Magic, Religion, and the Naturalisation of Chinese Communist Party Rule

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has developed strategies that draw on a dedication to the Party that is specifically religious yet does not require belief in a doctrine. These strategies revolve around the Leninist concept of ‘party spirit’, which, paradoxically, has become a commodity that is produced, supplied, and consumed. This essay discusses these strategies of the CCP in the context of party-cadre education and so-called red tourism. The article concludes that the Party is evolving into not just an infallible bearer of ideological dogma, but also a sacred object of worship as part of a new ‘communist civil religion’.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) increasingly presents its leadership, decisions, and strategies in terms of aspirations to the greatness that lies ahead. Maoist techniques to instil belief in the Party have returned with a vengeance, but the Party’s mission is no longer to transform China into a communist utopia. Ideological innovations emphasise the enduring importance of socialism and Marxism, but on closer inspection, specifically Marxist analysis or socialist ideals are conspicuously absent. Even Dengist aims of a prosperous and advanced society are no longer goals; they have become means to a higher end: the ‘China Dream’ that will ‘rejuvenate’ the country, making it strong, proud, and able to stand tall against even the strongest nations in the world—an example for others to follow, distinct from the worn prescriptions of the West.

The rejuvenated China the CCP seeks to construct is built not solely on the transformation of the Party’s organisational dominance, governance performance, and irredentist nationalism. This short essay investigates what I call the naturalisation of the CCP’s rule. The legitimacy of the Party is about much more than simply ideas and how these are instilled by techniques of more conventional propaganda campaigns, thought reform, education, and training. The Party currently confronts problems that are in certain respects similar to those faced by Mao Zedong in the 1960s when he concluded that the Party had been taken over by ‘people who walked the capitalist road’ (走资派). Mao complained that cadres were learning communism from books instead of from labour and revolutionary practice. Cadres abused their power and party discipline had to be enforced from above instead of followed from below. Mao’s solution was to strengthen the personality cult around himself and launch the Cultural Revolution that turned the country in a chaotic direction and took the Party to the brink.

Barring exceptional events such as the massive rescue operation after the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, real struggle and violence are no longer options to strengthen the commitment of party members and cadres. Instead, synthetic revolutionary experiences have been created to take their place. Indoctrination, commitment, and conformity are guided by the Leninist concept of ‘party spirit’ (dangxing, 党性), which encompasses the distinct and unconditional dedication to the party and its mission—a reading that was first popularised by the book How to Be a Good Communist, CCP second-in-command Liu Shaoqi’s guide for party members that was first published in 1946 (Sorace 2016).

Under President Xi Jinping, the fostering of party spirit and party discipline has become the main aim of cadre education and training at party schools and has replaced, to a large extent, professional skills and knowledge (Pieke 2009). Xi prides himself on having reoriented party schools back to ‘the correct political direction’ since he took over as the principal of the Central Party School in 2008 after the Seventeenth Party Congress (Xi 2016). Cadres ought to become an ideologically united elite who are stripped of their individuality. Cadres must faithfully obey the political line laid down by the party centre with Xi Jinping at its core and suffused with party spirit (Tian and Tsai 2021).

Under Mao, the veneration of the Party included not only submission and dedication, but also the worship of CCP leaders and their words, deeds, and objects (Mao’s Little Red Book, for instance)associated with them. The emerging official veneration of Xi Jinping indeed takes many of its cues from Mao. Unlike Mao’s, however, Xi’s rule is not a personal one that eclipses the Party. In contemporary China, party spirit and party discipline remain explicitly about the Party as a whole and not about one or more of the individuals who lead it. Despite the increasing concentration of power in Xi’s hands and the fawning in the official press over his leadership, Xi is certainly no Mao.

Below, I discuss the fostering of party spirit in the context of party-cadre education and so-called red tourism (红色旅游), which selectively draw on the remembered revolutionary past to inform behaviour in the present that will herald in a glorious future of a fully modernised, socialist China.

Red Tourism

Like pilgrimage centres, red tourism sites serve as nodes where the sacred power of the Party becomes accessible. Sites and objects associated with the history of the CCP’s revolutionary struggle and especially with the words and actions of its major leaders have long been preserved—in some cases, since the 1950s. Tourism at these sites has been encouraged for almost as long. From the early 1990s, as part of the patriotic education campaign that followed the suppression of the 1989 protests at Tiananmen and elsewhere, selected CCP history sites were included among the patriotic education bases designated to strengthen loyalty and respect for the nation and the communist revolution (Callahan 2010; Zhao 1998).

