Shaoshan, Hunan province becomes a place of celebration around this time of year and attracts millions of tourists. The small village is the birthplace of Mao Zedong, the founder and father of the People’s Republic of China. The local government has spent quite lavishly as they prepare for development and tourism projects to celebrate the 120th anniversary of his birth. In Shenzhen, a new statue in his image has been made, covered in gold, jade, and other jewels.
Although Mao and Marx have been replaced in many ways by modernization, the great helmsman is still at the center of China. His body still dominates Tiananmen Square, his giant portrait hanging at the entrance of the Forbidden City. His body remains preserved and still on display in a crystal casket in the Great Hall of the People just west of the square in Beijing. And of course, his face can be found on the country’s bank notes.
Materialism instead of class struggle
Some call him a tyrant, while others still revere the leader as a savior. He is indeed an enduringly multifarious figure in today’s China. He can be seen joining the ranks of popular tutelary gods in temples across the country. From Red Guard armbands to his little red book, Mao is also an item of great consumption. In textbooks across the nation, he is still zealously praised. He captured the success of the revolution and mobilized mass participation. He restored pride to a nation that was governed and occupied by multiple foreign powers over a century. Many would argue that he paved the way for the country’s later success under Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening up period. And most recently, he was compared to the late Nelson Mandela as a strong leader.
But his legacy is still being fought out. Mao’s attempts to shake rural China by a wave of communization turned out to be a massive failure and led to widespread famine that claimed more than 30 million lives. The issue is still taboo and those numbers are often debated if not outright denied as attempts to destroy the party’s credibility.
The exuberance of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the 1960s to turn politics upside down never materialized and didn’t turn out to be a triumph for the masses. When the revolution era came to an end with the arrest of the gang of four in 1976, the Party leadership absolved Mao. He did not become a fifth member of the gang, and has still not fully atoned for his sins. Deng Xiaoping addressed the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s status in a resolution that announced that he was 70 percent correct and 30 percent wrong. His mistakes were only secondary to his merits. The wounds of the revolution have never been fully attended to because he was separated from the worst of his policies.
The past and the present are undeniably linked and the successors of Mao must pay respect to their predecessor. The man remains a ubiquitous figure in a country that looks very different than when he died 37 years ago. Under Mao, there was a principle of class struggle but today’s China is a place where economic construction and materialism takes center stage. The party’s legitimacy has to be affirmed, and Mao’s legacy too must endure.
Nearly a decade ago, former Hu Jintao wore a Mao suit to praise the man for his success in unifying the country. Xi Jinping also said that officials should not doubt Mao’s achievements. Xi often quotes the late leader and has been seen as embracing Maoism since his rise. He has reestablished the primacy of the party and has gathered more power than any leader since Mao. His adherence to the official line has inspired mass line politics.
The past is taboo
Also, the fallen Communist Party leader Bo Xilai utilized grass-roots mobilization to deal with governance problems that included singing revolutionary songs from the Mao period and sent his critics to labor camps. His Mao-like tactics and policies gained popular support but eventually precipitated his undoing. He now faces life in prison. Ultimately, he was removed not because of his Maoist policies but because he was a political threat to the leadership. Xi may in fact embrace his political tactics to further solidify power in the future.
Maybe Deng was right. Maybe Mao’s contributions were far greater than his errors. But we won’t know until China faces itself and truthfully reflects on its history. If it doesn’t, then historic recurrence could manifest itself in various forms. In some ways, it already is. History sometimes has the tendency to bear striking similarities with the present, especially in a place where a large part of the past is still largely taboo.