The World of Chinese - - Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter - BY HATTY LIU

From Silk Town, Jiangsu, to Sock-ville, Zhe­jiang, hun­dreds of vil­lages are try­ing to boost a stag­nant econ­omy by rein­vent­ing them­selves as “theme towns.” But will tourists soon tire of the tra­di­tion?

Ev­ery spring be­fore the Qing­ming “Tomb Sweep­ing” Fes­ti­val, and again at the Chongyang “Se­niors’ Day” in the fall, the re­tirees of Jinyun county dust off their gold cos­tumes and prac­tice ways to hold a mo­bile phone, um­brella, wa­ter bot­tle, and three-me­ters tall cer­e­mo­nial flag for a two-hour out­door pa­rade.

The prepa­ra­tions lead up to a twicean­nual “sac­ri­fi­cial rite” in Xiandu, the site where the leg­endary Yel­low Em­peror achieved im­mor­tal­ity, an event that the Zhe­jiang prov­ince county claims to have com­mem­o­rated since pre­his­toric times.

The march of the se­niors, though, was a more re­cent in­no­va­tion: In 2006, the gov­ern­ment be­gan invit­ing “folk art” troupes to per­form at a re­vival of the an­cient cer­e­mony. In 2014, the event was named one of the “Three Great Zhe­jiang Prov­ince Cer­e­mo­nial Ac­tiv­i­ties” and evolved into to­day’s edi­tion, which re­quires the par­tic­i­pa­tion of hun­dreds of lo­cal vol­un­teers and even at­tracts “her­itage­seek­ing” tourists from Tai­wan.

“The de­vel­op­ment of small towns will have a bril­liant fu­ture, if we can grasp the spe­cial char­ac­ter­is­tic of the town,” Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping com­mented ap­prov­ingly in 2015 on a doc­u­ment ti­tled “The Re­search Re­port on Char­ac­ter­is­tic Towns in Zhe­jiang.” Sub­mit­ted by the Min­istry of Fi­nance, the re­port pro­posed that the fu­ture of China’s ru­ral de­vel­op­ment lay in lo­cal gov­ern­ments iden­ti­fy­ing one spe­cial lo­cal his­tor­i­cal, cul­tural, or in­dus­trial com­po­nent—and build­ing economies around that sin­gle theme, based on the prin­ci­ple of “in­dus­trial clus­ter­ing.”

Though the Yangtze River Delta is home to the ear­li­est (and vast ma­jor­ity) of theme towns, of­fi­cially called “char­ac­ter­is­tic small towns” (特色小镇) or “charm­ing small towns” (风情小镇), the cen­tral gov­ern­ment has rec­og­nized 403 such com­mu­ni­ties in 32 prov­inces as of 2017. By 2020, it hopes to raise their num­ber to 1,000, in lo­ca­tions rang­ing from the re­mote Seriqbuya “Uyghur Bazaar” Town in Kash­gar to Heng­dian, “China’s Hol­ly­wood,” and Wuzhen, host of the an­nual World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence, on the pros­per­ous east­ern coast.

The themes, too, can be eclec­tic: Qin­tong “An­cient Boat Race” Town in Jiangsu prov­ince, like Xiandu, cap­i­tal­izes on lav­ish an­nual re­vivals of a tra­di­tional cer­e­mony (and dresses lo­cal se­niors in gold suits to do the row­ing). Oth­ers try to stim­u­late lo­cal agri­cul­tural or tourism de­vel­op­ment by re­ly­ing on spe­cialty pro­duce or con­nec­tions to fa­mous fig­ures, as in the re­spec­tive cases of Changli “Grape” Town in He­bei prov­ince and Yucheng “Hua Mu­lan Cul­ture” Town in He­nan prov­ince.

Then there are towns la­beled with qual­i­ties less tan­gi­ble, like Nan­jing Yaxi “In­ter­na­tional Slow Liv­ing” Town or Wuxi Nian­hua Bay “Zen” Town; the high-tech, as in Yunxi “Cloud Com­put­ing” Town in Zhe­jiang; or the in­fa­mous, such as Zhe­jiang’s Datang “Charm­ing Sock In­dus­try” Town and Yucheng “Sex Toy” Town, of­fi­cially known as “Happy Town.”

