Chinese Communist Party Treads Fine Line Over Mao's Legacy

A couple take a photo in front of a statue of Mao Zedong at a park in Shaoshan, in China's central province of Hunan, Dec. 25, 2013.

As the ruling Chinese Communist Party gears up to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birth on Thursday, the current leadership under President Xi Jinping is treading a political tightrope amid divisive public debate on the late supreme leader's legacy.

"Mao's influence, especially his prestige, is still powerful in Chinese society," the English-language tabloid Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the party, wrote in a glowing editorial on Wednesday that seemed to gloss over the "30 percent wrong" official verdict on Mao's  legacy that was decided after his death in 1976.

"The mistakes that he made...cannot be wholly imputed to Mao alone. The responsibility should be taken by the entire nation," the paper said.

The official news agency Xinhua, meanwhile, published a feature this week about a Buddhist in southwestern China who has enshrined the Chairman as a household deity.

"Chairman Mao is another God in the largely Buddhist hamlet of Man'en, where most ethnic Dai villagers enshrine the founding father of New China at home, though the 'great helmsman' was de-deified after the
end of the Cultural Revolution," Xinhua reported.

The agency quoted "loyal Mao fan" Ai Pai as saying that he loves all things Mao-related, "from his quotations to the passionate red songs."

Online, Chinese netizens have dubbed president Xi, the son of revolutionary veteran Xi Zhongxun, "Mao's grandson," satirizing the current president's perceived backtracking in favor of a glowingly positive view of Mao.

"While [the Deng Xiaping era] changed Mao Zedong from a god into a former leader who had made mistakes...Xi Jinping is actually going backwards...from Deng Xiaping's position," Xia Ming, political science
lecturer at the College of Staten Island in New York, said in a recent interview.

"He is much closer to Mao Zedong, and he uses him as a positive political asset to support his grip on power."

Treading very carefully

U.S.-based commentator Zhang Tianliang said Xi is still consolidating his political power since taking the reins of the party in November 2012, and is is treading very carefully around the symbolism of Mao.

"Xi Jinping is in an extremely unstable position right now," Zhang said. "He isn't going to want to anger the princelings, the people who follow Mao [symbolically]."

"Actually, Mao Zedong is extremely embarrassing [for the current leadership], because if they commemorate him, that amounts to repudiating the economic reform era," he added.

According to Xia, the government is keen to manage public debate around Thursday's anniversary celebrations.

"Mao Zedong...with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, injured a large number of Chinese people," he said.

"The main concern for the administration of Xi [Jinping] and Li [Keqiang] is to manage the anniversary, because they don't want to ignite an ideological debate in China."

But both analysts said Mao looked likely to be a symbolic fixture in Chinese politics for the forseeable future.

"The Communist Party is unlikely to drop Mao [as a symbol] because he represents the change of regime from the previous Republic of China under the Kuomintang," Zhang said.

Xia said that while Mao was still needed by Xi's administration as political capital, there were some unwanted side-effects to public honoring of Mao, who is also used as a political icon by the supporters of jailed former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai.

"Mao is used as political capital in various ways...for example the fact that he led China on the world stage," he said.

"On the one hand Xi Jinping likes to make use of Mao, and on the other hand Mao brings with him a lot of phenomena that he really doesn't want to see. For example Bo Xilai's supporters," Xia said.

Xi distancing himself

Political commentator Liang Jing said the trial of Bo Xilai last August and the third plenum of the party central committee last month had taught Xi the need to distance himself from the Maoist left in the party, however.

"If Xi Jinping doesn't draw a clear line between himself and the Maoist left, it will shake public confidence in the regime, and bring untold disaster down on our heads," Liang said in a commentary broadcast on RFA's Cantonese Service.

Authorities in the central province of Hunan became the targets of stinging online criticism after they announced they were pouring immense financial resources into local anniversary celebrations Mao,
who was born there.

The Shaoshan municipal government has poured nearly two billion yuan (U.S. $327 million) to upgrade the existing Mao birthplace tourist attraction, which includes a museum and a preserved former residence.

China will mark the 120th anniversary of Mao's birth on Dec. 26, and the Shaoshan government declared that the event overrides "any other" in importance.

Former top party aide Bao Tong, who was present at the 1978 third plenum, has described an unprecedented atmosphere in which the damage done by the famines of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and the political violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) were freely confronted in Party ranks for the first time.

In a recent commentary broadcast on RFA's Mandarin Service, Bao said Mao's myth, unlike that of Hitler and Stalin, still haunts China today.

"Mao's legacy, at the very least, includes the silencing of public opinion, an unelected regime, "harmonious" collusion between the three powers, and the mass manufacture of miscarriages of justice," Bao wrote.

"Most important among these is undoubtedly the absolute power of the leadership," he said.

Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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