Much has been made of China’s “red” turn in its Maoist revival over the past year. But red is also the colour of money in China.

If there was any doubt about which red was more important in the country today, developments over the past few days have served as a powerful reminder that it is money, not Maoism, which holds sway.

Chongqing, a massive southwestern city, has been the epicentre of the movement to bring back Maoism – at least, its most entertaining bits, in song, dance and theatre shows.

A law professor, He Bing, tried recently to work out the full cost of all the “red song” performances over the past three years. With 104,000 concerts involving 80m people in Chongqing, the direct costs, such as costumes and transportation, and the indirect costs from lost work or study time might have totaled the astronomical sum of Rmb270bn ($47.7bn). That money would have been better used on something truly socialist like public health insurance, he suggested.

His numbers seem incredible: it works out at US$600 per head: given average GDP per head in China of $7,600 annually in PPP terms, it would be around a month’s income for every person involved.

Still, He Bing’s calculations were reported on Chinese blogs, not in the official media, but they spread widely. The Chongqing government this week issued a strong denial. He Shizhong, head of the city’s media department, said that the Rmb270bn estimate was laughable, surpassing Chongqing’s fiscal revenues over the same time period.

The “red songs” had, in fact, cost the government very little, because they emanated from the voluntary fervour of the masses, he said.

More to the point, they had actually been a boon for Chongqing’s economy. The city’s GDP grew by 17.1 per cent last year, putting it in the top three nationwide.

“Not only has ‘singing red’ in Chongqing not delayed ordinary work and study, it has helped arouse a fighting spirit for getting things done and for innovating, improving the environment for development, and pushing forward the fast and stable growth of the economy,” he said.

The debate was revealing about the state of affairs in the new China. The best angle for attacking the Maoist revival? To argue that is has been a waste of money. The best angle for defending the Maoist revival? To argue that it has stimulated growth.

Another announcement in Chongqing this week confirmed the supremacy of economic pragmatism. Faced with growing anger over plans for a “red” theme park that would have cost Rmb2.5bln ($386mn), the city shelved the project. “The authorities thought it was not feasible,” Li Jing, a local official, said.

[UPDATE] Professor He Bing has said that the Chinese blog reports of his Rmb270bn estimate were incorrect by a factor of 100. The costs to Chongqing were probably about Rmb2.7bn, he said. Accepting that clarification, the fundamental point remains. Professor He sees the red songs as a waste of money; the Chongqing government sees the red songs as a fillip to economic growth.

Related reading:
Maoist revival gathers pace in Chongqing, FT
China’s economy grows 9.5% in second quarter, FT
China’s bullet train: dark & sweaty, beyondbrics
China debt: Moody’s flying guess, beyondbrics

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