However, the systematic and centrally coordinated effort to list, restore, and build sites of CCP revolutionary history as ‘red tourism’ bases began only in 2004 (Li et al. 2010; Takayama 2012). Red tourism deploys significant places and objects associated with events during the revolution as bearers of revolutionary history revolutionary events, and revolutionary spirit for tourists to recall, study, and observe. Red tourism has become a policy priority area for the central party and government. A book of poems on display at red tourism sites published in 2013 lists no less than 123 such sites. Together, these sites present a narrative of the revolution consisting of 12 phases, from ‘the birth of the Party’ to ‘the final victory’ (Yu 2013).

Red tourism and patriotic education have become an industry. According to official figures, already in 2007, red tourism sites drew 230 million visitors, most of whom travelled in groups organised by work units or schools. In 2013, the number of visitors to red tourism sites had risen to 786 million (Li et al. 2010; CNTA 2014). Official documents present red tourism as rooted firmly in the present and looking forward confidently to a bright and enduring future for China and the CCP. These documents showcase the party’s commitment to the market economy, economic growth, the revolutionary mission, innovation, and fair and sustainable development all at once—a perfect example of how the party would like to be seen.

Red tourism is not only directed at the general population but has also become a prominent component of the education and training of CCP members and cadres. The 2013–17 plan for cadre education and training emphasised the importance of cultivating party spirit and the vital role study of the revolutionary history of the CCP and its leaders should play in forging the dedication of cadres to the Party.

In the development of bases for cadre education in party spirit, the central authorities took the lead in 2003 when they decided to establish and fully fund three completely new, high-profile executive leadership academies, which opened in 2005. They are located in Shanghai, where the Party was founded, but more importantly also the pinnacle of China’s modernity and international opening up; and the sacrosanct revolutionary sites of Jinggangshan, the first base area and the ‘cradle’ of the Party, and Yan’an, the base area from which Mao launched the Party’s conquest of China. Together, these three sites offer a carefully constructed, material representation of the Party’s self-narrative of its own birth, growth, and maturation in which the academies offer an ‘experiential education’ (体验式教育) (Interview in Beijing, 27 April 2007; see also Shambaugh 2008: 148–49).

In addition to the three cadre academies, since 2010–11, the CCP’s Central Organisation Department has recognised (but not funded) nine more bases for party-spirit education, for a total of 13 such centrally recognised sites. More than 60 further sites have been established by provincial or other lower-level authorities to cater to the needs of their own party-spirit cadre education plans. The most important are Xibaipo in Hebei Province and Hongyan in Chongqing.

Cadre Education

The effort to build party-spirit education bases sounds impressive until one realises that virtually all party-spirit cadre education bases are established sites on China’s red tourism trail. Only the three central cadre academies have been purpose-built. The recent surge in cadre party-spirit education uses the existing infrastructure of red tourism, with additional investment and elaboration at selected sites for a more discerning clientele of cadres.

During my fieldwork visit to one such site, Hongyan village in Chongqing in July 2015, the Party secretary of the village flatly stated that cadre education at Hongyan ‘uses a tourist site as a teaching site’. Hongyan village was the location of the CCP’s Southern Bureau during the Japanese occupation when the government of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) had moved to Chongqing (1937–46). Headed by Zhou Enlai, the Southern Bureau had to operate carefully, navigating between cooperative relations with the Nationalists as part of the United Front against the Japanese and the reality of increasing animosity and sometimes even open armed conflict elsewhere in China between the two parties.

Official CCP history as narrated in Hongyan emphasises the distinct nature of the contributions of the Hongyan essence to the Party’s ‘system of revolutionary essence’ (革命精神体系). In terms of its contemporary relevance, the unique experience in Hongyan is the origin of the CCP’s united-front cooperation with the eight patriotic democratic parties and non-party elements, China’s peaceful and pragmatic foreign policy (exemplified by Zhou Enlai), and cooperation between the CCP on the mainland and the KMT in Taiwan to unify the fatherland.

As per national policy, entry to the Hongyan museums was free of charge in 2008, but red tourism remains good business. The museums are paid for the guided tours, courses, and events they organise for visiting groups of cadres or tourists, and sell souvenirs, produce performances, and release DVDs of theatre, dance, and music.

In June 2011, China’s premier English-language newspaper, the China Daily, ran an article on Hongyan’s successes. In the article, the Hongyan director stated confidently that ‘[t]he sector is ready to be expanded and we have engaged consultants to help restructure the Hongyan Culture Business Group to be qualified to be listed [on the stock market] in three years’ (Wang 2011). The article then quotes a policy researcher at the China Tourism Academy in Beijing, who said ‘the market will take over the role of the government in future in driving the development of red tourism, as is already happening in Chongqing’.

