BEIJING -- China marked the 120th anniversary of Mao Tse-tung’s birth Thursday, feting the communist revolutionary with concerts of patriotic songs, visits to his mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, broadcasts of TV docudramas and exhibits of calligraphy and photography.
President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Li Keqiang and other senior leaders paid respects at Mao’s mausoleum, where his body first went on view in 1977, a year after his death. Xi, who has been championing an anti-corruption campaign, said that this year’s Mao commemorations should be “solemn, austere and practical,” but some of the commemorations have been extravagant.
In Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan, a solid gold Mao statue on a 3-foot tall jade base -- said to cost more than $16 million -- went on display this week. Leading up to the anniversary, a caravan of 120 camels was marched from Mongolia to Shaoshan over the course of 200 days to build anticipation for the event.
Underlying all the pomp and circumstance, though, are growing tensions about how Mao should be remembered and regarded.
A number of academics have been pushing for a more open discussion of Mao’s record, including more direct acknowledgment of the millions of deaths caused by his economic policies and political terror campaigns.
At the same time, as the nation continues pressing ahead with economic reforms, a yawning wealth gap, extensive corruption and other problems have created a nostalgia for more egalitarian times, and some leftists have sought to use Mao’s image as a totem for their concerns.
Communist Party leaders face a delicate balance of honoring the founding father of the People’s Republic while moving further away from the collectivist policies he championed.
At times, they have found it useful to revive Mao-era practices -- state-run television recently has been broadcasting self-criticism sessions in which officials admit shortcomings. Although tame compared with such sessions in the 1960s, which often featured dunce caps and beatings, the new fault-finding sessions seek to convey a sense of obligation to the masses, who have no voice in the selection of their leaders and have become increasingly angry and vocal about official profligacy.
An opinion poll published this week by the Global Times, a newspaper closely affiliated with the Communist Party, found that 85% of respondents said they believe that Mao’s merits “greatly outweigh his mistakes,” a view that echoes party doctrine.
As for his faults, nearly four in five said his biggest one was launching the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, while about 60% cited the famine-inducing Great Leap Forward, and just under half mentioned his fostering of a personality cult.
In regard to his merits, “spreading the notion of fairness” was cited as his second-greatest attribute, behind only the act of founding the nation through revolution.
"Fairness being the second most popular of Mao's merits makes sense as it's part of the reason that people miss the Mao era, because the wealth gap was not as big as now," said Zhao Zhikui, a research fellow at the Academy of Marxism under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He noted that this should be something of concern to authorities.
Zhang Lifan, a historian who specializes in the Communist Party, said he felt that this year there was a bit more attention being paid to Mao than on previous major anniversaries “because there are a lot of social conflicts and lots of debate about how we should regard Mao.”
At the same time, he said the government was blocking any “real discussion” about Mao, noting that when he recently posted some material online intending to “start a new debate” about him, his microblog account was promptly shut down.
Compared with the 1980s, when many documents about Mao’s era were being released and there was a much more open discussion about him, “now the government does not allow you to know or discuss the facts,” he said.
Zhang said he believed that party leaders had looked at the history of the Communist collapse in the Soviet Union and concluded that discrediting Stalin was among the mistakes the party made that led to its downfall.
“But the achievements of reform have been getting away from Mao’s policies, and the problems that remain all have Mao’s DNA in them,” he said. “To discuss Mao is an unavoidable thing ... and hiding history is a foolish move.”
Tommy Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.