Red Songs and Exceptionalism

One of the jarring things about modern China is the persistence of Communist self-aggrandizing pageantry. July 1st is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party and the commemoration is already in full swing. Newspapers are running special reports, billboards offering congratulations, and businesses producing themed products in a state-mandated show of solidarity. The school where I teach, Beijing Language and Culture University, not to be left out, hosted a singing competition last Friday.

Every department was required to participate. The orders came down from the school leaders to the department heads that they needed to prepare a ‘red song’ for the event. Red songs are patriotic ditties, that often sound more like marshal ballads. They are usually about some past model worker or party leader, or the glory of building the new China. In addition to their mandatory appearance at most state functions ‘red songs’ are making a come-back in Chongqing where Bo Xilai, the local Party chief of and an up-and-coming face in the party, has started a mass campaign to encourage all citizens to learn and sing 36 selected songs.

Often, the songs are put together with dramatic poetry readings and minority group dance routines into patriotic variety shows, and this is exactly what my school had planned for the Party’s 90th birthday. For the last 2 months, in expectation of last Friday’s event, departments have been preparing. Everyone was required to chip in to show their love of party and country through song and dance. There’s something odd about the situation: serious professional academics wearing costumes and singing in the choir, Sister Act but Chinese, and for real.

The only people that weren’t required to participate were foreign staff. In fact on the day of the event, all foreigners were barred from attending the show. What’s most off-putting is not the blatant discrimination, but that someone decided the negative impact of allowing foreigners to watch the performance was significant enough to pro-actively prevent them from seeing the show.

It reminds me of the banners posted outside the Forbidden City to celebrate Spring Festival this year. “Long live international cooperation and global prosperity” was written above the main gate next to the famous picture of Mao, while down the street, a little ways away from Tiananmen Square, above a smaller gate the sign read, “Long live the communist party of China, Long live Mao Zedong thought.”

The big trend is that China is getting better at understanding how the rest of the world responds to it’s political ideology. They’ve learned the global PR game, and know people don’t want to see ‘long live the communist party’. What’s unclear is if the shift in emphasis represents a real change in the party’s priorities, or simply gift-wrapping. In the case of Friday’s pageant at my school at least, not only was their PR move childish, it suggests there really is something to hide.

I suspect the show was simply a very corny display of dancing and singing. One co-worker did say, however, that one department dressed in the uniforms of the Red Guards from the Cultural Revolution. Another said, before the event, I should only attend if I ‘want to see totalitarianism in practice.’ But mostly I think it was just a feel-good, community building exercise.

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This entry was posted in Armchair Theorizing, Arts and Culture, Social Phenomena. Bookmark the permalink.

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