This is how writer Shen Congwen describes the fictionalised version of his actual birthplace Fenghuang in his much-loved novel Border Town.
“For 10 years and more the local military commander at this provincial border town had emphasised maintaining the peace and keeping things as they were. He handled things quite deftly, so there had never been any unrest. Commerce on the land and water never had to stop because of warfare or banditry; good order was the rule and people were satisfied.”
One wonders what Shen – sometimes likened to William Faulkner or Anton Chekov for his gentle pastoral descriptions – would make of recent developments at his riverside home.
On April 10, just as the tourist season was getting under way in western Hunan, Fenghuang authorities slapped a Rmb148 ($24) entrance fee on all those wishing to visit.
Shopkeepers and restaurants saw a sharp drop in trade and went on strike, closing their establishments so that the tourists who had forked out the cash for entry were furious about the lack of amenities.
But the authorities refused to back down on the fee and a protest from local businesses outside government offices ended up with the riot police being sent in.
Fenghuang’s bosses say the fee is necessary to reduce the number of tourists arriving in the town, as well as in managing their environmental impact on the 400 year-old site.
But some experts have questioned their logic, implying that this is simply another case of money-making on the side. “There are many other available measures to limit numbers, such as asking tourists to make a reservation a day before their visit or establishing a maximum daily capacity,” Wang Jianmin, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Tourism Research Centre, told the People’s Daily.
Wang added that the argument for funds to protect the site was “a lousy excuse” because “tourists pay taxes on accommodation and food at tourist sites, so the government of Fenghuang is guaranteed sufficient money”.
The preservation argument looked weaker still when 21CN Business Herald uncovered that the local government had established a private company called Unitenix to run the new tourist ticketing system, only 49% of which is owned by the local government.
The president of the new company Ye Wenzhi also told reporters that only 40% of income from ticket sales would go to the government, leading many to question who Ye was and what his company would be doing to deserve a 60% cut of revenue from what is technically a public site.
“Fenghuang is a public resource, why does the government need to cooperate with a private company?” the Beijing News asked in an editorial.
“The new charge raises the suspicions of the public of a transfer of private property for profit,” it concluded.
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