond fueling party devotion and lore, “red tourism” has been good for business. In 2023, the industry’s revenues are expected to reach $153 billion, according to the Qianzhan Research Institute, a data consultancy. That represents an average annual compound growth rate of 14.1 percent from 2019 to 2023. Wanda said it was planning a second “red” attraction.
In Shanghai, where the site of the party’s first congress has been turned into a museum, a long line of people waited outside on Thursday for a chance to see the newly expanded space. Tickets to the new wing of the museum, which opened on June 3, are sold out through the centennial.
In Jinggangshan, a small eastern town known as the “cradle of the Chinese Revolution,” tourists and schoolchildren recently traipsed around in steel gray-blue military costumes, red-starred hats and army-green satchel bags. A tourist prayed in front of a shrine dedicated to Mao and his third wife, He Zizhen, in the late chairman’s old home.
Several visitors were employees of a small finance company who had traveled from Shanghai for a team-building trip, combining a day of “red tourism” with another day of meetings.
They had just finished lunch in a restaurant with a giant, beatific portrait of Mao overlooking them. One employee said she was very supportive of the party. “We are very blessed to have good leaders,” she said.
Her boss was less enthusiastic. When asked what he thought about Mao, he declined to say.