In turn, “charm­ing towns” are part of an even larger ini­tia­tive at the na­tional level, one of many mot­ley projects that, over more than a decade, have tried to re­verse China’s grow­ing ur­ban-ru­ral wealth gap, and the ex­o­dus of in­dus­try and pop­u­la­tion from its coun­try­side. In 2012, the CCP added the word “beau­ti­ful” to its def­i­ni­tion of “so­cial­ism with Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics,” orig­i­nally stated by Deng Xiaop­ing as the build­ing of a “rich, pow­er­ful, demo­cratic, civ­i­lized coun­try” (“har­mo­nious” had been added in 2004). This rhetor­i­cal shift led to 2013’s Beau­ti­ful Coun­try­side ini­tia­tive, which urged vil­lage of­fi­cials to in­vest in lo­cal her­itage and keep their in­fra­struc­ture in good re­pair, in lieu of sim­ply tear­ing down crum­bling an­cient houses and re­lo­cat­ing their oc­cu­pants to nearby towns.

Beau­ti­ful Coun­try­side, though, has been a mag­net of con­tro­versy, with pub­lic opin­ion soured by re­ports of of­fi­cials in Shanxi us­ing “beau­ti­fi­ca­tion” to ex­cuse build­ing new apart­ments for their rel­a­tives or friends, or, in He­bei, forc­ing en­tire

vil­lages to cul­ti­vate mush­rooms. Zhe­jiang’s “char­ac­ter­is­tic town” pro­posal ar­rived on the na­tional stage at just the right time to spell out a new in­ter­pre­ta­tion—or at least, the ap­pear­ance of one.

T “he town was pretty good, though not very ‘dreamy,’ and rather small,” Ms. Hu, a 20-some­thing tourist from Ningbo, sums up a visit to “Afi­ción Choco­late Town” in Ji­ashan county, Zhe­jiang, just an hour’s drive from Shang­hai.

Hav­ing ar­rived with ex­pec­ta­tions of scenes straight out of Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­tory, thanks to so­cial me­dia (“We found this place on Lit­tle Red Book, of course,” Hu’s friend, Ms. Li, tells TWOC, re­fer­ring to the Pin­ter­est-taobao hy­brid net­work), Hu left with the sort of mixed feel­ings that have be­come com­mon in many char­ac­ter­is­tic towns na­tion­wide: lots of po­ten­tial, un­der­whelm­ing re­sults, and hopes that it could per­haps im­prove with time.

These feel­ings are to be ex­pected, ac­cord­ing to Zhou Tianzuo, Choco­late Town’s direc­tor of pub­lic af­fairs. In­spired by Her­shey, Penn­syl­va­nia—one of the orig­i­nal mod­els for the char­ac­ter­is­tic towns ini­tia­tive—the “town” is a theme park built around the Afi­ción Choco­late Fac­tory, which an over­seas re­turnee en­tre­pre­neur started in 2011 on farm­land out­side the town of Dayun. The park’s gar­gan­tuan Phase 2 and Phase 3 are now un­der con­struc­tion, con­sist­ing of a “choco­late ex­hi­bi­tion cen­ter” and “choco­late-mak­ing re­search in­sti­tute.”

Con­fus­ingly, Choco­late Town is also one part of a big­ger pro­ject known as Dayun “Sweet Town,” Dayun’s bid to get added to up­com­ing lists of na­tional-level char­ac­ter­is­tic towns. “The lo­cal gov­ern­ment liked what we were do­ing, and wanted to de­velop a whole tourist ecosys­tem based on the theme,” says Zhou. “In one day, you can go look at wild­flow­ers in the ‘Biyun Sea of Flow­ers,’ bathe in the hot springs at Yun­lan Bay, and then visit our Choco­late Town.”

“All of these are part of Sweet Town, though we’re the only ones mak­ing sweets,” he clar­i­fies. Dayun’s mar­ket­ing ma­te­ri­als even ex­tend the “IP” above and be­yond dessert, to in­clude no­tions like “sweet” scenery, “sweet” at­ti­tudes of lo­cals, and “sweet” cou­ples pos­ing for wed­ding pho­tos in front of Choco­late Town’s faux-euro­pean build­ings.

In Au­gust, though, the first prov­ince, He­nan, be­gan to place ex­plicit lim­its on the de­vel­op­ment of theme towns, stat­ing al­most apolo­get­i­cally that it “wished to avoid the awk­ward­ness of build­ing some­thing only for it to go to waste.” “The small-scale is beau­ti­ful,” de­clared a pro­vin­cial pol­icy pro­posal, which noted that many theme towns have be­come “prop­erty-ori­ented… with not only no char­ac­ter, but large amounts of empty hous­ing and land waste.” In the Beau­ti­ful Coun­try­side era, lo­cal of­fi­cials’ ten­den­cies to com­pete to give the loud­est, most ex­pen­sive in­ter­pre­ta­tion of na­tional poli­cies has been satir­i­cally nick­named “Chi­nese-style waste.”

