December 26 marks the birthday of Mao Zedong, who represents China's Communist revolution. But he also stands for an immeasurable amount of human suffering caused by the revolution's social experiments.
Chinese state and party leader Xi Jinping originally called for low-key celebrations to mark the 120th birthday of the Communist Party of China's first chairman. In Mao's place of birth, Shaoshan, people seem to have ignored that. According to local media reports, there are a number of pricey projects for the birthday celebrations, which together total around two billion US dollars. Among them are the renovation of a tourism center and of Mao's parents' former home (pictured below) along with the construction of motorways and train stations. Mao's home village in the central province of Hunan seems to be aiming to secure a profit by getting in on the Mao cult.
Portraits of Mao can be seen hanging from rear-view mirrors in taxis or in wall calendars. Mao placards dating back to the Cultural Revolution are sold in antiques shops for hundreds of yuan. Tourists visiting Beijing's famous silk market can purchase original or reprinted copies of the so-called "Mao bible," which contains selected texts from Mao.
Mao's likeness, of course, is printed on the renminbi, his portrait - 12 sq. meters in size - hangs at Tiananmen Square in the capital. And that is also where he lies in state in a glass coffin in his mausoleum.
In a popular Chinese joke, the "Great Helmsman" wakes up one day in his coffin and sits up, worried. He asks, "What are my people up to now?" A guard answers: "Fighting landowners." That puts him at ease, and he lies back down. The joke is based on a very popular online game a few years ago called "Fight the Landlord."
"70 percent good," the rest not so
The battle against landowners was one of the most prominent ideologies behind the Chinese Communist movement led by Mao. Despite the truly miserable conditions in which farmers lived, and the liberation the revolution offered to farmers from feudal structures, the "mock trials and mass executions of the time of agricultural reform (1950-1951) are one of the darkest chapters in the history of China's Communist Party," writes Oskar Weggel in his book on Chinese history in the 20th century.
Further dark chapters were to follow. Mao started a number of various campaigns that ended up costing millions of lives. Around ten years after the foundation of Communist China, Mao's "Great Leap Forward" - an attempt to industrialize the country - resulted in the largest man-made famine ever. Estimates place the number of people who died as a result at around 30 million. In the year 1966, Mao called out the so-called "Cultural Revolution" to cleanse the party of opponents. The result was a decade of chaos and thousands of deaths and the destruction of an unrecorded number of lives and families.
Those in power in China, nonetheless swear by the chairman's ideology. Mao's paramount role in the defeat of the Japanese aggressors in WWII and over the opposition Kuomintang party earned him the undisputed role of party leader until his death in 1976. Deng Xiaoping's statement, that the actions of his predecessor were "70 percent good, 30 percent bad" still counts as the party line.
Xi Jinping and the new Mao cult
The Communist Party's current leadership does not at all seem to be interested in coming to terms with the dark bits of the party's history. "Reassessing the legacy of Mao would challenge the legitimacy and power of the party," historian Zhang Lifan told news agency dpa. Observers believe instead of questioning Mao, the party has revitalized a new Mao cult. Daniel Leese of the University of Freiburg told media he was "shocked" to see the amount of Mao ideology being played up. In state television, for example, President Xi Jinping can be seen participating in rounds of "self criticism" with other party members.
"The party leadership is seeking to gain more support among leftist members of society," China expert Sebastian Heilmann explains. "Even in the thriving southern province of Guangdong, 38 percent of people asked are leftists, and they tend to feel a certain nostalgia when it comes to Mao. For them, it is not about social justice, and no Chinese leadership would be able to simply ignore this strong sentiment."
It is questionable that the artists working on a golden, jewel-studded statue for Mao's 120th birthday were inspired by the question of social justice. On the other hand, it does show that Mao has arrived in Capitalist China.