x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mao still a hero in China as 35th anniversary of his death nears

Historians still blame China's former leader Mao Zedong for millions of deaths but among the younger generation there is no memory of Mao¿s errors.

China's official verdict on Mao Zedong, given by his successor Deng Xiaoping and often repeated since, is that he was 70 per cent right. Above, a statue and a bust of the late Chinese leader on sale at an exhibition in Shanghai earlier this year. Eugene Hoshiko / AP Photo
China's official verdict on Mao Zedong, given by his successor Deng Xiaoping and often repeated since, is that he was 70 per cent right. Above, a statue and a bust of the late Chinese leader on sale at an exhibition in Shanghai earlier this year. Eugene Hoshiko / AP Photo

BEIJING // Across China, statues of the former leader Mao Zedong, which a few decades ago were often quietly dismantled at night, are being built again.

From Tibet in the far west, to Changsa in south central China, new statues have been crafted in recent years of a man whose status as a national hero has survived, despite historians blaming him for tens of millions of deaths.

With the 35th anniversary of his death this month, it seems memories may be fading of the excesses caused by Mao, the first paramount leader of China after the communist takeover in 1949.

China's official verdict on Mao, given by his successor Deng Xiaoping and often repeated since, is that he was 70 per cent right.

Hailed for defeating the nationalists, Mao is often seen as having "liberated China from the control of western powers", said Ting Wai, a professor in the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Mao is even sometimes seen as a godlike figure. The state-run China Daily newspaper noted that there was "a huge element of respect and sometimes it borders on the religious", ironic given the Communist Party's espousal of atheism.

In the eyes of many in China, his achievements are balanced against the memories of his disastrous Great Leap Forward industrialisation programme from 1958 to 1960, and the fanaticism he unleashed in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 until his death in 1976.

The Great Leap Forward involved the collectivisation of agriculture and efforts to industrialise the country that included community furnaces where people melted down metal objects to make steel. However, acute food shortages resulted in millions starving to death. The death toll has been put as high as 40 million.

A few years later, trying to reassert his power after the Great Leap Forward, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, which included attempts to obliterate traditional Chinese culture and attacks on landlords and others accused of being capitalists. Millions died and the episode is officially acknowledged as a mistake.

Leung Yuensang, a professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: "He did make a lot of mistakes in terms of social and economic development in China. People around you, if you ask them what they think, they will say there's two sides of the story, especially those who experienced great suffering in the 1960s and 1970s."

Yet among the younger generation there is no memory of Mao's errors, Mr Leung said. Even the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown is "a distant thing" for the youth.

State-run media tend not to dwell on Mao's mistakes, perhaps explaining the lack of awareness among the younger generation. The Cultural Revolution is sometimes mentioned in state media, unlike the Tiananmen Square events, but many feel these episodes are largely brushed under the carpet.

Han, 74, a retiree who lived through the Cultural Revolution and would only give her surname, said: "You can get information about Mao Zedong's good points, but it's very hard to find the negative things.

"That's why it's very hard to find people who know the bad things he did. It's very important to remember the progress from the last 30 years caused by Deng Xiaoping."

The decades of "reform and opening up" are regularly spoken of in the country, but China's new generation of leaders appears keen to make more use of the legacy of Mao than of Deng, who never fostered the same personality cult.

Bo Xilai, the Communist Party head in the vast southern city of Chongqing and a man likely to be elevated to the party's inner circle in next year's leadership changeover, has spearheaded a pro-Mao campaign. He has encouraged the singing of "red" songs at state events, organised Mao-quote text messages and forced local television stations to broadcast revolutionary shows. Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao's likely successor as president, has said he admires the initiative, which revives memories of the Cultural Revolution. Mr Bo has also undertaken an uncompromising campaign against corruption.

"One thing Bo Xilai learnt from Mao Zedong is that you cannot tolerate dissent," Mr Ting said. "If Bo Xilai becomes more powerful, China would become even more authoritarian, less tolerant of different voices."

Yet the revival of Maoist sloganeering is not necessarily driven by belief, which was often the case in previous decades when the factions were "more cohesive in terms of ideology", said Mr Leung.

Political expediency may be a factor driving the revival, with Mr Bo looking to attract support as he aims to enter the nine-strong politburo standing committee, the country's supreme governing body.

"Whether the revival movement is a political tool, or whether there's a genuine interest in the thoughts of Mao, I believe both groups exist," Mr Leung said.

dbardsley@thenational.ae