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'Red song' campaign in China strikes some false notes

Before the Communist Party's 90th birthday, people are singing in homage. The 'red song' campaign began in Chongqing, launched by an ambitious party figure. Some see shades of the Cultural Revolution.

June 03, 2011|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Performers take to the stage last month near an image of Mao Tse-tung at Beijing's Red Classic restaurant, which capitalizes on nostalgia for China's revolutionary past.
Performers take to the stage last month near an image of Mao Tse-tung at Beijing's… (Ng Han Guan, AP )

Reporting from Chongqing, China — Although her musical tastes run to Mariah Carey and Norah Jones, Vicy Zhang didn't hesitate when she received an instant message inviting her to sing paeans to Mao Tse-tung at a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.

"How could I refuse?" said Zhang, a 26-year-old graduate student at Chongqing University who hopes to join the party and have a career in civil service. "I thought it was boring and useless, but I didn't dare say no."

More than 10,000 students and faculty members participated in the event last month. Although Zhang wore an evening gown, other students were dressed as Red Army soldiers, with red epaulets and armbands. Carrying red flags, they danced around a university athletic field with arms swinging rhythmically to martial music harking back to China circa 1966.

Among the musical offerings: "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No China" (sample lyrics: "It pointed the people to the road to liberation/ It leads China toward brightness") and "Follow the Party" ("You are the lighthouse/Shining on the ocean before dawn/ You are the helmsman").

Throughout China, people are singing and dancing in homage to the Communist Party. The "red song" campaign began in Chongqing, where it was launched by party Secretary Bo Xilai, an ambitious politician who is believed to be angling for a seat on the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

"Red songs depict China's path in a simple, sincere and vivid way," Bo was quoted as saying by state news agencies in November. "There's no need to be artsy.... Only dilettantes prefer enigmatic works."

With the approach of July 1, the date when the Communist Party of China was founded in Shanghai in 1921, the red song phenomenon has spread throughout the nation. In Beijing's subways, television screens show transit employees competing in a red song competition. In some parts of China, karaoke clubs have restricted playlists of Taiwanese love songs in favor of patriotic mainland ballads.

A recently erected statue of Confucius mysteriously disappeared from Beijing's Tiananmen Square in late April. It is believed to have been removed by hard-line Maoists who disparage the ancient sage as a relic of a feudal past.

To critics, the Maoist revival has echoes of the maniacal quest for political correctness during the Cultural Revolution, a dark period when about 36 million people were persecuted and anywhere from 750,000 to 1.5 million killed.

"People with a sense of history look at it and wonder whether it is possible to go back to an era in which cruel things would happen again," said Alan Zhang, a recent law school graduate from Chongqing and blogger who, like other students interviewed, agreed to be quoted using only an English name.

"The red song campaign has made Chongqing a laughingstock," he said.

Chongqing, the largest city in China's southwest, is the front line of the red revival. It has a reputation for hot temperatures, spicy food and the fervor of its populace. Now, in one of those puns for which the Chinese language is so well suited, the metropolis is sometimes called the "tomato," xihongshi, a homonym for "western red city."

The Cultural Revolution ravaged Chongqing. The city experienced some of the heaviest losses of that 1966-76 era as a result of a clash between two rival gangs of Red Guards who seized weapons from the city's munitions factories. They fought so fiercely that much of the population fled.

Stung by the historical references, Chongqing officials have said that participation in the campaign is voluntary.

"It's not that everyone is required to sing and love the songs. What we are seeking is a wider participation," Xu Chao, the Chongqing official in charge of the program, told the party-controlled Global Times in April.

At Chongqing's universities, those invited to participate in Communist Party anniversary celebrations were primarily party members and aspiring party members, many of them top students who see membership as a prerequisite to jobs in government or academia.

"You have to accept when you get an invite, or you will be considered politically incorrect," said Owen Chen, a 24-year-old student and party member. "In our country, these are the kinds of things you have to do."

When the invitations were sent out, students jokingly turned red song into a verb, saying to one another "I've been red songed. Have you been red songed?" Participation meant going to rehearsals up to twice a day in the weeks before the May 11 performance.

"I didn't see a single student who sang these songs with passion," Vicy Zhang said.

It wasn't just the inconvenience; the politics were distasteful to the students too. They said the performances looked just like the "loyalty dance" everybody was required to do during the Cultural Revolution, moving arms from the heart to the sun in a display of boundless devotion to Mao.

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