China 2011

Another beautiful day in Beijing – this much clear weather is rare…

“Tour packages to red tourism spots have become increasingly popular this year. The whole market has been stimulated by the enthusiasm to commemorate the Party’s birthday.”

Guo Yi, China Comfort Travel

“The promotion of red tourism will become more of a market role than a government role.”

Song Ziqian, senior policy researcher, China Tourism Academy

These are quotes from two articles in the China Daily this morning, part of the continuing coverage of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Community Party. They are striking in two ways: first, they conflate and confound the old distinction between communism and capitalism as the difference between a planned economy and a free market economy. Both quotes note how “red tourism” – tourists seeking out important sites in the 20th century history of the Communist Party – has become an important and growing segment of the free market economy.

The first article discusses how cultural heritage tourism is a growing phenomenon in many countries, which means that tourism to sites associated with pivotal CCP events like the Long March of 1934-36 is a type of heritage tourism, just as Americans would visit Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon or Gettysburg or other places central to the founding of the nation. A tourist is shown wearing a mock Red Army uniform posing next to a weaver’s loom in Yan’an in Shaanxi. How is that different from dressing up as a cowboy in Tombstone or Ben Franklin in Philadelphia? From a national tourism point of view, they are parallel activities. From an economic point of view, they are identical activities.

So, I was first struck by the marvelous mixing up of capitalism and communism implicit in “red tourism”. The second thing that struck me was the history and its timing, because I met again last night with my Global Heritage Fund friends Han Li, Firth Griffith and Will Shaw. We were talking about the history of the Community Party and how this could provide opportunities to promote certain heritage sites that GHF may want to get involved in. My instinctive response was very positive, not simply because the Party has power and influence and it would be good to choose sites associated with their history. That fact has the same importance as the idea of getting banks to connect to the Chinese banking history in Pingyao detailed in my last blog.

No, the reason I instinctively saw the promotion of Party history as a positive was exactly the same point made in the quotes in this morning’s paper: I saw this history as trending; hitting a point of popularity because it was far enough in the past to become nostalgic. Nostalgia is a distortion of history, often a kind of cleansing of history that sieves out the unpleasant memories in favor of the warm and fuzzy. Nostalgia was active when Williamsburg opened in the 1930s and is still active today. Just as certain architectural styles only become popular after a certain amount of time has elapsed – witness the slow adoption of Victorian by the preservation movement in the 1960s and 70s – historical periods only become nostalgic and subject to tourism appropriation after their elements of active agency have ended. Old-style Chinese communism ended in the late 1970s, and the majority of Chinese have no personal memory of it. Hence, it can be nostalgic.

As I have noted in a whole bunch of blog entries about Mid-Century Modernism, there is a generational aspect to what become heritage, whether it is historical or architectural. The impulse to preserve is often attendant with obsolescence: when a technology, building style, or historical period loses active agency, it becomes a potential subject for preservation.

we swam in the water cube (above), ran along the Great Wall, and bicycled down from the wall area – sort of a Beijing Ironman!

All of the pictures you see in this blog were taken with the same camera, which Felicity and I bought in 2004 and is the only digital camera I have ever owned. I was slow to adopt digital, just as I was slow to adopt cell phones and digital music. Some of this Luddite tendency is actually visible in blog entries from four or five years ago. I recall my cousin Andy saying about digital cameras “That train has left the station.” And he was right. But two years ago I had an 18-year old freshman student at SAIC who started collecting film cameras – he has at least two dozen. As soon as the technology became obsolete, there was a huge desire – especially on the part of those who did not live through it – to preserve it.

The generational challenge is exacerbated by the accumulation of capital by an older generation, especially if that capital is not directed to the exploitation of the growing market segments. That is, in fine, the point of the quotes above and the point of my discussions with my Global Heritage Fund friends. We can recognize the emerging market segments and trends in heritage conservation and heritage tourism. Can we find the capital needed to catalyze those emerging markets? Or will the Chinese beat us to it?


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