Thesis: Celebration of wealth and emulation of modernity: The politics of model tourism in China’s richest village (2006)
Based on an ethnographic study of model tourism in Huaxi, a village known as China’s richest village, I examine the transformation of sociocultural order in post-socialist China, which is reflected in the discourse of getting rich and the social practice of model emulation. Under Deng Xiaoping’s theory, getting rich is glorious, and “those who got rich first” have become exemplary models who are supposed to be emulated by poor others. Huaxi is one of today’s exemplary model villages, and it attracts a large number of tourists who seek to learn from its example. To understand Huaxi model tourism in terms of the transformation of social values, I analyze Huaxi in its historical context. I examine models that appeared in different historical periods, including Confucian models, Lei Feng, Dazhai, and Daqiuzhuang. My research shows that as an embodiment of the hegemonic values of a society, a model provides individuals with “models for” behavior and imagination. It also demonstrates that old models are denounced and mocked, while new models are honored, praised, envied, and emulated. Huaxi emerged as a model not because it was declared so by the state, but because its wealth began to attract widespread notice. In Huaxi, wealth is highly celebrated through various ways including public speeches, staged performances, and the display of luxury houses and cars. Many tourists, especially those from poor areas, visit Huaxi with the aspiration of obtaining these symbols of modernity. However, my analysis of the political economy of Huaxi tourism shows that regional disparity is both an outcome of and a precondition for China’s prosperous coastal areas. Huaxi accumulated its wealth by employing cheap labor from poor areas. These migrant workers, who constitute the majority of the village population, are alienated from the wealth of Huaxi. Interestingly, migrant workers and sincere tourists share very similar socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Thus, I argue that today’s model tourism is driven by the unrealistic desires of Chinese “have-nots” to emulate the symbols and trappings of China’s rapidly burgeoning new capitalist class.