Thanks to a growing network of sites in Europe catering to Chinese demand for Communism-themed attractions, it is now possible to tour beyond China’s borders and never leave the Chinese political context. Welcome to the world of international red tourism.
“Tracing the footsteps of a revolutionary teacher, feeling the power of his boundless ideas.” Reading this slogan on a tourism brochure, many Chinese would assume it refers to the old communist base of Yan’an, where Mao Zedong and his lieutenants took refuge after the Long March, and which the Chinese Communist Party regards as the birthplace of the revolution. Most would no doubt be surprised to learn that the slogan in this case refers not to Yan’an, a frequent destination of pilgrimage today for China’s political faithful, but instead to a small German city many thousands of miles away on the peaceful Moselle River.
On May 5, 2018, as city of Trier in southwest Germany marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, a group of around twenty Chinese tourists queued up outside the Karl Marx House, the house where the German philosopher was born on this very day in 1818, and which has now become a museum dedicated to his life and legacy. As locals walked past, the tourists excitedly explained their mission, calling out: “We’ve come on a red tour!”
Most of the tour group participants are retired and elderly. They grasp in their hands the five-starred red flag of the People’s Republic of China, and sport decorative red ribbons that declare on one side, “Long Live Marx!” and on the other, “Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of Marx!”
A few have also brought along bags stuffed with composite portraits showing Marx, Engels and Mao Zedong. They clutch the bags close, as though with fondness, as they pose for photographs in front of the house. From time to time, passersby slow their steps to drink in the excitement and are gifted by the Chinese tourists with copies of the commemorative portraits.
This tour in Trier was organized by “Spark Travel” (星火旅遊), a company associated with a Chinese political commentary site called Utopia (乌有之乡), known for its enthusiastic devotion to the ideas of Mao Zedong, and for its opposition to China’s policy of opening and reform. After developing a strong fan base comprising mostly those on the neo-Maoist left (毛左), Utopia began organizing tours on the theme of “red revolution,” or hongse geming (红色革命). The tours often focused on international destinations — places like North Korea’s Friendship Monument, a memorial outside Pyongyang dedicated to the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army that joined the fight against the United States during the Korean War. Former communist allied countries like Cuba and Vietnam were also featured as tourist destinations. And in Russia, as one brochure claimed, conscientious red tourists could experience “the sounds of the October Revolution.”
Just weeks before this European tour, a tragedy had put Spark Travel under the spotlight in China. On April 22, 2018, as a Spark Travel group was touring in North Korea, a serious road accident claimed the lives of 32 Chinese tourists and seriously injured two others. Among the dead was Diao Weiming (刁伟铭), the chief editor of the Utopia website. As news of the accident spread on Chinese social media, one keen Chinese internet user noticed that Spark Travel was not listed on a roster of licensed tour companies issued by the Beijing Tourism Development Committee, which seemed to suggest the company was not licensed to offer overseas tourism services.
“They wanted to see whether the exhibits were too critical, whether or not they were suitable for visits by leaders or officials. I’m guessing they won’t show officials into certain rooms.”
The accident in North Korea, however, did not deter Spark Travel from continuing with the European tour, which drew participants from across China. They paid 19,900 renminbi each, or around 2,400 euro. The guide for the tour was Guo Songmin, a former officer in the People’s Liberation Army, now a scholar at the Security and Ideology Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Entering the Home of Marx With Teacher Guo Songmin — Spark Travel Goes to Europe to Commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Marx,” read the advertisement for the tour.
The group gathered in Beijing before setting off. They landed first in the Netherlands, visiting the flower gardens at Keukenhof, then took a chartered bus to the German city of Wuppertal, the birthplace in 1820 of Friedrich Engels. After Trier, the group’s itinerary would take them to Brussels, where from 1846 to 1848 Marx had worked closely with Engels, writing the Communist Manifesto and other works. Next up would be Paris, where they would see the house where Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, had lived for a time as a student in the 1920s. The planning for these last two stops was perhaps a bit rough. The location where the Communist Manifesto took shape is now a restaurant, and Zhou Enlai’s old residence has no public access, though it can be viewed from the street.
