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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Serving the People with Art and Propaganda in Socialist and Post-Socialist China
Serve the Tourists, Serve the People: From Revolutionary Diplomacy to Mass-market Tourism
Friday, March 26, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Columbia University, United States
Workers serving foreign tourists in China’s hotels, restaurants, and transportation facilities in the 1970s performed their jobs under the guidance of ideological campaigns that attempted to define the political and economic nature of service labor. While at the beginning of the decade these campaigns had attacked as revisionist forms of customer service that “targeted both refined and popular taste,” by mid-decade tourism service workers reported that they were “studying professional skill for the sake of Chairman Mao’s Revolutionary Diplomatic Line.” By the end of the decade, these ideological campaigns for service workers unabashedly emphasized the development of mass-market tourism and the professionalization of customer service skills as integral parts of China’s program of “Four Modernizations.” Yet in many ways the discourse around service labor remained the same. Young people had long resisted assignment to the service sector in favor of roles in primary production, and campaigns over the years had urged them to subsume their individual ambitions to a collectivist narrative. As the political and economic terms that framed this narrative changed, tourism service workers struggled to understand how their work fit within an ethos of “serving the people.” This paper examines the evolution of this narrative of the value of service labor in China’s growing tourism industry of the 1970s and early 1980s, arguing that tourism and the service sector were key grounds in the recalibration of China’s economic ideology in its transformation from a socialist to a post-socialist society.