A foreigner joins a Red Song choir in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing

The first thing I noticed when I emerged from the airport was a billboard glowing high in an otherwise dark parking area.  It depicted a cherubic girl in white dress and a red scarf standing before a rippling red Chinese flag, above which was printed a slogan exhorting new arrivals to “Sing Red Songs.” It was a steamy pre-dawn morning in May 2011, and this was my welcome to a summer internship in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing.

Bo Xilai had been running the place since 2007. He had grown famous in China and abroad for his uncharacteristic charisma and a populist governing style, whose many initiatives included an effort to revive the “Red Culture” of China’s revolutionary days. My summer in Chongqing turned out to be the high tide of Bo’s career, since he was removed from power under a cloud of scandal and murderous intrigue less than a year later.

I was interning at a Chinese engineering company whose Chongqing business was booming on the back of the city’s massive infrastructure projects.Their new headquarters was in a development zone far from Chongqing’s hilly downtown, in a flat expanse of sterile office parks planted on a rigid grid of huge avenues lined with ruthlessly-pruned rows of bushes and other greenery.

I was assigned to a team led by a soft-spoken man called Dr. Chen who had worked his way up from tilling the fields as a child in northern Sichuan Province. Dr. Chen tasked me with a making a pilot project using a software program I had learned in school. I taught the software to many of my colleagues, mostly eager 20-something natives of Chongqing and Sichuan who had been with the company since graduating college.

By then various aspects of Bo Xilai’s so-called Chongqing Model – like the “smash black” anti-corruption campaign – had been underway for years. Little about the man or his rule raised eyebrows anymore at the company, and initially his most direct contribution to the team was the looming autumn visit he was planning for one of our projects. We were working 12-hour days in feverish preparation for the tour– in Chongqing as elsewhere in China, a company that depends on government contracts does not want to disappoint the local Party honcho conducting an inspection.

The company had its own Communist Party cell, an officially encouraged organization that helps firms manage their relationships with the government, while allowing the Party to extend its brand of social organization into China’s private sector. Our company’s cell had just a few full-time staff, who coordinated events for the other employees who held Party membership. They operated out of a clubhouse of sorts on an upper floor that was full of slogan-bearing banners, framed photos of team-building activities, and an immense scoreboard of Party members’ performance whose monthly top achievers received hammer-and-sickle stickers.

I rarely interacted with the Party cell members in their capacity as Party members, with the exception of Vice-Party Secretary Wang.  A lanky man in his early 30s, Secretary Wang had a down-to-earth attitude and disarming smile that put me at ease when he introduced himself early in the summer. I accepted his invitation to a cultural show at Chongqing’s Grand Theater, an immense blocky green showcase building near downtown. After the performance, he pulled some roller blades from his trunk and we spent the evening maneuvering around traffic cones in the theater’s front plaza.  After that Secretary Wang and I exchanged friendly greetings in the hall.

Despite the nose-to-the grindstone work environment, our firm was not immune to Bo Xilai’s Maoist revivalism , which reached a fever pitch in summer 2011 as the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding approached. One Friday it was announced that all 200+ employees would leave work early to attend a screening of a star-studded propaganda film. While we milled about the parking lot waiting for a bus to ferry us to a downtown theater, Secretary Wang  emerged from the crowd and asked: “Hey, I heard that you know The East is Red?” The East is Red is a song of praise to Mao and the Party that had been the unofficial anthem of the Cultural Revolution. I had discovered it while reading propaganda magazines from the 1960s for a freshman term paper, and the lyrics had stuck in my mind.

Secretary Wang’s face brightened when I answered in the affirmative. “That’s perfect!” He exclaimed. “Do you want to join our Red Song choir? There’s going to be a contest next month, and the choir can sing The East is Red during the main performance!”  Suddenly I was in the choir. Most onlookers laughed. Dr. Chen rolled his eyes. Secretary Wang had a spring in his step after that – rumor had it that he was banking on the choir’s performance to get an edge over our nemeses at China Telecom, usually dominant in district-wide sports and cultural competitions.

Practice began the next week, when about thirty of us met in the largest meeting room. Secretary Wang and a couple of officious young Party members were there, as was an unfamiliar man with shoulder-length hair who was introduced as Professor Li, a teacher from the local music university. Professor Li’s habit was to address the room without ever making eye contact with anyone, and he had a detached air that gave one the sense that this was not the only Red Song choir he would be training that afternoon.  He announced that we would begin with a trial run of The East is Red. One of the younger Party members switched on a boom box, the first stirring notes rang out, and we raised our printed lyric sheets and began to sing.

It went about as well as one could expect from thirty over-worked engineers with no musical training. Whatever spirit animated my colleagues on karaoke nights was not in evidence – everyone (myself included) seemed to be trying to sing slightly quieter than the person next them, so that the performance ebbed to a whisper and died on the conference table somewhere around “Chairman Mao loves the people!” Everyone fidgeted nervously until Professor Li clapped his hands and said, “Excellent first attempt! However, it seems that your chi flow is being blocked by stress, and the tension is affecting your ability to project.”

For ten minutes Professor Li had us rub our temples, practice breathing, and do other exercises to stimulate our power centers and release positive musical energy. After loosening up, we had another pass at the song, and it did indeed sound better – or at least louder.

We continued the hybrid singing/taichi lessons for several weeks. One day Professor Li spoke to me personally: “We have a foreign friend among us who is familiar with this song. I feel that it is appropriate to give him the opportunity to display his talents by singing the third stanza solo!”  He spoke in his usual manner of addressing the whole room, so I had to look to the people standing next to me to confirm this is what he actually said.

On the next sing-through all of the other voices fell away, and I sang – badly – the third stanza:

The Communist Party is like the sun

There is brightness wherever it shines!

Wherever the Communist Party goes, the people will be liberated!

I began to lose my nerve as contest day approached, and rumors circulated that we would dress as Red Guards. I had taken the US Foreign Service Exam in Chengdu that June, and I suspected that prancing on a stage in a Red Guard costume singing solos of praise to the Chinese Communist Party would surely become an issue in my government background check.

As is often the case in the mercurial world of Chinese politics, it all came to a swift and sudden end, when one of the young Party members approached my desk and said that due to some “adjustments,” I didn’t need to come to practice anymore. The next time I saw him, Secretary Wang looked crestfallen. I wondered if Dr. Chen had something to do with it, since he had been muttering about choir practice taking away too much from work time. Maybe Professor Li decided that China Telecom would smoke us even with the support of my powerful tenor. Later I heard that the choir had been pruned to just a few members – presumably those who could carry a tune.

I was invited to attend the Red Song performance as a spectator rather than contestant. The venue was not the immense stadium where Bo Xilai was holding the main 90th anniversary Red Song festivities, but a much smaller theater arranged only for choirs from our development zone.  I was seated strategically behind the local Party leaders, so that I would lend the event international cachet when I appeared behind them on television. The event itself was dominated in the beginning by a series of turgid political speeches that droned on for so long that the Red Songs themselves actually felt like an afterthought. The contest format was dropped in favor of a more harmonious series of performances.

A few days later, our department secretary gave me a gift card for about thirty dollars to a downtown department store, in gratitude for attending the Red Song event. I protested at the special treatment, but she waved me off and said “Everyone who attended got those.” In the end, I accepted the card and chased Chongqing’s Maoist nostalgia with a shopping spree, just like everyone else.

A version of this article originally appeared on Tea Leaf Nation in September 2013.

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