Great Helmsman or ruinous dictator? China remembers Mao, 40 years after death

Small but vocal group of neo-Maoists dismiss western focus on famine and chaos to praise the republic’s founder on anniversary of passing

On Friday morning Zhang Hongliang, a 60-year-old academic, will jump out of bed and make his way to a secret rendezvous in north-western Beijing to sing a song about Mao Zedong.

Flanked by dozens of kindred Maoist spirits, the Chinese scholar will observe a minute’s silence before delivering a speech on the glories of the Great Helmsman’s 27-year-reign called: “Mao Zedong: the People’s Leader”.

Later that day, after hours spent pondering Mao’s teachings, the memorial meeting will conclude with a rendition of The Internationale.

“If we abandon Mao’s thoughts China will no have no future,” said Zhang, a professor at Beijing’s Minzu University and one of the country’s most outspoken neo-Maoists. “Without Chairman Mao there would be no new China.”

Zhang is not alone.

As the People’s Republic of China prepares to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its founder’s death, on 9 September 1976, similar memorials have been taking place across the country.

In Tangshan, an industrial hub that was levelled by an earthquake just over a month before Mao’s death, supporters marked the revolutionary’s passing with a two-day festival of poetry, shadow puppetry, calligraphy and storytelling.

A photograph published by the Huan Bohai News website showed participants huddled around a banner that read: “Chairman Mao is China’s Number One”.

In Hengshui, another northern city, a Communist party-run website said high school students mourned the Great Leader with “impassioned poetry recitations, dance and opera”.

And in Beijing newspapers have reported a spike in the number of Maoist pilgrims flocking to Tiananmen Square, where the Chairman’s embalmed body has been on display since a colossal mausoleum was opened there in 1977.

Once inside, mourners lay yellow chrysanthemums at the feet of a three-metre marble statue of the revolutionary leader, in a quasi-religious display of reverence.

“My journey won’t be complete until I see Chairman Mao,” one 56-year-old pilgrim, Huang Xin, told the Global Times as he queued to see the casket this week.

Mao Zedong on holiday in 1961 in Lushan. He died 40 years ago on 9 September 1976.
Mao Zedong on holiday in 1961 in Lushan. He died 40 years ago on 9 September 1976. Photograph: XINHUA/AFP/Getty Images

Shedding tears as he saw Mao’s rubbery cadaver up-close for the first time, Huang told the newspaper: “Our generation has a very deep attachment to Mao, who created a harmonious society in which people could trust each other with no tricks at all”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in the country with the world’s largest online population - 710 million at the last government count – cyberspace has also been marking the event. The Global Times said almost 2.5 million people had taken part in an “online flower-laying campaign” paying tribute to the Great Helmsman on the social networking app WeChat.

The commemorations sit uneasily with the widespread consensus among historians about the evils of Mao’s rule.

“I see him as one of the greatest criminals of the 20th century,” said Frank Dikötter, the Dutch historian who has written a trilogy of books about the horrors of Mao’s rule.

“I’m very reluctant to put him above Hitler but equal, head-to-head. It’s a tough race to win.”

Some believe Dikötter goes too far in his unflinching demolition of Mao’s reputation but few serious China scholars describe the communist dictator’s reign as anything but calamitous.

The economy was crippled and up to 45 million people are believed to have died in the Great Famine caused by Mao’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward push for breakneck industrialisation in the late 1950s.

Up to two million more lives are thought to have been lost in the tumultuous decade-long Cultural Revolution that began 50 years ago this year and officially ended with Mao’s death in 1976.

Even the Communist party itself has admitted that period of Mao’s rule inflicted “grave disorder, damage and retrogression” on the country.

Despite all this, Jeff Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said Mao remained a revered figure in some parts of China.

Many in the west felt disbelief at how people could have “anything other than revulsion at somebody who was responsible for the Great Leap famine and the Cultural Revolution”.

“[But] within China that is seen as just one part of Mao’s life,” said Wasserstrom, editor of the recently published Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China.

Rather than focusing on the terrible calamities he inflicted on China during the 1950s and 1960s, many Chinese would this week remember the Mao of 1949, a revolutionary hero “who led to the creation of a country that they now take great pride in, that is able to throw its weight around in the world”.

“This is going to be a very selective commemoration of parts of Mao’s life, that aren’t the ones that we necessarily dwell upon outside of China,” Wasserstrom said of this week’s memorials.

Zhang, who is part of a small but vocal minority of neo-Maoists, said criticism of the Great Leader was a consequence of his unflinching support for the masses.

The leftist scholar claimed Mao, who was 82 when he died, had been “misread and even demonised” for daring to single-handedly take on the academic elite and bureaucrats in order to defend the interests of the people. “Chairman Mao was the loneliest leader in Chinese history,” Zhang said.

On Friday, like-minded devotees will congregate in Shaoshan, a small town in central China where he was born in 1893, to pay tribute to Mao.

A 4m-high Mao Zedong statue overlooks farmland in Shaoshan, the former Chinese leader’s hometown.
A 4m-high Mao Zedong statue overlooks farmland in Shaoshan, the former Chinese leader’s hometown. Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA

“We miss the life of equality and justice experienced in Mao’s time,” one told state media.

In Beijing, a source with ties to the Chinese leadership told Reuters there would be “low-key” remembrance events.

Dikötter said Mao’s central role in the Communist party’s history meant Beijing was in a catch-22 situation over how to handle the anniversary.

“On the one hand, they fully realise that there are large portions of the population who know perfectly well what a horrendous figure Mao was … On the other hand you can’t really do without him. So the compromise position is to have some sort of low-key celebration here or there.”

The Dutch historian predicted Beijing would also seek to silence anyone attempting to use the anniversary to revive debate over the sins of China’s founding father.

“The attempt here is to make sure that nobody really sullies that image, that nobody really undermines history, which is one of the great pillars of legitimacy for the Communist party of China,” he said.

Yang Jisheng, a Chinese journalist who helped expose the millions of deaths caused by Mao’s Great Famine, said he was unable to comment on the anniversary of the Chairman’s passing.

“It is not convenient to be interviewed,” he said, using an expression common in China when someone has been pressured by authorities not to speak out. “I’m sorry.”

Additional reporting by Christy Yao.


Tom Phillips in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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