Revolutionary Commodities

Importantly, red tourism and cadre party-spirit education benefit from each other, and both are based on the same premise—namely, that the Party’s history and distinct character can be transformed into transferable commodities to be consumed for different purposes and by different client bases. In the course of its revolutionary history, the Party and its leaders were charged with the party’s spirit, which enabled them to face unimaginable hardship, make tremendous sacrifices, and above all, make sagacious decisions of which ordinary men and women would not have been capable.

Exposure to the records and remnants of the revolution turns this general spirit into a concrete and transferable quality that is referred to as jingshen (精神), which one can translate as ‘essence’ or ‘efficacy’. Like dangxing, party spirit is largely passive, sacred, and almost transcendental. One ought to study, emulate, cultivate, or restore it. Jingshen, however, is presented as an active force that affects people, institutions, words, and deeds. Jingshen can even be turned into a commodity that can be produced, supplied, and consumed.

The new emphasis on party spirit is anything but a return to a dark totalitarian past. It is yet another aspect of the neosocialist fusion of Leninist politics and capitalist business practices that has become the bedrock of CCP rule (Pieke 2016). Under neosocialism, markets emerged for a vast range of commodities, resources, and services previously provided and controlled by the state, including social security, housing, education, and health care. The Party has even turned support for and belief in itself into a commodity. A quote from Xi Jinping serves to illustrate the power of jingshen:

Every visit to Jinggangshan, Yan’an, Xibaipo or another sacred revolutionary place is a spiritual [精神] and ideological baptism. Every time I come there I receive vivid education in the party’s nature [党的性质] and mission, again confirming the awareness and feeling for the people that we as public servants have. (Wang and Liu 2014)

Despite the appearance of a return to old-fashioned communist practices, the business and politics of party spirit reveal all the trappings of modern-day neosocialist governance: a capitalist market that is not merely tolerated by a communist party, but also actively deployed to shore up and develop its Leninist political system. Jingshen manifests the Party’s sacredness in the ordinary world to reinvigorate belief in the Party and its mission. The CCP is well on its way to complementing its role as an infallible bearer of ideological truth with that of a sacred object of worship and source of magical power.

The vacuity of the CCP’s ideology has compelled many people in China to turn to Christianity, Buddhism, or Confucianism as a source of meaning and direction in life. It now transpires that the CCP itself has turned to religion, too, but not in search of alternative systems of thought, ethics, or belief to fill an ideological void. As we have seen, red tourism and party-spirit education are replete with religious language and methods. The old concept of party spirit has been revamped and the Party has started to use the repertoire of heritage, tourism, and pilgrimage to create a commodified magical power that imbues the party and its rule with a sacred nature. However, religious thought or ideological dogma have no place here. Instead, religious and magical practices serve as an additional source of neosocialist governmental techniques.

A Communist Civil Religion

The CCP is turning itself rather than its ideology and mission into a sacred entity and an object of religious awe. This is, in fact, not all that dissimilar to the ‘civil religion’ in the United States that borrowed and adapted Christian religious practices for the purposes of a strictly secular worship of the American nation (Bellah 1967). Red tourism and cadre education are small but significant components of a long-term strategy to produce what I call a communist civil religion.

Importantly, this communist civil religion is not simply a return to Maoist ideology and Maoist dictatorial rule. It uses some of the language and images of China’s Maoist past, but in the context of a highly commercialised economy, a much more autonomous society, and neosocialist rule. This communist civil religion in turn is part of a long-term reorientation of the basis of CCP rule that draws on an eclectic range of approaches and ideas.

In addition to a communist civil religion, other components include Confucian and more generally traditional Chinese concepts about hierarchy, authority, benevolent rule, and harmony. The distinct contribution of a communist civil religion to this grand project is that it further naturalises the Party’s rule and legitimacy and makes it unquestioned and unquestionable. If successful, in the long term, this has the potential to further insulate the Party from the demands to have a coherent ideology, ultimate mission, or possibly even any legitimising ideas. At this point, the Party would no longer have to be believed; it would simply be believed in.

This short essay has been updated and adapted from the author’s article ‘Party Spirit: Producing a Communist Civil Religion in Contemporary China’, published in 2018 in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 24(4): 709–29.

Featured image: Tourists posing for a photo in Yan’an. PC: Tauno Tohk (CC),


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Frank N. Pieke

Frank N. Pieke is Professor of Modern China Studies at the Leiden Asia Centre, Leiden University. This academic year he is in Uppsala as a fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study. His most recent books are The Good Communist (2009) and Knowing China (2016), both published by Cambridge University Press. In 2021, he and Koichi Iwabuchi published the volume Global East Asia with the University of California Press. His current project is entitled ‘The Rise of China and the Consequences of Superpower’, which asks how its rise as a superpower status will change China.

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