Viewing Flowers From Horseback
This is the first trip to Europe for most members of the Spark Travel tour. Many, however, have been on other red tours. One woman in her sixties explains with pride that since retiring two years ago she has visited almost all of the red pilgrimage sites inside China. These include Jinggangshan, a former Red Army base dating back to the 1920s; Yan’an, the wartime stronghold of the Chinese Communist Party from the mid-1930s up to 1949; the prisons of Zhazidong, where hundreds of Communist supporters were once imprisoned by the Kuomintang; the Ranzhuang Tunnel Warfare Site in Hebei. She even joined a special Spark Travel tour in which participants spent 25 days retracing the path of the Long March, the 1934-1935 military retreat during which the Red Army eluded Kuomintang troops in hot pursuit.
Now a red tour veteran, the woman makes it a point to educate her fellow red travelers as they rest in the courtyard outside the Karl Marx House.“ Be sure to read the Communist Manifesto,” she instructs. “Some people don’t read Marx’s books but speak against him anyway. You don’t need to read Das Kapital, though, it’s too deep.”
In the end, the tour group spends just half an hour in the museum housed in the Karl Marx House, reopened especially for the 200th anniversary. Extensive renovations were carried out in preparation, and detailed exhibits now cover Marx’s life, ideas and influence. But nothing has been translated into Chinese. Given this unfortunate obstacle, the group can only enjoy the flowers from horseback, as the Chinese saying goes.
The only item on display in the museum that does include Chinese is a touchscreen display offering a timeline of Marx’s life. Below the screen, in simplified Chinese characters, are the words “press freedom” (新闻自由). The same phrase is displayed in many other languages, and though this might prick the nerves of visitors from China, says the exhibit’s curator, Ann-Kathrin Thomm (a specialist in 19th and 20th century labor movements), this is entirely unintentional. In fact, she says, press freedom was a right for which Marx worked tirelessly in the 19th century.
But for China, the details of Marx’s legacy remain a matter of sensitivity. Several days before the May 5 reopening, the Chinese consulate in Frankfurt sent a group of diplomats for a preview of the Karl Marx House, according to the museum’s director, Elisabeth Neu. “They wanted to see whether the exhibits were too critical, whether or not they were suitable for visits by leaders or officials,” she explains, then pauses to consider. “I’m guessing they won’t show officials into certain rooms.”
One potential problem spot in the museum is a display covering Marx’s influence across the world, which includes discussion of the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and the 1989 suppression of democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
When it comes to ordinary tourists, the concerns of Chinese diplomats are probably overwrought. The Spark Travel group spends most of its time in Trier pausing for souvenir photographs, not soaking up history. Inside the museum, Guo Songmin, the former army officer guiding the group, chooses a portrait of Mao Zedong as the backdrop for what is only a very brief introduction to Marx.
Neu, who has been with the Karl Marx House since 1980, says that in her experience the vast majority of Chinese tourists are here on whirlwind tours, sweeping through as many as 12 countries in 14 days. Of the approximately 30,000 Chinese tourists that currently visit the Karl Marx House each year, she estimates that only a third bother to purchase tickets and step inside. The rest settle for photographs in the entryway.
The “red tour” at the Karl Marx House comes to a hurried end. Another big event is planned for Marx’s birthday today — the unveiling of a huge bronze statue of the philosopher. As the Spark Travel groups hurries off in the direction of the city centre, the discussion turns to whether or not they should sing the left-wing anthem, the Internationale, in front of the statue.
The Most Familiar Stranger: Marx in Germany
Trier is Germany’s most ancient city. And though this tiny place might escape notice on the map, it is home to some of Europe’s oldest architecture. Residents are proud of the city’s Porta Nigra, or “Black Gate,” a Roman city gate dating back to the 2nd century that still stands in the centre of Trier. “You know,” says one proud Trier native, “you won’t find a city gate like this in Rome.”
But today is Marx’s birthday, and the Chinese who seem to be present everywhere in the city, whether exchange students, businesspeople or travellers on red tours, have all come to celebrate the legacy of Marx. Now, just a stone’s throw from the Porta Nigra, there is a new site of pilgrimage.
