Saturday, September 09, 2006

Thousands Queue to See Mao on 30th Anniversary of Death

As reported by Reuters on September 9, 2006

BEIJING -- Thousands queued at Beijing's Mao Zedong Mausoleum on Saturday for a glimpse of the embalmed corpse of the former Great Helmsman on the 30th anniversary of his death but Chinese state media kept coverage of the event low-key.

Police and undercover agents infiltrating crowds outside the squat building on Tiananmen Square were a reminder of government sensitivity about how the man who founded "new China" -- but then plunged it into bouts of famine and chaos -- is remembered.

Five years after his death the Communist Party, which uses Mao as an ideological prop to help govern an increasingly materialistic country, officially declared him "70 percent right and 30 percent wrong." It has discouraged further discussion.

"Their legitimacy still relies upon his enormous legend. Khrushchev denounced Stalin knowing they could fall back on Lenin. but Mao is both," said Roderick MacFarquhar, Mao scholar at Harvard University.

For the hundreds of millions of rural poor in particular, often left behind by the vast economic changes of recent years, he represents a government that cared about their plight.

"We adore Chairman Mao. We are farmers like him and have endured a lot of hardship," said 45-year old Guo Xin, who had taken an overnight bus from neighboring Hebei province to lay three yellow chrysanthemums at the Mausoleum at dawn.

But officials who use Mao's image to shore up their authority are also wary of stirring up memories of his increasingly autocratic leadership and ruthless political campaigns, which claimed millions of lives.

The low-profile cover of the anniversary was a stark contrast to the extravagant bombast of tributes at the height of Mao's personality cult.

A memorial gala with the throwback title "The reddest sun -- Chairman Mao is the most beloved" was held at the cavernous seat of parliament, the Great Hall of the People, on Friday.

But its program of famous names from the 1960s and 1970s performing songs based on Mao's works and reciting his poems got just a brief write-up buried in the pages of the Beijing Daily.

Only the English-language China Daily, a government paper aimed mostly at foreigners, put the anniversary on its front page, but the article relied on foreigners' comments, leaving out Chinese scholars' views of their former leader.

The government's mixed assessment of Mao's legacy is echoed by many who lived through first the famine caused by his Great Leap Forward and then the decade of chaos and persecution Mao sparked in 1966 when he launched the Cultural Revolution.

"Life is better today, we have a lot more opportunities and choices. In Mao's day everything was rationed, from food to oil," said supermarket worker Zhan Jingsheng, 50, standing beneath the huge Mao portrait on the Tiananmen gate that gazes across the square to his own mausoleum.

"But we have more worries. In Mao's day the state took care of us and we couldn't be fired. We did not have a lot, but we didn't starve," Zhan said.

But for many of the younger generation, Mao's relevance as anything more than an abstract figurehead is fading.

Strolling on the vast square to enjoy a rare day of sunshine in the pollution-clogged capital, Li Xin, a 24-year-old clerk in a sports goods store, was oblivious to the day's significance.

"What is it today? Teachers' day?," he said when asked if he was outside the Mausoleum to commemorate the anniversary.