BEIJING – A curious thing happened two weeks ago as China prepared for the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birthday Thursday. One of the main events — a symphony of favorite communist songs at the Great Hall of the People — got an abrupt name change.
No longer would it be called “The Sun is Reddest, Chairman Mao is Dearest.” Instead, all traces of modern China’s founding father were scrubbed from posters, websites and programs, and the show was repackaged as a generic New Year’s gala called “Singing the Motherland’s Praises.”
The sudden alteration — ordered from on high — was just one of many signs of the Communist Party’s uneasy feelings about Mao. This week’s 12-decade anniversary has a special resonance in China, which traditionally measured time in 60-year cycles.
Even decades after his death, there is uncertainty about how to tackle the legacy of the man who cemented the party’s grip on power but was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, disastrous policies and brutal purges.President Xi Jinping acknowledged Thursday that Mao made “mistakes.” Xi, who has regularly cited Mao’s theories, and six other top leaders visited Mao’s mausoleum, where they bowed three times to his statue.
Near Mao’s childhood home in Shaoshan, in the central province of Hunan, thousands of fans stood through the night and praised the founder of the People’s Republic of China, who led the country for 27 years until his death in 1976.
Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” is estimated by Western historians to have led to as many as 45 million deaths from famine, and his Cultural Revolution plunged China into a decade of violent chaos.
The Communist Party’s official stance is that Mao was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong.” It has never allowed an open historical reckoning of his actions.
At the heart of that ambivalence is a debate over China’s future. Die-hard leftists are pushing for the new leaders to revive Mao’s teachings as a path to stronger nationalism, economic equality and party legitimacy. Liberals say the time has come not only for economic reforms and other new paths forward, but also for an honest assessment of China’s troubled past.
Mao is everywhere, even after death. He appears on most of China’s bank notes, is invoked countless times a day in party speeches and remains a staple of state-sponsored TV dramas and movies.
Many still hold his ideals dear. For Cao Zhaojin, Mao represents a simpler time before China became so money-obsessed.
“Chairman Mao represents a belief in communism, in putting the collective good ahead of yourself, in selfless contribution and values,” he said. “Look at our society today. . . . Nobody believes in anything anymore but money and personal gain.”
Representing the opposition, Bao Tong — a former aide to party leader Zhao Ziyang, who was purged during the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown — penned a scathing editorial Monday decrying the creation of a false “myth of Mao” that “still haunts China today.”
In his essay, Bao described Mao as a megalomaniac who sold Chinese workers on a pipe dream of equality, sacrificed millions in pursuit of vanity and ruthlessly killed all rivals.
Such outspoken criticism of Mao remains rare in the Communist Party. But official assessments have slowly evolved over time. An editorial this week in the Global Times, a nationalistic state-controlled newspaper, acknowledged that assessing his legacy these days “is not easy because we are still living in the ‘era of Mao.’ “
As a result, many officials this year have carefully taken their cues from Xi. The president’s term began last year with Maoists secretly hopeful that he shared their views. But he has since proven more complex and pragmatic than leftists or liberals would prefer. Xi’s actions have appeared to be driven not by ideology but by consolidation of power above all else, analysts and party officials say.
In preparation for the anniversary, Mao’s hometown, Shaoshan, spent $320 million — renovating historical sites and museums, organizing galas and building new roads and other infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to pass through.
Much of the money reportedly budgeted by Shaoshan for the anniversary went up in smoke during a four-hour fireworks display Thursday, and down the throats of thousands who lined up for free noodles — a traditional birthday meal.
At least 100 self-described “Red Internet friends,” a group of activists to the left of the current Communist Party leadership, were present in Shaoshan.
Several said police detained pro-Mao activists from different provinces to prevent them from attending, underscoring the challenge Mao’s legacy poses to the party’s current leadership.