A symbol of sacrifice

Why did Xi Jinping visit the little-known Red Flag Canal?


The Red Flag Canal in Henan

When Xi Jinping was confirmed as the general secretary of China’s Communist Party (CPC) in 2012, he made Shenzhen the destination of his first inspection tour outside Beijing. The visit, political analysts observed at the time, was made to pay tribute to Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour in 1992, in which he signalled symbolic support for the country’s economic reform process.

Xi was given a third term as the CPC’s boss last month. His first inspection tour this time was not to an urban hub of market reforms but to the Red Flag Canal, a 1,500-kilometre waterway that was cut out from the mountainside in Henan province’s Lin county.

What’s so special about the Red Flag Canal? From its name it’s not difficult to deduce that it was built during the Maoist era. China’s first homemade sedan car, produced in 1958, was also given the prestigious Red Flag brand, for instance.

The construction of the canal began during the Great Leap Forward. Before the irrigation project was completed, Lin county was little known in China although residents of the region had suffered from droughts for hundreds of years.

According to the official tale, after a serious drought hit Henan again in 1960 (China was believed to be suffering from one of the worst famines in history at the time), the Party boss of Lin county decided to have a go at building a massive new waterway to irrigate farmland. Over 100,000 people, or about three-fifths of the county’s population took part in this “impossible mission” over the following years.

In the absence of almost any state funding and engineering expertise, locals resorted to basic tools – essentially their hands – to bore 211 tunnels and carve out the giant waterway (together with 462 reservoirs) through mountainous terrain.

Beijing’s propaganda department also sent a team to Lin county, where a camera crew stayed on for nearly 10 years shooting footage of how people were tying ropes around their waists, hanging off cliffs and drilling holes with hammers.

The people of Lin county succeeded in their task (albeit official data has 81 people dying during the construction process). And shortly after the water began to flow through the canal from neighbouring Shanxi province, a documentary Red Flag Canal became one of the few movies allowed in cinemas in 1971. At a time when the Cultural Revolution was in full swing, the “Red Flag Canal spirit” became a shining symbol of self-reliance and socialist solidarity.

Apparently Xi – who was himself one of the millions of young students sent to rural China for re-education during the Cultural Revolution – now wants China’s younger generation to be as resilient as those who built the canal.

“We need to educate people, especially the youths, with the Red Flag Canal spirit, that China’s socialism is won by hard work, struggles and even sacrifice of lives,” Xi told cadres during his latest inspection tour. “This is not only true in the past but also true in the new era. Without the arduous work of the older generation, or without the blood and even lives they devoted, there would be no happy life today. We must always remember them.”

In what the Financial Times called a “highly symbolic visit” to the canal Xi warned that the younger generation must “abandon the finicky lifestyle and complacent attitude” of recent times. They should also learn from their forebears in Lin county about the need to ‘eat bitterness’ – the catch-all local phrase for enduring pain and sorrow and triumphing through character over adversity.

Xi also stressed the importance of revitalising the country’s rural areas, which analysts expect to become a key plank of his administration’s economic policies in the next 10 years.

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