ZUNYI — The deep blue Wu River runs near the city of Zunyi, in mountainous central China, and on one side, large red characters spell out the words: "It would have been dangerous if we hadn't been able to cross."
This distinctive slogan harkens back to an historical event. In early January 1935, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), founded just 14 years earlier, led the Red Army across the Wu and won its first victory on the Long March, breaking through the Kuomintang (Nationalist Government) blockade and setting the stage for the crucial and transformative conference where Mao Zedong would be chosen as the party leader.
This was indeed a fateful battle for the CCP. But the gigantic slogan was only constructed after 2015, when president Xi Jinping visited Zunyi and said those words while standing on the riverbank.
Typical of China's top-down political system, the statement was so well received by local government officials that it was immortalized as part of a memorial park which cost roughly $23 million, a huge investment for this remote, mountainous county that lacks any real industry.
People attending a festival to cherish the martyrs at the red army martyrs cemetery in Zunyi, Guizhou,China — Photo: TPG/ZUMA
CCP-themed tourism is the biggest business in town, and it's been a real boom for Zunyi, thanks to the growing attention that Xi's government has given to old Revolutionary regions and Red-patriotic education.
For the communist regime, Zunyi is a significant "red city." Its core is filled with memorials and museums, from the Zunyi Conference site to the Red Army Martyrs' Cemetery and the residences of core Communist Party leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, each of which has been carefully preserved and restored.
There are endless crowds of visitors, most of them party members or employees from government agencies and state-owned enterprises from all over the country. These are official business trips that are allowed, despite the strict anti-corruption policy implemented by Xi Jinping, for the sake of team building. And this year, which marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, Zunyi is in a particularly lively mood.
Among the things people come to see is a nearly 20-meter-tall, reddish-pink statue called "Breaking through the Wu River," which tells the story of the Red Army's victory in 1935 in an artistic manner.
After gaining support from the locals, the Red Army successfully crossed the Wu River, breaking through the Kuomintang Army's defenses and freeing themselves from the siege. The sculpture shows Red Army soldiers holding their guns and fists high and supporting each other. It also depicts local villagers who helped the Red Army make bamboo rafts to cross the river. What is most striking about them is their eyes and posture: They demonstrate the same fierce, determined, fighting spirit that is preached in the country's primary and secondary school textbooks.
Li Guang (1st L front), a veteran of the Red Army, attends a session marking the 80th anniversary of the Zunyi Meeting — Photo: Liu Xu/Xinhua/ZUMA
Most of the CCP's important figures have left their traces in Zunyi. This is where Mao's central status in the Red Army and the CCP was confirmed on Jan. 15, 1935, an event that went a long way to determining the party's future direction. This is why Zunyi is also known as the "city of turning."
At the Zunyi Conference site, visitors take group photos in Red Army uniforms while forming "battle poses." At the Red Army Hill Martyrs' Cemetery, group after group are repeating the oath of party membership and the Young Pioneers' manifesto in front of the monument, and presenting flower baskets to the martyrs.
With great emotion and even tears, guides at the cemetery tell the visiting teams about the heroic deeds of the martyrs. In front of a sculpture of a Red Army doctor, a narrator explains with real sadness in her voice, as if she's acting on stage: "In those days, revolutionary martyrs like the Red Army doctors were very young when they sacrificed their lives. They dedicated the best years of their lives to the great revolutionary cause of our Chinese nation, and exchanged their youth and blood for a better life for us today..."
Zunyi built the bronze statue of the kind, beautiful and legendary Red Army doctor in 1953. All these years later, the object has been transformed by the countless people who have laid hands on it, making it seem almost godlike. Her legs, feet, arms, and the medicine jars she carries have been polished to a golden shine by the fingers of all those visitors. The statue is said to be magical, capable of curing diseases.
"Touching her leg means you don't have to go to hospitals," says one young girl who brought her mother on a pilgrimage. "Touching the medicine jar will cure whatever illness you have."
Behind the bronze statue, on a spot that is said to be the doctor's "Red Army grave," people bow and offer incense as if they're worshiping a Buddha. In a country that is officially atheistic, ordinary people have turned every possible sculpture into an object of worship in a spirit of pragmatism, be it an actual Buddha, a Taoist god, or a Red Army soldier.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the party, the CCP has planned an intensive and rich commemorative program. In addition to the regular conferences, exhibitions and cultural performances, different departments are competing to organize activities.
A local resident reading a book at a ''Red'' Bookstore in Zunyi — Photo: Ou Dongqu/Xinhua/ZUMA
In Nanjing, officials are offering an extra benefit to residents eager to show their love for the party before its centennial: a free mass wedding (with hotel, makeup and wedding attire all included) for 100 couples in June, with priority given to China's more than 91 million party members.
The official in charge said the project was inspired by another party slogan: "Always remember your original mission. Love follows." Red tourism is also becoming popular. The number of people on such tours has grown rapidly, from 140 million in 2009 to 1.41 billion per year in 2019, and Zunyi is one of the top spots people visit.
In front of the Red Army Martyrs' Cemetery memorials, there are also primary school pupils commemorating in uniforms and neat lines. "Inherit the spirit of the revolutionary martyrs, study hard, work hard, and join the socialist construction," a middle school headmaster tells them.
In recent years, China's patriotic education push seems to be bearing fruit. Chinese youth not only accept the ideas, but are often quite passionate about them. The emphasis on patriotism has produced a kind of national self-confidence among young people, but with it come expressions of extreme nationalism and xenophobia. There are often discussions on Chinese social media platforms: "Should I break up with my boyfriend if he wears Nike? Should I keep away from a friend who hates Huawei?" Such ideas often have a large number of advocates online.
The constructed atmosphere gives Zunyi a real place on the map of China, both politically and commercially. And it's no surprise that during the Red tourism boom, it has become a city to which party and government agencies from all over China flock, especially in 2021.
"This year is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the party," one elderly man explains. "It makes Zunyi even more special, so more people are coming."
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