Chongqing, home of China's 'red' revival

At the international airport in Chongqing in southwest China, travellers are greeted with a massive sign inviting them to "sing red songs" and spread the Communist party's good word.

Thirty-five years after the death of Mao Zedong, the revolutionary spirit is alive and thriving in this teeming province-sized mega-city, despite the more capitalist leanings adopted by the world's second-largest economy.

The old-school Maoist propaganda campaign includes sending officials to work in the countryside, red chorales at state-run firms, patriotic television shows and cutting sentences for anybody convicted of a crime if they have been involved in boosting "red" culture.

For Chongqing's older residents, the movement is tinged with nostalgia. Every afternoon, people gather at the square in front of the city's Great Hall of the People for impromptu - and somewhat out-of-tune - singing sessions.

"Red culture is not just about singing for the party. It's also a mindset that encourages Chinese people to defend the revolutionary cause and build the nation," says retiree Li Jianhua, obviously well-rehearsed in the party line.

At the heart of this movement that will gather pace until July 1, when the country marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Communist party, is Chongqing's influential party secretary and rising star Bo Xilai.

Observers say Bo, an ambitious former commerce minister, is keen to win a seat in the party's nine-member politburo standing committee - the apex of political power in China.

Some believe he sees the Maoist revival in Chongqing as a way to advance his personal agenda.

Others like Su Wei, a professor at the city's Communist party school, say the movement is simply a step on the road to China's "material and spiritual development" as envisioned by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Su told AFP that Bo had been disappointed to see that pop love songs from Hong Kong and Taiwan had replaced patriotic anthems in the hearts of many Chinese over the past 30 years of opening up and economic reform.

So, Bo decided to promote 45 official songs by any means possible.

"These are not just old songs. Eighteen of them were written during the period of reform, 20 of them during the revolutionary period and the others between 1949 and 1978," Su said.

A drive across sprawling Chongqing - home to 33 million people - reveals that while some like 60-something Li and his fellow singers are embracing Bo's initiative, it is not having a profound influence on the whole.

Luo Yang, 24, says at his university the teachers are more into the "red" revival than the students. Nevertheless, he can name several red songs - "Five-star Flag", "Me and My Country" and "Red East".

Among Chongqing's labourers, the movement is having more success.

At the Qiutian gear factory, workers are encouraged to take part in the weekly red chorale. Once an employee signs up, missing a session is forbidden.

Dozens of people wearing blue coveralls banded together to belt out a military tune, "Follow the Communist Party", at one recent choir meeting, under the watchful eye of Bo himself - staring down from a giant poster.

"You are a beacon of light illuminating the sea before dawn. You are a helmsman guiding the ship," they sang - perhaps a reference to Mao, the "Great Helmsman".

He Yonglin, the factory's party vice-secretary and also head of the lone union, hailed the many benefits of the patriotic vocal exercises.

"The young people, once they learned how to sing, have made ideological progress. They are starting to learn some discipline," He said.

Chongqing recently sent a 1,000-strong chorus aged six to 80 to Beijing to perform in patriotic shows, where revolutionary symbols are everywhere - sickles and hammers, red stars, khaki uniforms and flat caps.

And this month, 60,000 people gathered at the Bird's Nest in the Chinese capital for a massive concert of red songs.