Friday, May 13, 2011

White or Red: Bo Xilai's Quandary

While in Chongqing last month, I heard this story:

Bo Xilai was puzzled why Taiwan businesses shy away from Chongqing, despite the fact he has "aggressively provided preferential policies to attract investment." The Taiwanese are around and nearby -- they have made the Sichuan province their most popular destination in western China – but they avoid Chongqing. Bo asked the question in a meeting, and he was told, well, it is the "Refuse Pit Prison."

The said prison is the flagship of Chongqing's "red culture." A legacy from the Nationalist era, for decades in Communist China the prison had been publicized as a 1940s "concentration camp run by America and Chiang Kai-shek," in which Communist inmates heroically struggled. (I've written about this in detail on the Atlantic web.) Recently the indication of "America" has been quietly dropped off from some official books, but the mendacious name "SACO concentration camp" ("中美合作所集中营") still appears on many Chinese websites and in the media. In any case, the fierce denunciation of the Nationalist's crime in a "white terror" period has apparently made Taiwanese businessmen uncomfortable with Chongqing.

When Bo suddenly saw the light about the problem, he faced a quandary. To promote "red culture" in Chongqing he could not avoid publicizing the flagship Refuse Pit prison. On the other hand, in recent years the central government has been doing its utmost to improve Taiwan-Mainland relations. The official rhetoric, covering the civil war history in the 1940s, has largely dropped derogatory terms that were once used to attack the Nationalists. This tendency is most visibly reflected in recent hot TV series. "Before Dawn" (黎明之前), a highly popular depiction of the spy war between the Communists and Nationalists in the late 1940s, is a good example. (It stars the charming actor Wu Xiubo, and the plot is quite cleverly done despite some inevitable holes. I had a great time watching it.) In its stage language, the trace of ideological flavor is reduced almost to the minimum. Meaningfully, the ending departs from all previous such shows – neither the protagonist nor the antagonist dies. Instead they part like brothers who would eventually reunite again.

Also of interest is the Jianchuan Museum, a rare – and quite large -- private museum cluster located in Dayi county near Chengdu. I visited it in early April. The largest exhibition in it is probably "China's War of Resistance against Japan: the Hall of the Frontal Battlefield," which clearly regards (though still unofficially) the Nationalist army as the main fighting force during that war. In contrast, my childhood education was all about the Communist Party leading the Chinese people to victory in the eight-year war. This is yet another revision of history that the government has quietly encouraged.

Jianchuan Museum

So, having to choose between "red culture" and "white" Taiwan businesses, guess which way Bo Xilai went?

As Patrick Chovanec mentioned, Bo Xilai is sometimes viewed as "cynical" for his famous "red songs" campaign, since Bo and his parents were victims of the Cultural Revolution that the "red song" singing evokes. The Western media has been rather fascinated by – perhaps obsessed with – this venture of Bo. Chongqing people, on the other hand, seem to treat the singing more as entertainment, or even a way to profit on the side, than a political activity. When I asked a friend whether she thinks the "red songs" would actually affect people in an ideological sense, she said, "It is not an ideological thing, it is an economic thing." I have heard from several sources that work units offer financial incentives for people to participate in the singing. It is said that Chongqing's fiscal administration shoulders a lot of extra expenses for the campaign, though the government doesn't tell citizens this.

A successful businessman dismissed Bo's campaign as just advertising that means nothing, even if it is silly. "Chongqing is too remote a place; Bo needs to make a splash to be noticed," he said to me. In other words, it's nothing substantial. Yet another friend, a retired woman, told me many participants are like her, whose kids are grown and who now have the time to enjoy the nostalgic singing.

There are people, of course, who think differently. I will talk more about those in another post.

For now, let me give you an update on the Refuse Pit prison. For a while the site had been rather quiet, perhaps because people had better things to do. Now, with the new upsurge of Bo Xilai's red culture campaigns, the site is bustling again.

Here is a photo from "28 female college students playing Jiang Jie when visiting Refuse Pit."

Jiang Jie is a Communist heroine in the historical novel Red Crag, which has an English translation described in Amazon with:

Upon the book's original publication in Peking in 1978, the publisher said:

"This novel is written by two ex-inmates of the U.S.-Chiang Kai-shek secret service concentration camps in Chung-king, Szechuan Province, China. The year is 1949. ..."

By the way, the novel was first published in 1961. In it, Jiang Jie is cruelly tortured in the Refuse Pit prison and eventually executed by the Nationalists.

Now look at the smiling young women in the photo taken in front of the prison cells. And the uniform hair style, uniform dress, even uniform round faces. There is a certain comical effect in it.

The person who pointed it out to me commented: "The Chongqing government has gone mad."

1 comment:

Rebecca Liao said...

The first step towards legitimizing a social movement is to glamorize it: in promoting the memory of a revolution fueled by anger towards injustice and oppression, the Chinese government should be careful what it wishes for.