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With his image gracing bank notes and staring out from Tiananmen Gate, Mao Zedong remains a constant presence in China 120 years after his birth, revered as a hero who founded the communist state and restored national pride — even as China moves ever further from his vision of a communist society.

China marked Thursday’s anniversary of his birth with relatively understated celebrations, a far cry from the cult of personality that once surrounded Mao and a sign of how far China has traveled in the 37 years since his death and more than three decades since the junking of orthodox Marxism.

Communist Party chief Xi Jinping invokes Mao in his fight against corruption and borrows Maoist concepts such as the “mass line” to extol the virtues of close ties between the rulers and those ruled. Yet he also has proposed giving the free market a “decisive role” in the economy, a concept that would have been anathema to the “Great Helmsman,” as Mao was called.

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Still, as heirs of the rigid one-party political system imposed by Mao and his party comrades, the current leadership has a strong interest in venerating his memory.

“Because Mao was founder of the communist state, to commemorate Mao is to in fact demonstrate the legitimacy of their own rule,” says historian and political analyst Zhang Lifan.

The official Xinhua news agency said Communist Party chief Xi Jinping and other top leaders paid tribute to the founder of the communist state, bowing three times before a statue of Mao.

Xinhua said the leaders also visited the Mao mausoleum in the heart of the capital, Beijing, where Mao’s embalmed body lies in state. The party’s flagship People’s Daily said in an editorial that the “best commemoration” of Mao would be to keep advancing economic reforms.

The run-up to the anniversary has included dozens of symposiums, exhibitions, concerts and television specials.

Not surprisingly, many are looking to cash in on the date, especially in his home village of Shaoshan in the central province of Hunan. Mao worship is a cornerstone of the local economy, and the town fathers are using $2.5 billion in public funds to renovate museums and historical sites, along with highways, schools and other infrastructure.

Sites associated with Mao around the country are getting face-lifts as part of an effort to promote “red tourism” and bring development to some of China’s least developed areas. Excess is also making a showing, including a $16 million gilded statue of the man — blinged-out with precious gems — in the city of Shenzhen, and a special-edition offering of China’s most expensive liquor.

Misdeeds overlooked

Mao remains a strong symbolic presence, though not nearly as ubiquitous he was during his lifetime. Thousands of Chinese tourists line up daily to view his embalmed body in its Tiananmen Square mausoleum, which has also undergone renovation. His image graces almost all bank notes from 1 to 100 yuan, and Chinese studios crank out a steady flow of new movies and television series based on highly sterilized versions of his life and the party’s history.

Such hagiographies studiously avoid Mao’s central part in China’s two worst postwar tragedies: the 1959-63 Great Leap Forward and 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. As many as 30 million Chinese died through starvation and persecution.

Instead, they focus on Mao’s role as leader of the communist guerrillas who battled Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, as founder of the Communist State in 1949, and as a leader who defied the U.S. and Soviet Union to establish China as a new geopolitical center.

For many younger Chinese, Mao’s achievement in winning China respect far outweighs his political misdeeds, said Alexander Pantsov, co-author of last year’s well-received biography “Mao: The Real Story.”

“Overall, most Chinese will always commemorate Mao as a nationalist hero regardless of his communist tyranny,” Pantsov said.

As China’s last truly autocratic leader, Mao also represents a simpler time, and his legacy is invoked as an emblem of fiery nationalism and to protest current policies seen as favoring the growing wealth gap that has supplanted Mao’s impoverished but egalitarian society. Most recently, Mao portraits featured prominently among the crowd during sometimes violent anti-Japanese protests last year.

“Mao represents the party and the party represents China. That’s how a lot of people see it,” said Beijing office worker Jenny Zhu, 32, born five years after Mao’s death.

Die-hard fans

Mao’s image was also embraced by supporters of Bo Xilai, who had been among the country’s most powerful politicians before he was sentenced to life in prison this year for corruption and abuse of power. Bo had revived Mao-era songs and slogans as part of an anti-crime campaign targeting newly wealthy property developers in the megacity of Chongqing, even while pursuing market-oriented growth.

Officially, judgments on Mao’s legacy have been closed since successor Deng Xiaoping’s pronouncement in 1981 that the former leader’s contributions were “70 percent positive, 30 percent negative.” Amid a general ambivalence about politics among younger Chinese, ideological debates have been pushed to the margins.

However, for die-hards such as Fan Jinggang, editor-in-chief of the Maoist website Utopia, Mao remains an untarnished hero and Thursday’s anniversary a cause for vast celebration.

“The people are showing their sincere lofty feelings toward Chairman Mao and their striving for fairness and justice and their love for the party and the socialist nation,” Fan said.

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