Gifted by the Chinese government to the city of Trier, the bronze statue is 5.5 meters tall. It depicts Marx in the prime of his life, wearing a full-length coat. In his left hand he clutches a book, while his right hand is held up against his chest. His face suggests concentration as he gazes off toward the West. The bronze, which arrived in the city on April 13, 2018, is actually shorter than what was originally envisioned by the China’s State Council Information Office, the government agency that coordinates overseas propaganda activities. In 2017, China approached Trier to propose the gift of a statue reaching six meters, but this proposal met with opposition in Germany, sparking a controversy that raged for months.
A European Red Tourism Network
“Do you believe there is potential in international red tourism?”
Back in Wuppertal, the birthplace of Friedrich Engels, Hanno Rademacher, project manager of the China Competence Center at the city’s Economic Development Office, asks this question expectantly. “I’m not talking about millions of tourists, but just about finding an attractive selling point.”
Wuppertal is historically an industrial city, not like Trier a city of rich tourism resources. But this has made city officials here even more determined to capitalise on the “Engels” brand. In fact, it was already four years ago that Wuppertal welcomed its own gift from China: a 4-meter-high bronze statue of Engels in contemplation.
Neu, of the Karl Marx House in Trier, explains that the Engels statue provided the original size reference for the proposed Marx statue. “[China] said that Marx was a great thinker, and so he required a great statue to memorialise him. A few years before, the Chinese government had gifted the Engels statue, and so the Marx statue had to be even taller, because he was more important.”
Wuppertal is already placing its bets. Engels was two years younger than Marx, which means that in two years he too will have his big birthday. In February 2018, just as Trier was awaiting delivery of its bronze, large-scale renovations began at the Engels House in Wuppertal — preparing it for a grand reopening in time for the bicentennial of Engel’s birth in 2020.
For this renovation, Wuppertal has received 4 million euro from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, four times that received by Trier for the renovation of the Karl Marx House. The most important part of the project is a glass conference room — what Rademacher’s colleagues at the Economic Development Office call the “China Welcome Center.” The conference room will link the old residence to an already existing museum about the industrial revolution.
“Of course we won’t hang up a sign that says ‘Welcome China,’ of course it won’t just invite Chinese,” says Rademacher. He explains that branding approaches such as “red tourism,” which might raise eyebrows among the German public, need not be mentioned in German language materials. They are best reserved for Chinese tourists.
Rademacher, 35, has a background in Chinese studies, speaks Mandarin fluently, and recently returned from an exchange program in the city of Dongguan, the manufacturing hub in Guangdong province, which has a friendship city relationship with Wuppertal. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia has its own friendship agreements with Jiangsu, Sichuan and Shanxi provinces. For its part, North Rhine-Westphalia hopes to develop the Engels Home as a site that can attract various Chinese tourist groups.
In a bid to better attract tourists, Wuppertal has entrusted the planning and design of the Engels Home to Wolfgang Arlt, a professor of International Tourism Management at West Coast University of Applied Sciences who is also founder of the Hamburg-based China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, which has offices in Beijing. Arlt, who first visited Mao Zedong’s birthplace of Shaoshan in 1970, when China was still in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, understands the essence of the niche market. What he has in planning is a European Red Tourism Network (欧洲红色旅遊网络).
Aside from the Karl Marx House in Trier, the Engels House in Wuppertal and the birthplace of the Communist Manifesto in Brussels, this red tour network would draw in London and Manchester, the former being the site of Marx’s tomb, and the latter being an important industrial city where Marx and Engels met and lived for a time. Aside from the European father’s of Communist, red tours might also draw in the sites where key figures of the Chinese Communist Party lived and studied — places like the township of Montargis outside Paris, where many young Chinese students, including Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, lived and worked in the 1920s. However, the research of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute has shown that some tourist agencies in China that package red tours are unwilling to include sites related to Deng Xiaoping. “Their clients believe Deng Xiaoping cannot be considered in the context of red tourism, because he is seen to have been a traitor to Communism,” says Arlt.
Arlt believes that Russia opened the gates when it comes to international red tourism. China is the largest source of tourists to Russia, and Russia has long sought to develop tourist sites that are particularly attractive to Chinese. The latest experiment, the Memorial for the Sixth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (中共六大会址常设展览馆), is about an hour’s drive southwest of Moscow.
