Boom time for village where Xi 'left his heart'

Tourists in the caves in the remote village of Liangjiahe where Mr Xi Jinping was sent during the Cultural Revolution.
Tourists in the caves in the remote village of Liangjiahe where Mr Xi Jinping was sent during the Cultural Revolution.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LIANGJIAHE (Shaanxi) • Three caves in a remote Chinese village where Xi Jinping was sent during the Cultural Revolution receive a constant stream of communist pilgrims, come to pay homage four years after he came to power.

Mr Xi, then 15, was ordered to Liangjiahe in 1969 as part of Mao Zedong's "Up to the Mountain and Down to the Countryside Movement", which saw educated city youth deployed to rural areas.

The urbane son of a Communist Party grandee, the young Mr Xi spent seven years hauling grain and sleeping in cave homes on fleabitten brick beds.

But he has said he "left his heart" in Liangjiahe, and credits the experience with his political formation long before he became the most powerful man in the world's second-largest economy.

Now the dusty village in Shaanxi province, 1,000km from the Chinese capital Beijing, has been transformed into a shrine to Mr Xi's years of toil, with vintage Mao posters, thermoses and kerosene lamps giving the cave homes he occupied an authentic feel.

Between 1,000 and 7,000 tourists visit daily, state media reported, riding in on a highway opened this year, and Mr Xi himself blessed the location with a return journey last year.

In the newly paved main street, Mr Guo Moxi, who worked the fields with Mr Xi, said that since he was appointed as general secretary of the ruling party four years ago, everyone's lives in Liangjiahe had seen "a big change".

Four years Mr Xi's junior, Mr Guo recalls a gentle person of "broad understanding" who was "very compassionate" towards ordinary people. "He was prepared to spend his life in Liangjiahe. He suffered a lot of hardship and wanted to change the face of this place."

In a museum affiliated to an elite party college in nearby Yan'an, young guides in elegant jackets narrated to elderly visitors the "Four Hardships" Mr Xi suffered - flea bites, bad food, hard labour and assimilating into the peasantry.

Former teacher Yang Xianglin, whose cave home is decked floor to ceiling with enlarged photos of Mr Xi and his wife, painted a picture of the politician as an almost legendary figure, reading books between breaks in hard labour, with a fierce spirit "so one could see he was no common man".

Last month Mr Xi, already widely seen as China's most powerful leader for decades, was named the "core" of the Communist Party leadership, giving him a personal authority his immediate predecessors never achieved.

His descent from privileged childhood to the countryside, and later return to triumph after trials and suffering, contains "fairy tale elements" akin to The Prince And The Pauper, deepening his common appeal, said Dr Warren Sun of Australia's Monash University.

"The current promotion of Liangjiahe as a new 'sacred site' is apparently part of an effort to bolster Xi's image as a prince of the people," he said.

Such myth-making marks a striking difference between Mr Xi and his predecessor Hu Jintao, said Dr Victor Shih of the University of California San Diego.

"Hu tried to downplay his personal history to avoid any appearance of a personality cult," he said.

"We have not seen such effort in the Xi administration."

Fields of cabbage still line the road through Liangjiahe, but most residents now spend their days catering to tourists.

Some rent out caves or courtyard homes, others drive shuttle buses or have opened shops selling Liangjiahe-brand red-date wine and hot sauce.

Average yearly incomes have nearly doubled to more than 15,000 yuan (S$3,100) last year from 7,900 yuan in 2012 last year, according to the town's museum.

A development plan calls for new restaurants and cave inns to give up to 300 overnight guests a taste of Mr Xi's life, with hard brick beds and earth stoves to "strictly protect the Liangjiahe brand image".

Previously free, entry to the village now costs 20 yuan per ticket.

The explosive growth of communist-related tourism in China over recent years has been fuelled in part by Mr Xi's charisma, and by lingering nostalgia for the simpler era of Mao Zedong.

"Red tourism has a kind of need for leader worship, for hero worship, for worshipping miracles," said Professor He Jianmin, head of tourism management at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. "If we went to France, maybe we would want to see Napoleon. Napoleon was an ordinary Frenchman, but he was a leader. People have this kind of fondness for the past, a leader-worship complex."

But a middle-aged tourist in Liangjiahe surnamed Li sounded a note of dissent.

"It's a bad Chinese habit," he said. "Because a leader lived here, they turn it into an education base, they twist the experience and turn it into a kind of worship."

Whether Mr Xi was a good leader, he said, "time will have to judge".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline 'Boom time for village where Xi 'left his heart''. Print Edition | Subscribe