In par­tic­u­lar, theme towns have been crit­i­cized for aid­ing out­side in­vestors, rather than ex­ist­ing com­mu­ni­ties. In Chikan, Guang­dong prov­ince, a UN­ESCO World Her­itage site, res­i­dents are los­ing a bat­tle against


com­mer­cial op­por­tunists who plan to re­lo­cate them from their Old Town district—fa­mous as the film­ing lo­ca­tion for Jiang Wen’s Let the Bul­lets Fly— to re­open their colo­nial-style res­i­dences as ho­tels, sou­venir shops, and cafes.

Zhou de­clares that no res­i­dents were evicted in the con­struc­tion of Choco­late Town, which, he says, used land aban­doned by long-term mi­grants to the city—a claim dis­puted by area res­i­dent Mr. Wu, who later hedged that “there were not very many res­i­dents left” and “most were not forced,” but sat­is­fac­to­rily paid.

Fur­ther south in Zhe­jiang’s Beis­han “Taobao” Vil­lage, which TWOC first vis­ited in 2016, con­struc­tion be­gan this year on a planned 13-hectare “e-com­merce park” on ex­pro­pri­ated farm­land. In this “new vil­lage,” as lo­cals are calling it, there will be apart­ments and ware­houses, courier of­fices, a ho­tel, and an “out­door sports cen­ter” to re­flect the area’s camp­ing equip­ment in­dus­try. How­ever, “they’re not re­ally tak­ing care of the old vil­lage any­more,” one lo­cal, who wanted to re­main anony­mous, tells TWOC, point­ing at four-year-old dec­o­ra­tions that are al­ready fall­ing down.

A se­cond chal­lenge fac­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic towns is that, as the old adage goes, “Not ev­ery­one can be spe­cial.”

“To cre­ate a char­ac­ter­is­tic town, there must be char­ac­ter­is­tic re­sources,” Xu Lin, direc­tor of the Na­tional De­vel­op­ment and Re­form Com­mis­sion, said at a 2017 fo­rum on sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment. It may seem ob­vi­ous, but, ac­cord­ing to Xu, the ob­vi­ous is some­thing that many lo­cal of­fi­cials have not grasped.

“There are so-called ‘real es­tate towns’…which sat­isfy the higher-level gov­ern­ment and [the of­fi­cials’] rou­tine as­sess­ments, but…there are no peo­ple and no in­dus­try,” Xu noted, also cit­ing new “en­tre­pre­neur towns” that are re­ally pur­pose-built of­fice parks with no per­ma­nent res­i­dents, and “hedge fund towns” reg­is­tered with “phan­tom” com­pa­nies that ac­tual op­er­ate else­where. In 2017, pro­pos­als to build an “Aegean ho­tel” and “Sin­ga­porean Cul­ture Town” in We­nanyi, Shaanxi, and Longyou, Zhe­jiang, re­spec­tively, were also blocked at the na­tional level, due to lack of rel­e­vance to lo­cal in­dus­tries and cul­ture.

“Blind copy­ing” is an­other prob­lem: “How many foun­da­tions in China will ac­tu­ally reg­is­ter in all of the hedge fund towns?” asked Xu. “You can imag­ine.”

Even when a town has am­ple char­ac­ter­is­tics to choose from, it can be hard to de­velop a defin­ing theme. “This place is called ‘Silk Town,’ but I’m the only busi­ness mak­ing silk here; I’ve done it for 20 years in the back of my shop,” says Li Jie, a silk mer­chant in the “old town” tourist area of Zhenze, a canal town about one hour’s drive from Suzhou. “Silk-mak­ing hap­pens [fur­ther] in the coun­try­side, be­cause it cre­ates too much pol­lu­tion.”

Aside from Li’s, the only silk stores are a hand­ful of out­lets of ma­jor brands such as Taihu Snow or Ciyun, which op­er­ate fac­to­ries out­side the Old Town. Taihu Snow, in tan­dem with the town gov­ern­ment, also opened a 20-hectare Ser­i­cul­ture Cul­tural Park on the banks of Taihu Lake in 2014, but, “all they do is make a few sam­ples there,” says Li, dis­parag­ingly. Still, pro­mo­tional ma­te­ri­als boast that de­spite “in­creas­ing com­mer­cial­iza­tion and mech­a­niza­tion, Zhenze Town still uses an­cient meth­ods to hand-raise silk­worms and make silk.”

