The sun is setting above Yan'an, where the 1949 revolution in China that swept the communists to power under the leadership of chairman Mao Zedong sprung into life. Some locals and "red tourists" along the Yan River are singing "Without the Communist Party there would be no New China," a popular refrain from the 1965 musical The East is Red.
Yan’an is the dusty birthplace of an epochal story of social change, where an agrarian, inward-looking country evolved into the world’s second-biggest economy, currently overseen by Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since the Great Helmsman himself.
Nearly 70 years after the revolution, China is poised to take its place as a superpower with global influence to match its status as an economic colossus. Nationalist sentiment is riding high, hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty, and the Beijing government confidently preaches Xi’s core pledge of stability, the China Dream.
But at the same time, a ground change is taking place. China is reverting to centralised systems of control and Marxist-Leninist fundamentalism, against a backdrop of a tit-for-tat trade war between Xi’s resurgent China and Donald Trump’s unpredictable US administration, which has seen tariffs imposed on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of each other’s imports.
China is introducing a security and surveillance state unlike anything the world has ever seen, clamping down on Uighur Muslims in the troubled province of Xinjiang and flexing its muscles in the South China Sea. While China reaches out to Europe, Central Asia and Africa with a New Silk Road of trade, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), some of its new friends or client states are finding themselves forced to choose between China and the United States.
There is talk of a new cold war and questions if China is overreaching. Economic growth, long the foundation on which the party’s rule is built, looks almost certain to slow as the trade conflict bites.
The journey to Yan’an is by high-speed train, a potent symbol of China’s progress, and on the train I fall into conversation with a political officer from a Beijing college. She is happy to talk but not in a position to give her name, an increasingly common phenomenon when reporting in China.
She describes Xi as “wenzhong” (steady), a phrase you hear very often from Xi’s fans, tying into the concept of “wenzhongqiujin” or “making progress while ensuring stability”.
“Xi Jinping is steady and his logic is that everyone can live together. You westerners think of everything in terms of time limits, but we Chinese think about the quality of the leader. We work hard to get to the target, but you think about the rules, about the process. If we get a leader who is number one, we will keep going back to that number one leader,” she says.
“Chinese and westerners use the same ingredients – yeast, flour, water, salt, milk – except we produce mantou [steamed buns] and you in the West get bread. Similar ingredients produce different things.”
A small city set among the parched yellow-brown loessloesshills and gullies of Sha'anxi province, Yan'an is where the Communist army pitched up in the 1930s, exhausted from the "Long March", a devastating 9,600km tactical flight from their bitter rivals, the nationalist KMT. The Long March started with 100,000 troops, and ended with 8,000, of whom only 7,000 had started the trek. The Communist Party made Yan'an their wartime stronghold from the mid-1930s to 1949. From here it went on to defeat the KMT, wearied by war against Japan, ultimately driving it to the island of Taiwan. Yan'an is now a centre of pilgrimage for cadres to study doctrine. Yan'an is peppered with sites where the revolution was fomented – according to the mayor there are 464 – and lots of people are walking around with Communist Party badges. Some visitors like to dress up in revolutionary-era uniforms. A popular site is the Press Museum – this is where the official Xinhua news agency, People's Daily and propaganda outlets began, a sign proclaims. The Yan'an Revolutionary Memorial Hall has a large statue of the Great Helmsman in its central square.
"Mao Zedong is great, very strong," says a superannuated People's Liberation Army veteran who is manning the gate of a facility which once was the defence section for the party. "Mao came here for meetings all the time, [Mao's deputy and former premier] Zhou Enlai too. And [former supreme leader and Mao's successor] Deng Xiaoping. The caves were very secure."
The downtown area is a traditional blend of socialist realism and commercialism that describes the arc of China’s development in the past 40 years.
At the heart of the city is a large monument dedicated to the revolutionary heroes, in front of which is a display where a dozen women in baseball jackets from a Chinese cosmetics company are promoting hand creams and lotions.
