The Political and Cultural Economy of Sightseeing: Foreign Tourism in the "New China" (1949-1978)

The Political and Cultural Economy of Sightseeing: Foreign Tourism in the "New China" (1949-1978)
“The Political and Cultural Economy of Sightseeing” examines how personnel within China’s state tourism bureaucracy struggled to balance the use of foreign tourism as a form of political, historical, and cultural representation with the demands of developing a revenue-generating service industry in a socialist economy. I argue that tourism played an important role in the creation of the “New China”: a re-imagination of the Chinese nation-state as a political, economic, social, and cultural entity under socialism. The story of socialism, tourism, and the New China presented in this dissertation implicates the ongoing effort – during the Mao era and beyond – to define friend and enemy and distinguish past from present. This process was an integral part of narrating the New China – both domestically and abroad. As this dissertation shows, the issue of how to characterise foreign tourism and its role in the nation’s political and economic life was never fully resolved in socialist China, just as Chinese socialism itself was subject to constant negotiation and interpretation by central Party leaders, regional cadres, and the masses. Tourism provided one means of earning foreign currency needed for the development of the New China, and it was also a medium through which the story of China and Chinese socialism could be presented to diverse groups of foreign sightseers. At the same time, the tourism cadres, guides, and service workers who narrated this story struggled to understand it themselves. Tourism officials, tourism workers, and tourists all had their own conceptions of the New China and the place of tourism in it. Tourism officials needed to know what the tourism industry meant for the politics and economy of the New China before they could show that new nation to others. Tourism workers needed to understand where their form of service work fit into the narrative of the New China in order to perform their service for the tourists and for “the people.” Finally, foreign tourists gazed upon the physical and political landscape of the New China in ways that tourism planners, guides, and service workers often struggled to anticipate and manage. As this dissertation shows, together, these three groups built a tourism industry and contributed to the establishment of a new national narrative.


Gavin Healy

Defended in

1 Jan 2021 – 31 Dec 2021

PhD defended at

Columbia University