Lo­cal of­fi­cials aren’t fazed by the dis­crep­ancy.

“Silk Vil­lage is our ‘calling card,’ but that doesn’t mean ev­ery­one in the


town makes silk,” Wang Jinyuan, Zhenze’s pub­lic­ity sec­re­tary, baldly ad­mits when TWOC vis­its. In­stead, pho­to­elec­tric tech­nol­ogy, fiber-op­tic in­ter­net, and chem­i­cal tex­tiles are Zhenze’s main in­dus­tries, while the silk pro­duc­tion is al­most all mech­a­nized. “Just 10,000 to 20,000 peo­ple in this area are in­volved in silk-re­lated work,” Wang says. “Ser­i­cul­ture is very la­bor and re­source-in­ten­sive, and un­re­al­is­tic for fam­i­lies to do these days.”

In­stead, Zhenze’s “Silk Town” re­brand is more sym­bolic. “We chose silk be­cause it’s im­por­tant to the lo­cal cul­ture, with 2,000 years of recorded his­tory; dur­ing the Ming dy­nasty, we were one of the top silk-pro­duc­ing towns in the whole em­pire,” Wang says. “What we want to cre­ate is silk­based cul­tural tourism, as well as pre­serve our re­sources.”

“The coun­try­side strug­gles with many prob­lems such as unem­ploy­ment and pop­u­la­tion loss, but silk cul­ture is some­thing of ours that we can bring out and proudly share with oth­ers,” says Wang.

A sim­i­lar feel­ing un­der­lines the char­ac­ter­is­tic town ini­tia­tive as a whole. In a mar­ket econ­omy where the coun­try­side is still pri­mar­ily de­fined by its back­ward­ness—and af­ter decades of war, revo­lu­tion, and mod­ern­iza­tion that re­duced peo­ple’s at­tach­ment to his­tory—theme vil­lages are part of a so­ci­etal re­dis­cov­ery of tra­di­tional cul­ture. As Xu told an au­di­ence in 2017, a well-planned char­ac­ter­is­tic vil­lage makes peo­ple “re­mem­ber nos­tal­gia.”

These days, a ma­jor ob­jec­tive in Choco­late Town is get­ting a bus line to the near­est high-speed rail ( gaotie) sta­tion, some­thing the lo­cal gov­ern­ment is re­luc­tant to pro­vide un­til tourist de­mand picks up. With­out pub­lic tran­sit, though, tourism at the re­mote fac­tory still largely con­sists of car-own­ing day-trip­pers. “In our town, it’s easy to get in, hard to get out,” Zhou quips.

He could have been talk­ing about the fate of many char­ac­ter­is­tic towns across China. With gov­ern­ment fund­ing fun­neled and, in many cases, farm­land al­ready ob­tained, lo­cal of­fi­cials, their cor­po­rate part­ners, and the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity are try­ing to make do. Im­proved trans­porta­tion could be one way to sus­tain a theme: In less de­vel­oped parts of western China, and even Beis­han vil­lage, res­i­dents and of­fi­cials are sim­ply wait­ing for the ar­rival of the gaotie to bring a re­turn on their in­vest­ment.

Xu rec­om­mends mak­ing theme towns more liv­able: “We must em­pha­size be­ing peo­ple-cen­tered, be­cause towns are where peo­ple live and work…they need ba­sic pub­lic ser­vices like hos­pi­tals and ed­u­ca­tion.”

As TWOC ar­rives in Zhenze, a TV crew is busy film­ing a lo­cal snack­mak­ing demon­stra­tion. As with the flag-bear­ers at Xiandu’s cer­e­mony, the “chefs” are sim­ply lo­cal se­niors who’ve been told to don mono­grammed aprons. “They said there was an event go­ing on, and to come make the snacks,” one re­tiree shrugs. “It’s not as though we were do­ing any­thing at home ex­cept watch­ing the kids.”


Tulips are bloom­ing in Yancheng “Hol­land” Town, Jiangsu prov­ince, de­spite a crack­down on for­eign­themed towns

Dayun’s “Choco­late Town” is fo­cused around a choco­late fac­tory started by a lo­cal en­tre­pre­neur in 2011

Lo­cal se­niors act in a 21stcentury re­vival of a Yel­low Em­peror wor­ship rite

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