When the American journalist Edgar Snow visited Mao Zedong in Yan’an in 1939, Mao was living in a three-room cave “furnished with a rickety chair and a low sofa with bad springs”. Snow thought the surroundings appropriate for someone “still the plain man of the people, the queer mixture of peasant and intellectual”.
Mao had made Yan’an his headquarters in 1936, having ended up in this hilly part of Shaanxi province after his famed Long March. Thousands of cave dwellings had been built in the area that would serve as Mao’s base until 1948, and for the Party’s propagandists it represented a golden age, where the Communists sought to realise their idealised vision of social justice.
The simple lifestyle seduced many foreign observers at the time. British journalist George Hogg gave up his job to work in the city’s cooperatives, summing up the ‘Yan’an spirit’ as “a place where comradeship and equality in a national cause were placed above everything else.”
So it should come as no surprise that huge numbers of Chinese tourists still make the pilgrimage to Yan’an. But as the city has developed it is increasingly difficult to maintain the simple and rugged ambience of Mao’s old settlement. Places like Baota Hill – the key revolutionary site – are surrounded by modern high-rise architecture. This is “disturbing its soul”, local officials told China Business, adding this “is a real problem” from a tourism perspective.
The bigger issue is that Yan’an is now a thriving city of half a million citizens, which has done well from its oil and gas reserves (GDP per capita is more than $8,000). The city has simply become too big for its natural limits, with new development in the former revolutionary base constrained by a ring of surrounding hills.
In the final week of 2012 the city government announced it wants to invest Rmb100 billion ($16 billion) in an entirely ‘new’ city, adjacent to the existing one. Mao – keen on the occasional “war against nature” – would be proud of Yan’an’s ambition, as the scheme involves flattening 33 hills and recovering an area of 70 square kilometres.
The plan – which will take at least 10 years to complete – immediately made national headlines. There are various concerns, China Business reports. First, how it will be paid for (Yan’an’s tax take is just Rmb12 billion per year). Second, whether it will wreck the city’s already fragile ecology. And third, whether the ‘new’ city might turn into a ghost town reminiscent of the one in Erdos (see WiC163), not least as the investment is premised on 200,000 people coming to work in new growth industries like finance.
Given Yan’an’s symbolic importance to the Party, such a grand scheme will need the nod from the leadership in Beijing too. That means Xi Jinping and his colleagues will have to weigh up whether Yan’an should be allowed to rediscover its red genius or told not to embark on a potential white elephant.
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