Playing "Red" tourist in Hunan

My travel exp­eriences in the pro­vince of Hu­nan were reve­a­ling. My wanderings were limited to Changsha (the capital of Hunan) and Shaoshan, the village in wh­ich Mao Zedong, the architect of the modern China was bo­rn. Shaoshan has attracted 40 million visitors since 1951. People of every description co­me here. They include ‘Red’ tourists and pilgrims, foreign visitors, the Chinese youth seeking to touch a piece of their nation’s history, nostalgic old men and members of the Communist Party of Ch­ina, which, by the way, still has a dominant presence.

Why did I choose Hunan of all places? Well, I wanted to experience the countryside away from the glitter of Shanghai and Beijing. Besides, both Mao and professor Tan Yun Shan hailed from Hunan. Tan was a devoted Buddhist who came to Santiniketan at the request of Rabindranath Tagore and helped set up Cheena Bhavan at Visva Bharati — an outstanding institution for China studies. He lived and died in India. It is also in Hu­nan that Mao wrote arguably his most famous and prescient poem titled Changsha as a young man of 30. Flying into China is now both cheap and easy. China Eastern Airlines flies daily from Kolkata to Kunming. It takes two hours of flying time to reach Kunming. Another short domestic flight takes one to Changsha — the capital of Hunan. I boarded the flight from Kolkata. The flight was choc-a-block full. More than 70 per cent of the passengers were Chinese. I wondered where they were from and what they were doing in India. I asked the gentleman next to me. He is from Shandong province in northern China. He is working as an engineer for Sepco — Shandong Electric Power Construction and is helping set up a power plant in Chhattisgarh. To educate me on Shandong pro­vince, he informed me that Confucius was born in Shandong and the famous Tsingtao beer comes from his province. Several other passengers from China were also engineers and technicians working on power, telecommunications and infrastructure projects in India.

I met two Indian students from Bihar who were studying to earn an MBBS in Nanjing Medical University in Jiangsu province. They told me that hundreds of Indian students are passing out as doctors from China. I later searched the web and found that there are 28 Chinese universities listed by the Medical Council of India where Indian students could study. There are agents in the Indian sub-continent who recruit students for medical studies.

Changsha is not a mega-city like the capital Beijing or the commercial hub, Shanghai. However, it is one of China's top “economically advanced” cities. Its GDP has grown at an average of 14 per cent per year from 2001–2005, compared with the national average of 9 per cent. Unlike the eastern seaboard of China, the growth here has not been fuelled by SEZ-type low-tech manufacturing. The service sector accounts for roughly half of Changsha’s GDP (at 49 per cent). The bets are that services will continue to drive the city's economic growth. The manufacturing and construction sectors have also grown steadily. The primary sectors (agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry and fishery), which were dominant before 1949 has grown slightly over this same period — a story not very different from India. Just for context, Changsha has a minimum sa­lary level of 600 RMB per mo­nth in comparison with Beijing 640 RMB or Shanghai’s 750 RMB. ($1= 6.6 RMB).

China has converted ‘Red’ pilgrimage into a real money- spinning machine. Shaoshan is about 100 km from downtown Changsha but there is an excellent four-lane expressway. Despite the rain and fog, we reached Mao’s home in about an hour. His home, a spartan, yellowstone and mud-brick building with about six rooms, stands amid the misty hills overlooking a waterbody and terraced rice fields, which once belonged to his father.

While Mao’s home is still the central attraction for the millions who visit Shaoshan, the Chinese government has built side attractions and capitalised on the fame of its former resident. There are museums, memorial parks, shops selling Mao memorabilia and souvenirs and restaurants ser­ving the chairman’s favourite dishes. Only a 10-minute drive from Mao’s home is Di Shui Dong (The Dripping Water Cave), where in the hills a huge retreat was built. Mao stayed here briefly for the last time in 1966. It displays Mao’s bedroom, study, meeting ro­oms, recreation area and ea­rthquake-proof rooms and bomb shelters.

I sat down with a cup of jasmine tea and a copy of the English newspaper China Da­ily. The editorial would ring true in our country as well. The editorial is about the economic disparity between the western and eastern parts of the country, rural and urban divide and title of the editorial was “Malnourished Students”. Here is a quote from the opening paragraph, “Two meals a day is a sweet dream for many students in rural China. In contrast, many children in cities are prone to overeating, and thanks to their western couch-potato way of life, ballooning into a big obesity problem as ‘little emperors’.”