Gabrielle Jaffe Freelance journalist Beijing

Hardliners pay tribute to Mao Zedong in his home town of Shaoshan. Credit: Reuters

Official celebrations of Mao Zedong’s 120th birthday in Beijing yesterday were decidedly low key — but hardliners who had gathered in his home town ensured that the date was fêted with appropriate fanfare.

President Xi and the six other leaders who make up the Chinese Communist Party’s standing committee paid their respects with a solemn morning visit to Mao’s mausoleum on Tiananmen Square, but the Communist Party’s newspaper, the People’s Daily, made no mention of his birthday on its front page.

In a speech, Mr Xi alluded to the suffering that Mao had brought the country, saying: “We cannot worship [revolutionary leaders] like gods or refuse to allow people to point out their errors.” However, he was careful to add: “Neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes.”

The question of how to venerate the Chairman has become a headache for the Communist leadership. He is the architect of the system from which they draw their legitimacy, yet they are embarking on economic reforms that would have been anathema to him.
Mao remains a divisive figure in the population at large. For liberals, he is the man responsible for tens of millions of deaths by starvation and persecution during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

However, Maoist hardliners, disgusted by the corruption of the reform era, remain loyal. In January they circulated a petition calling for Mr Xi to declare December 26 Mao Zedong Day.

In Mao’s hometown, Shaoshan, thousands gathered yesterday to sing Cultural Revolution-era songs and offer tributes, bowing before a giant statue of the “Great Helmsman”.

Shaoshan’s local officials reportedly spent 1.94 billion yuan (£195 million) on the celebration, with the money going towards a fireworks display that went on for four hours and the refurbishment of the town’s Mao museum, among other projects.

However, with “red tourism” bringing more than ten million travellers a year to Shaoshan, some have suggested that the local authorities were, perhaps, motivated by revenue as much as their love of Mao.

First appeared in The Times on December 27, 2013