China: Mao’s 120th birthday celebrations muted

Students in Shanghai wear masked in a smoggy Shanghai yesterday. Picture: Reuters
Students in Shanghai wear masked in a smoggy Shanghai yesterday. Picture: Reuters
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China’s leaders marked the 120th anniversary of the birth of Mao Zedong yesterday.

They were led by president Xi Jinping, who bowed three times before Mao’s statue on a visit to his mausoleum in Tiananmen Square in the heart of the capital, Beijing, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

The leaders “revered” Mao’s embalmed body which lies in state in the mausoleum and “jointly recalled the glorious achievements of comrade Mao Zedong,” Xinhua reported.

In a sign of the relatively understated approach the party is taking with the anniversary, there was no mention of Mao’s birthday on the front of the party’s flagship People’s Daily.

On page seven the paper hailed Mao as a brilliant “proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist,” but the full-page commentary was accompanied by an editorial that said the “best commemoration” of Mao would be to keep advancing economic reforms that were launched by his successor.

Under Mao’s leadership, China lurched between industrialisation drives and violent political campaigns that left tens of millions dead before he died in 1976 and his successors began their free market experiments. Mao played a central role in China’s worst post-war tragedies: the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, in which millions died from starvation and persecution.

In a speech to party leaders yesterday, Mr Xi sought to affirm Mao’s legacy while acknowledging vaguely Mao had made mistakes, though he said they should be assessed in the context of his time.

“We should not judge our predecessors based on today’s conditions, level of development and understanding, nor should we make excessive demands for them to achieve what only the descendants could achieve,” he said.

But his speech neglected to note that Mao’s critics compare China’s situation in his time not with the present day but with other countries going through similar post-war challenges, said Beijing-based Chinese historian Zhang Lifan.

“While China was busy with power struggles and political campaigns, others were wholeheartedly building their countries,” Mr Zhang said. “In Mao’s hands, China’s modernisation was delayed by at least 20 years. This problem is one they’re not willing to discuss.”

Censors appeared to be busy scrubbing criticism of Mao off China’s social media sites. But the views of liberal commentators and intellectuals were still circulating widely on a smartphone messaging app, WeChat.

“Speaking of Mao’s legacy, it at least includes: the silencinvg of public opinion, a regime that will never be elected, the harmonious co-operation of the three powers of government, and the creation of a production line of wrongful convictions,” wrote former government adviser Bao Tong in a recent essay shared on WeChat. “Of which the most important is undoubtedly power that leads everything. With it, one can possess the manpower and fighting strength of hundreds of millions.”

The run-up to the anniversary has included exhibitions, concerts and TV specials. Yesterday, the party’s Central Committee held a symposium at the Great Hall of the People, Xinhua said.


CHAIRMAN Mao remains a strong symbolic presence in modern China, though not nearly as ubiquitous as he was during his lifetime. Thousands of Chinese tourists line up daily to view his embalmed body at the mausoleum, which has also been renovated.

His image graces almost all bank notes from one to 100 yuan, and Chinese studios crank out a steady flow of films and television series based on highly sterilised versions of his life.

Mao was born in Hunan province the son of a wealthy farmer on 26 December 1893, and died on 9 September 1976 as head of the Communist state in Beijing. During his reign, from 1947 until his death, it is estimated up to 70 million Chinese died due starvation, forced labour or were executed.