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A Decade of Change : China Charting New Path Without Mao at the Helm

10 Years After Mao

September 04, 1986|JIM MANN | Times Staff Writer

PEKING — Li Baisheng was a high school student a decade ago, and like tens of millions of other people in China, he recalls hearing the news on the radio.

"I remember it was a dark day, with no sun at all, but not too many clouds, either," Li, who is now 25 and works as a technician in a Peking factory, said the other day in chatting with a reporter. "Around 3 o'clock, there was a broadcast saying everyone should listen to the radio at 4 o'clock for a major announcement. When we heard, it was like being told your father died."

For James R. Schlesinger, who was then the U.S. secretary of defense and happened to be watching a grenade-throwing exhibition at a People's Liberation Army base outside Peking, the first hint came when a loudspeaker suddenly and unexpectedly burst into "The Internationale."

The news: On that morning, Sept. 9, 1976, Mao Tse-tung, the architect of China's Communist revolution and the leader of the People's Republic of China for its first 27 years, had died at the age of 82.

For more than four decades, Mao had been the dominant figure in Chinese life. The successful "people's war" that he waged against China's Nationalist government became the model for guerrilla insurgencies throughout the world. After the 1949 Communist victory, Mao wielded power over a quarter of the world's population, power which at times exceeded even that of his Soviet counterpart, Josef Stalin.

In the summer of 1966, in a series of eight or 10 sunrise rallies beginning the Cultural Revolution, Mao reviewed a total of about 11 million Red Guards chanting his name in a frenzy comparable to that of Adolf Hitler's Nuremberg parades in Nazi Germany.

Tuesday will be the 10th anniversary of Mao's death, and it is clear that his demise was a watershed in modern Chinese history. Over the last decade, China has witnessed far-reaching changes in the direction and ideology of its ruling Communist Party, in the form of its socialist economy, in daily life, and even in its view of Mao himself. Indeed, some observers find it hard to believe that China has altered course so much in such a short period.

"Has it been 10 years?" University of Michigan Prof. Michel Oksenberg asked jokingly in an interview. "I would have thought it was 100."

'China Has Stood Up'

What is Mao's legacy? After a decade, how much is left of his vision for China? Why has it been possible for China to shift direction so quickly since his death? Have the Chinese people forsaken him, or the principles for which he stood?

Mao's picture still overlooks Tian An Men Square in the heart of Peking, beneath the gate where, on Oct. 1, 1949, he declared the founding of the People's Republic with the words "China has stood up."

The political structure Mao set up then has remained intact, and 10 years after his death the Communist Party still keeps a firm grip on all political activity in China. Signs of dissent against the party's rule or the socialist system are regularly suppressed.

Nevertheless, when it comes to its economic policies and the official ideology of the Communist Party, China seems to have decided to ignore Mao and his visionary ideas, at least for now.

The official radio announcements on the day that Mao died urged the Chinese people to carry out Mao's will by persisting in class struggle, by continuing the policy of self-reliance, and by intensifying the mass criticism of "the counterrevolutionary, revisionist line" of the recently deposed deputy premier, Deng Xiaoping.

Mao's Policies Replaced

Now, Deng leads China. The policy of self-reliance has been replaced by one opening China to the outside world. The Chinese Communist Party has officially declared Mao's concept of continuing class struggle to be an ideological mistake and his call for cultural revolution is held to have been a terrible disaster.

The people's communes through which Mao fostered collectivization throughout the Chinese countryside have disappeared. In the cities, workers strive for higher wages, bonuses and other material incentives once forbidden by Mao's egalitarianism. Mao's mistrust of experts has given way to an official reverence for science and technology.

Mao's body lies in a memorial hall at Tian An Men, visited by at least 40,000 people a day. Occasionally a few of them, mainly older Chinese, weep at the sight of him. Most, however, move past with the same hurried look as Washington visitors on the White House tour.

Since 1983, Mao has had to share space in the memorial hall with new exhibition rooms honoring three other Chinese leaders: Premier Chou En-lai, Red Army Marshal Chu Teh and former head of state Liu Shao-chi. During the Cultural Revolution, Liu, whom Mao had considered a rival for power, died in obscurity after being denied medical treatment.

A few weeks ago, a spokesman at the memorial hall told a reporter she was not certain whether there would be any ceremonies there to observe the 10th anniversary of Mao's death.

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