Large LED screens outside the shopping centres and hypermarkets show shelves packed with goods, and you can find most things from Korean delicacies to Australian wine to McDonald’s hamburgers.
Some 50 million people visited Yan'an last year, spending 30 billion yuan (€3.8 billion). There is even a quirky hotel and cafe downtown called the James Joyce Coffetel, and while no one seems to know who the Ulysses author is, a big screen in the library-like lobby offers karaoke all day.
For the first 30 years after the revolution, China remained a doctrinaire place, with a sluggish economy trailing the rest of the world, punctuated by disasters such as the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s agricultural collectivisation experiment in which millions starved to death, and the ideological frenzy of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which pitted cadre against cadre each other and all but wiped out the intelligentsia.
Inside one of the cave headquarters, photographs depict the leaders of the revolution at a time when revolution teemed with promise – believers gathering their strength after the Long March and planning the revolution that would give them mandate to rule. One shows the famously wily Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997. Although a close ally of Mao, he was “struggled against” during the Cultural Revolution and banished from Beijing.
He was the architect of economic reform in 1978. Until 2013, the economy grew an average 10 per cent a year, lifting 800 million out of poverty and creating a middle class that numbers about 430 million today and is forecast to rise to 780 million by 2025.
Many of his reforms were aimed at making sure that no Chinese leader would ever have untrammelled power again, that no Mao-style cult of personality could ever prevail again.
In the Xi era, there are signs the party is again moving back towards centralised power, and in March this year the National People’s Congress abolished terms limits on Xi’s rule. Younger people in particular have expressed disquiet at the lack of a term limit on a Chinese leader, and there are grumblings among the elite too.
"Xi Jinping has moved to strengthen the role of the Chinese Communist Party in governance in China. Where in 1980 Deng Xiaoping began the process of separating the roles of the party from the state, the last few years have seen the party playing more of an organisational role in China's state and society," says Carla Freeman, director of the foreign policy unit at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
This is aimed at introducing “greater discipline” and reducing corruption but it also means that the decentralisation of power under Deng’s reforms, which were aimed stopping too much power becoming concentrated in one person, is being rolled back and Xi is being placed in a much more prominent position of power.
Some of those urging caution are in the top ranks of the Party, including Deng's eldest son. "We must seek truth from fact, keep a sober mind and know our own place," said Deng Pufang, who was beaten so badly by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution he was left in a wheelchair and now runs China's Disabled Persons' Federation.
"We should neither be overbearing or belittle ourselves," he said in the speech, which was not made public but was obtained by the South China Morning Post newspaper.
Four decades of reform
Fast forward to November 2018, four decades after the beginning of opening up and reform and President Xi is launching the world's biggest trade fair, the China International Import Expo, in Shanghai.
It's a glittering event, with 3,600 companies from 172 countries, 18 heads of state, dozens of senior government officials from all over the world, including Ireland's Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys.
Xi is hailing China as the future of globalisation and promising win-win for those who oppose protectionism and unilaterism. “As globalisation deepens, the practices of law of jungle and winner take all are a dead end,” he says.
But the absence of major world leaders from the western nations is evidence that businesses in Europe and the US want China’s fine words to be matched by actions and genuine reform. There are fears that growing centralisation and a return to core Marxist-Leninist values run counter to calls for more openness on state-owned enterprises.
State security stepped up
Xinjiang’s minority Uighurs and other Muslim groups have been the most obvious victims of the growing security crackdown in China. Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities are being held in large numbers in mass detention centres in Xinjiang.
In August, a United Nations committee was told that up to a million Uighurs were being held in camps, and the scope of the clampdown goes beyond efforts to deal with a terrorist threat.
China insists the Uighurs are being held in vocational centres where they are educated away from extremist views, and accuses the West of operating double standards on Xinjiang.
