Xin Lin and Qiao Long | Radio Free Asia
Forty years after his death at the age of 82, late supreme leader Mao Zedong still presents a political dilemma to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
While revering Mao as the leader who founded the People’s Republic on Oct. 1, 1949, the party has been forced to conclude publicly that the leader made some “serious political mistakes.”
Some aspects of Mao’s legacy remain sacrosanct.
Three pro-democracy activists who during the 1989 student-led protests defaced the iconic portrait of Mao that still hangs on Tiananmen Gate at the heart of the Chinese capital were handed some of the toughest sentences ever meted out to dissidents.
But locally funded statues of Mao have also been torn down, reflecting official concerns over the potential use of the Great Helmsman’s image as a focus for millions of poor and dispossessed people in China, including the country’s army of petitioners, many of whom have lost their land or homes to government-backed development.
“Despite the political mistakes he made, it seems Mao’s status as the great leader of the Communist Party of China, is irreplaceable,” said the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper, repeating the current official line. “And the elders in particular have been deeply influenced by Mao.”
But there was scant mention of Mao, whose Great Leap Forward left tens of millions dead of starvation in the late 1950s and who in 1966 launched a decade of political turmoil and state-sanctioned violence known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in the official Chinese-language media over the anniversary.
A former official with the Communist Youth League from the eastern province of Jiangsu said this is because Mao remains a deeply divisive figure in China to this day.
“Chinese Communist Party convention dictates that any commemoration of Mao must be low-key, but this time, they haven’t commemorated him at all,” the retired official, who gave only a surname, Pan, told RFA.
“This is partly because the government stands at a historic crossroads itself,” he said. “They don’t know which way to turn, but they can’t go back to the past.”
“Mao is also something of a historical burden for the Communist Party, because he allowed 80 million Chinese people to die,” Pan said.
An online writer who asked to remain anonymous said the lack of commemoration for Mao this year is linked to President Xi Jinping’s nationwide “stability maintenance” operations.
“The Maoist left is still very strong, and the current government is afraid of trouble,” the writer said. “The Maoist left want to take China back to the Mao era; they were never happy with [the economic reforms of] Deng Xiaoping’s time.”
“This goes against the party line.”
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper said in an editorial that Beijing can’t afford to ditch Mao entirely, however, because to do so would be to cut off the party’s legitimacy, according to its own internal logic.
“People on the lowest rungs of society hark back to the propaganda of the Mao era that we lived in an equitable society where everything was held in common,” Pan said.
“But in fact, we know that this ideology is bankrupt, so the Xi administration is faced with something of a dilemma,” he said.
“They don’t care whether he is commemorated or not, but the portrait on Tiananmen Square cannot be removed, because it is like a totem for the Chinese Communist Party, and a symbol of its legitimacy.”
But he pointed to large and spontaneous demonstrations on Friday in Shaoshan by ordinary people paying homage to Mao, in spite of a lack of official enthusiasm.
“The government still cracks down on such things, and this reflects … the divisions, both in society as a whole, and in the leadership at the highest level,” he said.
Veterans rally for Mao
Mao’s birthplace at Shaoshan in the central province of Hunan remains a major tourist attraction, drawing massive crowds around the anniversary of his death on Sept. 9, official media reported.
Those paying homage to the father of communist China included laid-off workers and veterans who fought in the China-Vietnam War in 1979, said the Global Times.
One of the participants, who gave only the surname Liu, said there were at least 1,000 People’s Liberation Army veterans of China’s brief 1979 border war with Vietnam and the Korean War (1950-1953), many of whom live in extreme hardship in their old age.
“The inaction of corrupt government officials is prompting calls for a government that serves the people,” Liu said.
“They want the legitimate rights and interests of veterans to be protected, and they want an explanation … These veterans have shed blood to win peace in their motherland, so the government should act appropriately,” she said.
“Instead, the government sees them as targets for stability maintenance.”
Retired military personnel have been cited by officials and activists as a highly sensitive sector of the population, who might swing a tide of public opinion against the party, because of their proven loyalty to their country.
“Ever since the reform era began [in 1979], because of official corruption, we have found ourselves on the poverty line,” said Liu, the daughter of a Korean War veteran. “What Chairman Mao offered was equality.”
“Today’s officials only serve themselves, which has led to a great deal of public anger,” she said.
Earlier this month, authorities in Australia’s two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, canceled planned concerts commemorating Mao’s death, after Chinese Australians complained the content was insensitive.
Australia is home to one of the biggest groups of overseas Chinese, with one million people out of 24 million either born in China, or identifying as having Chinese heritage.
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