Mao lives: how China keeps the new in touch with the old

The Chinese Communist party's 90th birthday is the perfect excuse for a modern campaign to glorify the values of the past

On a sultry summer afternoon, Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek stand face to face in Beijing's Longtan Park. In spite of the oppressive heat and the vicious civil war they waged, the chairman gazes at his old foe with serene benevolence.

For a moment, the passing tourists freeze. Then they break into grins and crowd around China's best-known figure for photographs and handshakes.

"We saw him on television and were impressed, but this time it was for real, standing in front of us. We're really honoured to meet him in person," said 40-year-old Wang Fei.

Mao is not, of course, quite the person he was. Thirty-five years after his death, his shoes are filled by impersonator Shang Qingrui. And as the Communist party of China (CPC) prepares for its 90th anniversary , demand for his services has boomed, with guest appearances already lined up at a string of official events.

The CPC has plenty to celebrate. It began in 1921 when 13 men gathered on a boat in eastern China to create an illegal organisation. Today it is the world's largest and most powerful political party, with more than 80 million members and control of the world's second largest economy.

Despite this, it seems necessary to keep today's members in awe of the glory of the past, hence a busy campaign complete with revolutionary tours, red song concerts and a new patriotic movie that sprinkles its account of the party's creation with a host of star cameos aimed at younger viewers.

As the party moves ever further from its roots – the new film is co-sponsored by Cadilllac – it exploits them to bolster its relentless, Leninist grip on political power.

"This is an absurd era," Professor He Bing of the China University of Politics and Law told graduates in a bold speech this month.

"They encourage you to sing revolutionary songs, but do not encourage you to make revolution; they encourage you to watch [the new movie] The Great Achievement of Founding The Party, but they do not encourage you to establish a party."

He Bing's view is clearly not part of the official campaign. "Let history tell the future!" booms Shang, in between drags on a cigarette that seems as much prop as habit. The impersonator is reliving the highlights of his last engagement – a party for cadres in Inner Mongolia – where he paid tribute to young red heroines who lost limbs to frostbite fighting to save a herd of sheep. His next booking is at a Beijing jail, to raise the morale of staff and re-educate prisoners. He also takes on corporate work although he drew the line at promoting a spa, judging it too undignified.

He is one of several "Mao Zedongs". When it comes to the impersonation business, you could almost say that Mao is China's Elvis. They even share slicked-back, jet-black hair and instantly recognisable uniforms – although the chairman's two piece is rather more sombre than the King's jewelled jumpsuits.

But imitating Mao is no joke: this act is deadly serious. Shang, who has also played the leader in television dramas, is hired not for boozy weddings but staid official events.

Others make their living impersonating Song Qingline, revolutionary and widow of Sun Yat-sen, and Deng Xiaoping, who began China's economic reform in the 1980s.

But what does it take to become a successful impersonator?

"First we need a person to look like them, and then we need the right character and a high level of thought like the great leaders," said Shang. "Even though China is huge, it's not easy to find someone combining those aspects."

Only bushy-eyebrowed former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai – Zheng Jianshan to friends – actually belongs to the party. But Shang, 56, sees their work as a vocation.

"In Mao's generation, the spirit was to serve the people. Now everyone has got their eyes on money," he said. "We grew up learning this culture. It is my responsibility to pass it on, otherwise it will be lost and young people will be lost."

Others believe the real problem is too much reverence for an imagined past. Last month the Caixin website published a taboo-breaking essay on Mao by influential liberal economist Mao Yushi – no relation. It accused the chairman of wrecking the country and unleashing the turmoil of the cultural revolution to avoid blame for the Great Famine – observations commonplace to Westerners but heretical in China. While the party has admitted Mao made mistakes, it cannot dwell on them without jeopardising its own position.

Though swiftly deleted, the piece sparked a mass petition demanding the arrest of the "traitorous" author. Some even threatened the 82-year-old with violence. For these Maoists, many of whom are relatively young and stand against what they see as capitalist excesses and foreign influence, this competing version of history represents a struggle between left and right.

This is different from the paternal, patriotic, almost apolitical image of the party promoted by current leaders such as Bo Xilai, Chongqing province's ambitious party secretary.

Some think the red culture drive makes the rise of "princelings" such as Bo – the children of revolutionary leaders – look less like inherited opportunity and more like the continuation of a glorious tradition. But it also reflects his populist touch. While many young people dismiss the campaign as dull and irrelevant, others warm to its message of togetherness and the sense of something "purer" than individual consumerism.

"The party may have moved far away from some elements of Marxism and Maoism, including the focus on class struggle," said historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. "But it is easy to see why, when many people feel it stands for nothing other than maintaining its own position of authority, its leaders might want to invoke memories of a more ideological time."


Tania Branigan in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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