Almost 120 years after his birth, Mao Zedong, the man who founded the communist state remains a constant presence in China, revered as a hero – even as China moves further away from his vision of society.
China is marking this Thursday’s anniversary of his birth with relatively understated celebrations. It is a far cry from the cult of personality that once surrounded Chairman Mao, and a sign of how far China has travelled in the 37 years since his death and more than three decades since it abandoned orthodox Marxism.
President 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 has also 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.
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.
Historian and political analyst Zhang Lifan said: “Because Mao was founder of the communist state, to commemorate Mao is to in fact demonstrate the legitimacy of their own rule.”
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 £1.5 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 facelifts as part of an effort to promote “red tourism” and bring development to some of China’s least developed areas. They including a £10 million gilded statue of the former leader, studded with precious gems, in the city of Shenzhen.
His image graces almost all bank notes from one to 100 yuan and Chinese studios crank out a steady flow of new films and television series based on highly sterilised versions of his life and the party’s history.
Such hagiographies studiously avoid Mao’s central part in China’s two worst post-war 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 both Washington and Moscow to establish China as a new geopolitical centre.
For many younger Chinese, steeped in the sometimes xenophobic nationalism that has replaced communism as the national ethos, 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.
Mr Pantsov said: “Overall, most Chinese will always commemorate Mao as a nationalist hero regardless of his communist tyranny.”