BEIDAIHE/, China: Arms outstretched like Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer, a towering Confucius statue stands in the seaside resort that hosts the Chinese Communist leadership’s summer retreat, opposite a hulking monument to President Xi Jinping’s dreams.
The gleaming gold-yellow sculptures are part of a 50 million yuan ($8 million) complex built by Wang Dianming, a portly ex-general who says his fortune comes from a series of travel and educational companies.
A Communist Party member, Wang insists the project has no official backing — but the juxtaposition is a revealing illustration of the nationalist, sometimes traditionalist tenets inherent in Xi’s outlook.
Confucianism, an ethical and philosophical system that stresses hierarchy and obedience, was China’s official state ideology in Imperial times.
It was reviled by the Communist Party during their first decades in power, and particularly targeted during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, but Xi has long approvingly cited the sage.
Since taking office two years ago he has also coined the concept of the “Chinese Dream”, describing it as “national rejuvenation, improvement of people’s livelihoods, prosperity, construction of a better society and military strengthening”.
Standing under the effigy’s open palms, Wang, 61, told AFP: “The Chinese Dream draws on the nutrients from China’s exceptional traditional culture and the teachings of Confucius.
“Using these ideas together will save mankind.”
The Confucius figure is 19 metres (62 feet) high and gazes out at a stylised obelisk emblazoned with the characters for “Chinese Dream” on the front and “socialist core values” on the back.
Its square base greets visitors with a lengthy quote from Xi, while the other three sides depict soldiers, farmers and workers in a socialist realist style akin to 1950s propaganda posters.
“We want to achieve the Chinese Dream not only for the benefit of the Chinese people, but also for the benefit of all peoples,” reads part of the Xi statement.
In a corner of the grounds a much smaller white statue of Mao, the founder of Communist China, ensures that all ideological bases are covered.
– 5,000 years –
Mao excoriated ancient Chinese traditions, including Confucian teachings, for promoting a feudal social system, with the “Pilin Pikong” campaign — “Criticise Lin, Criticise Confucius” — singling out the writer along with former military commander Lin Biao, who ostensibly died in a plane crash amid rumours of an attempted coup.
In more recent years, Beijing has been working to counteract the increasing popularity of Western culture and religions by promoting carefully crafted interpretations of Chinese heritage.
The sculpture garden synthesizes official Communist doctrine with Confucian values, and is tightly in step with Xi’s own pronouncements.
The party chief’s speeches have been littered with Confucian sayings and allusions for years, since long before he became president, with experts pointing to them as evidence that he truly admires the ancient philosophy, rather than it being a device used by presidential speechwriters.
Much of Xi’s writing has focused on looking back in order to propel China forward, they say, and the scholar’s teachings feed into his own ideas about Chinese exceptionalism.
“Several thousand years ago, the Chinese nation trod a path that was different from other countries’ culture and development,” the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, quoted Xi as saying in a front page article in October.
“We should be more respectful and mindful of more than 5,000 years of continuous Chinese culture.”
In one of his most high-profile endorsements of Confucianism to date, Xi delivered the keynote speech at an International Confucian Association meeting in Beijing’s hallowed Great Hall of the People to commemorate the 2565th anniversary of the sage’s birth in September.
“Excellent traditional Chinese culture, including Confucianism, contains important implications for solving problems faced by humanity now,” he said.
The Confucian concepts being promoted under Xi are a romanticised ideal crafted by the Communist Party and not open to discussion or further interpretations, said Jyrki Kallio, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
“Xi seems to believe that Confucianism is something that can bolster his own standing in China,” he told AFP.
“The Party has apparently launched a dedicated project to formulate a new set of values to guide the people, and traditional schools of thought provide a good foundation for this.”
– Metal sunflowers –
Wang’s complex — which also includes exhibition halls with displays on Chinese Communist leaders and their political theories, along with bungalows for rent — will start charging for admission this year, one of his assistants said.
“Hopefully we will have organized groups of cadres coming here to learn more about the Chinese dream and traditional Chinese philosophies,” said Wang Xuesen, who is not related.
But the attendance numbers do not bode well.
On a winter’s day university student Feng Jin and a friend were the only visitors, and seemed more interested in selfies next to metal sunflowers around the Chinese Dream structure than connecting with any of the sculptures’ meanings.
“I’ve heard about the Chinese Dream on television,” said Feng, “but I don’t think it has anything to do with me.”