It was on this site in 1928 that the Chinese Communist Party held the only national congress it would ever hold on foreign soil. The three-story mansion that originally hosted the congress was destroyed in 1946, but Russia and China jointly broke ground on a reconstruction project in 2013, in a ceremony personally attended by Xi Jinping, and the site was opened in 2016. This reconstruction project, Arlt says, bears the personal touches of both Putin and Xi. The Sixth Congress site means that now “red tourism in Moscow won’t just be about Red Square, but will also be about finding Chinese history.”
For Chinese tourists, this site and others like it now mean it is possible to tour beyond China’s borders but never leave the Chinese political context behind.
The concept of “red tourism” was not Arlt’s invention. Beginning in 2004, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council began actively promoting the idea. Now, after more than a decade, China has a domestic network of more than 300 red tourism destinations. According to a report issued in 2018 by the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Center, the red tourism market in China in the past three years amounted to 3.47 billion visits, drawing in 93 billion yuan, or 11.5 billion euro.
A Gift for the Giver
While Chinese generally do not read Das Kapital, the basic school curriculum demands they study the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, from primary school all the way up through university. Even if they don’t regard Marx as one of the greats, or weiren (伟人), his name is among those of importance, impossible to avoid.
In Germany, the situation is exactly the opposite. Owing to the legacy of the Cold War, and especially to the division of Germany into East and West, the image of Marx in many people’s minds is a complex one. In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, one bronze statue of Marx in East Germany was melted down, and people took down the images of Marx that hung on the walls of their homes. There are still many people today who firmly believe Marx was the origin of the Communist dictatorship, and that he deserved criticism. In recent years, the public in Germany have tended to see Marx more as a philosopher to be understood in his proper historical context than a colossal figure deserving of worship.
For Chinese tourists, this site and others like it now mean it is possible to tour beyond China’s borders but never leave the Chinese political context behind.
But when Trier’s city council held a vote in April 2017 to decide the question of whether or not to accept the bronze statue from China, votes in favour carried the day, with 42 in support and just 7 opposing. Trier is visited every year by an estimated five million tourists, and just one percent of these are currently Chinese. Tourists from China might find it difficult to grasp the historical reasons for the presence of Roman ruins in a German city. But if more emphasis could be placed on the status of Marx as “an important son of Trier,” then perhaps this might be the secret to attracting Chinese tourists.
These complex feelings can be glimpsed in the curios on offer at the local tourist shop in Trier. In the days before the Marx statue was unveiled, the postcards on the racks featured almost entirely images of Roman architecture. I could spot just one postcard of Marx, in caricature form. On the day of the unveiling, however, the display windows in the tourist shops were stacked full of rubber ducks in suit coats, with bushy grey beards, holding copies of Das Kapital.
At the unveiling ceremony, Guo Weimin (郭衞民), deputy director of China’s State Council Information Office, delivered a speech in which he said that the gift of the Marx statue signalled “the wish of China and Germany to join hands in building a community of common destiny for mankind.” Thousands of tourists were present that day, from many different countries, but this was the first time many would have heard the phrase “community of common destiny for mankind,” or renlei mingyun gongtongti (人类命运共同体). Most would have no idea what it meant. The phrase, now a key feature of China’s foreign policy vision, was introduced at the 18th National Congress of the CCP in November 2012, just as Xi Jinping came to power. In March 2018, shortly before the unveiling of the Marx statue in Trier, the phrase was added to China’s Constitution through a formal amendment.
Traveling for the “Right Reasons”
“Overseas travel has developed very quickly,” says Arlt. “The government is seeking ways to manage these overseas tourists. And if they can’t prevent them from going out, at least they can make sure they go out for the right reasons reasons.”
The first to be restricted by the demand for “the right reasons” were Chinese civil servants. As China’s anti-corruption drive gathered speed from the start of the Xi Jinping era, it became more difficult for this group to travel abroad. Formal restrictions meant civil servants were prohibited from visiting more than three countries or regions. In Wuppertal, Rademacher said he had personally witnessed the change. In the past, large tour groups of 30–40 people were not uncommon — but now there are both fewer groups and smaller numbers.
“Of course visiting the Engels Home is an appropriate justification,” says Rademacher, “but sometimes we issue formal invitation letters at the request of Chinese delegations and they might not actually come.”