The burgeoning surveillance state is spreading far beyond western China. "There is strong evidence and even if the more visible result in places like Xinjiang is almost entirely coercive, the most worrying part of this surveillance state is that it is not just reliant on police-controlled security cameras," says Samantha Hoffman, a visiting academic fellow at the Merics institute in Berlin. "It is also integrating technology that supports fulfilment of everyday governance tasks, and is built into normal social and economic development projects like traffic control or public heath management," says Hoffman.
The government has also stepped up social management technology. “This is likely to massively increase the reach of the Chine Communist Party’s social management efforts, including beyond China’s borders. Technology, therefore, will likely significantly amplify the impact of the state’s efforts to shape and manage day-to-day behaviour and decision-making of Chinese citizens, or for any individual, business or entity, dealing with China,” she says.
Belt and Road Initiative
In the six years since he came to power, China’s foreign policy has become more steadfast than his predecessors. A plank of Xi’s foreign policy is the BRI, which lends money to governments in central Asia, southeast Asia, Africa and central Europe.
China is certainly trying to extend soft power with these projects, but no more so than the West and Russia do with similar projects in their own areas of influence. However, countries such as Kenya, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have expressed fears about debt sustainability in the face of such massive Chinese lending.
Sometimes this new assertiveness can take on a dramatic dimension. Last month, a Luyang destroyer came within 40m of the bow of the USS Decatur, which was carrying out what the Americans call "freedom of navigation" operations in the South China Sea. The incident happened near a fortified man-made island in the Spratly chain of islands, built by China.
While the international maritime court in The Hague ruled the archipelago is part of the Philippines, China has ignored the ruling and built a runway, with anti-aircraft missiles and barracks, even a cinema, on this remote coral reef.
China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea and other areas have seen Beijing alienate its neighbours, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan – technically not a neighbour as China claims this as a renegade province.
It’s not just in militarised man-made atolls in the South China Sea that Beijing’s influence can be felt. China’s significant investments in Europe’s more vulnerable economies may influence the positions governments of those countries take with respect to China’s policies, says Freeman.
China's investment in the Greek port of Piraeus has played a critical role in economic recovery there. Soon after, Greece blocked a statement to the UN Human Rights Council critical of China.
Turkey has also received billions of dollars of investment from China into infrastructure projects as part of the BRI.
“Turkey, which could be expected to be concerned about Xinjiang – and indeed President Erdogan at one time was critical of Beijing’s policies in that region – has muted its criticism. This, even as Erdogan has spoken forcefully about the treatment of the Rohingya,” says Freeman.
Elsewhere there are signs the US-China trade war is having an impact on popular sentiment. The jamboree import expo in Shanghai was all about trying to woo foreign companies from other markets to consider China’s impressive purchasing power.
The Beijing-based subsidiary of a US electronic measuring equipment manufacturer, which asked not to be named because of market sensitivity, says the trade war has yet to really have an impact but it was coming.
“Our business is focused on research equipment, customers made their purchase plans one year before and run it in the next year normally,” a spokeswoman said.
“But we really are hearing customers preparing to give up or change from US products for next year’s purchasing. So I think the effect of the trade war will be seen next year,” she said.
While she hoped there would be some kind of deal between the US and China, she was not optimistic that it could be struck quickly enough to stop affecting the business. She does not see a major impact on the economy, just on specific markets, notably those who do not have Chinese versions of imported products.
On the train to Xi’an, I am surrounded by a group of middle-aged women from Yan’an who are on their way to the ancient city for a few days’ holiday. Like everyone in Yan’an, they are friendly and hospitable. They travel together all the time, and list off the tourism hotspots they have visited, all the while practically force-feeding me oranges and raisins.
One woman shows photographs of her son, who is in the army, and then shows me photographs of two of the group who have won prizes in special beauty contests for remaining so youthful looking. “Can you believe she is over 60? Doesn’t she look 35?”
For them, the best thing about opening up and reform has been the freedom to move around the country at will. They are huge fans of Xi, and show me photographs of Liangjiahe, where the president and Communist Party secretary was sent as a teenager in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. The place where China’s transformation took on a new dimension.