BEIJING -- On the 100th anniversary of Mao Tse-tung's birth, President Jiang Zemin yesterday called on the Chinese people to remember the late leader as a national hero who nevertheless made many grave mistakes that the country's current leadership is still trying to rectify.
Mr. Jiang's nationally televised speech at the Great Hall of the People first praised Mao and then diminished him, casting paramount leader Deng Xiaoping as the man who saved China from Mao's errors. Mr. Deng, 89 and believed to be ailing, did not appear in public to acknowledge the anniversary.
All over China yesterday, events commemorating Mao, who died in 1976, seemed touched by ambivalence toward the man who guided the Chinese revolution but who also launched the country in to 10 years of terror during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
One national television network broadcast scenes from "The Red Detachment of Women" operatic ballet and other patriotic works. Another featured a glitzy two-hour variety show with occasional tearful testimonials from those who fondly remembered China's "Great Helmsman."
But most official speeches and statements were tempered by equal parts praise and criticism of the former Chinese leader, who ruled the People's Republic of China from its creation in 1949 until his death.
In the national Propaganda Department in central Beijing, 500 scholars convened yesterday for a five-day symposium to debate the legacy of Maoist thought.
In a speech at the symposium, Hu Sheng, president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, seemed to capture the official take on Mao in the Deng era.
"Although in the later part of his life Mao Tse-tung experienced many twists and turns and made a grave mistake in launching the Cultural Revolution, history will not forget his great deeds and his pioneering spirit of exploration," Mr. Hu said.
After the rally of an estimated 10,000 people where Mr. Jiang was the featured speaker, the senior leaders and other VIPs visited Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations.
The general public, including thousands who gathered yesterday on the fringes of the square despite a frigid northerly wind, will not be permitted in the stone mausoleum, where Mao's body is embalmed in a crystal glass case, until today.
The Chinese leadership still fears the potential of a populist political movement built around Mao 17 years after his death.
Economic policies under Mr. Deng have created yawning disparities in income between urban and rural areas, where Maoism maintains its firmest hold. "In the countryside, Mao is still revered," said U.S. author and Beijing resident William Hinton.