Party people

In a sports hall in northern China, a group of men and women perform a routine in synchrony. First, they lift both arms above their head; then lower them. Then they raise their right arm; then their left.

But this is not one of those institutional exercise sessions so familiar from television documentaries. These are no overall-wearing factory workers exercising to improve productivity. They are holidaymakers responding to the rhythms of the Village People in China’s first Club Med, an all-inclusive luxury ski resort which opened last month at Yabuli in Heilongjiang province. So, less exercising for communism, than dancing to the tune of capitalism. As the disco lights flash, they again raise their hands: “It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A ... ”

The story of China’s capitalist revolution is now so familiar that it is easy to forget what an extreme ideological about-face it has been. Many of the guests here at Yabuli are in their mid-thirties. They would have therefore been born at the end of a rather different revolution: Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which aimed to purge capitalist thought – and those thought to be capitalist – from China.

As Club Med Yabuli shows, that revolution failed. Built in the style of a luxury Alpine chalet, the hotel is less proletarian than aspirationally patrician. Chandeliers light its chicly minimalist halls. In its dining room, chino-wearing Chinese choose foods that would once have been not only culinarily but linguistically unpalatable: Président camemberts, grands vins de Bordeaux and charming chocolate petits-fours called “opera slices”. Given that Mao thought opera bourgeois, one wonders what he would have made of it in slice form.

Outside, under the freezing winter sky, China’s newly prosperous learn to ski on the club’s slopes. These, though modest by European standards, are impressive by Chinese ones (the 1996 Asian Winter Games were held here). There are 30km of piste, and a vertical drop of about 530m. Many of those I meet have flown from as far as Shanghai to ski here. Unsure on their skis, some guests are, the hotel’s concierge tells me, also acquainting themselves with yet another bourgeois attribute: the skiing injury.

Despite such hazards, those I speak to seem to be enjoying themselves. A great part of the appeal of Club Med seems to be that it is not only financially all-inclusive (food, drink and transfers are included) but physically all-encompassing: once in the hotel complex there is little need to leave.

To a well-travelled westerner, used to holidays that are a little more rough and ready, such arrangements might seem stifling. But to the inexperienced Chinese market, these holidays offer security.

“It is convenient – and safe,” says Connie Chen, who has come here from Shanghai for a holiday with friends. “They pick you up at the airport. And one price includes everything – you don’t have to worry about where you need to hire skis.”

Though all the Chinese guests here at Yabuli seem comfortable with the concept of holidays, they also recognise them as a new phenomenon. “I think the idea for holidays started about five to 10 years ago,” says Cheng Cheng, a 30-year-old private equity investor here on a corporate skiing holiday from Shanghai. “Thirty years ago I don’t think it even existed.”

The holidays that did exist in China even 15 years ago were, as Camellia Wang, Club Med’s young assistant reception manager remembers, not much of a holiday at all. “My father worked in a factory. The place we would stay in on holiday was simple,” she says. “It was just a room, with four beds. There was no carpet. Even the shower was not heated – it was just a big tank.”

When the Party’s laws relaxed, Camellia, like many Chinese, started to take holidays beyond China’s borders. These offered more physical luxury – but were arduous in other ways. Relaxing felt “such a waste of time”, explains Camellia. “We used the minimum amount of time to go to the maximum amount of places. When we got there,” she adds, “the only thing we would do was to take pictures; as proof, to show other people. People felt proud that they had been outside China. It meant you were rich.”

If the concept of leisure tourism is a relatively new one to those within the confines of the Club Med complex, to those outside it, in Yabuli itself, it remains an entirely alien one. In the town’s snowy streets, tourists themselves are regarded less as alien than as aliens: as I walk along the high street, locals stop in their tracks at the sight of someone as obviously foreign as I am; others follow for a better look.

In Yabuli’s marketplace, between icicled bicycles and boxes of frozen frogs (a local delicacy), I speak to some traders. When asked whether they are going to go skiing at Club Med (non-residents can also hire skis), they laugh at the ludicrousness of my question: they are, they mutter, far too old. And, one suspects, too poor and too busy: real village people not having much time for the Village People.

Yet all seem overwhelmingly pleased the resort has come. “It makes Yabuli popular,” the owner of a spice stall says. “Many outside people come here. Now many people know Yabuli!” All hope to send their children to learn to ski there one day – an encouraging aspiration for Club Med.

The appeal of the People’s Republic to companies such as Club Med is obvious: huge numbers of people and extraordinary growth rates. Club Med is only targeting the wealthiest 0.2 per cent of Chinese but, as Henri Giscard d’Estaing, Club Med’s chairman and president (and son of former French president Valéry) emphasises, even this tiny fraction is enormous.

Managing to add both bold and italics to his speech, he says: “0.2 per cent of 1.3 billion means 2.6 million!”

He continues: “The size, it’s amazing.” He starts to chuckle. “It will be the largest touristic market in the world.” He expects that by 2015, China will be Club Med’s second largest market.

D’Estaing isn’t the only one to have seen this potential. Thomas Cook is intending to expand into China in 2012 and the hotel chains Sheraton, Shangri La and Kempinski are all rapidly expanding their operations here. “It’s a hugely promising market,” agrees Razeen Sally, senior lecturer in international political economy at the London School of Economics. “Since China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 it has been much easier to own hotels and operate them.”

It isn’t only legislative matters but practical ones that have improved. “The Chinese government has spent a huge amount of money improving railways, roads and airports,” Dr Sally adds. “That creates business travel but it also creates opportunities for tourism. China is becoming critical to the international hotel chains.”

Back in the halls of Club Med Yabuli, the final verse of “YMCA” begins. Under the spotlights, China’s middle classes raise their arms for the final time. As they move, they are carefully watched by clusters of Club Med staff, all anxiously keen that their new Chinese guests should be enjoying themselves, that Club Med’s key new venture should succeed.

Perhaps, then, it isn’t so much that China is dancing to capitalism’s tune after all. Perhaps capitalism is dancing to China’s.


A week’s holiday at Club Med Yabuli ( costs from £1,052 including all meals and drinks, lift pass and tuition

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