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Chairman or CEO? The Myth of Mao Still Sells

The Chinese Communist Party and merchants in the Great Helmsman's hometown both burnish his iconic image, but for different reasons.

December 26, 2003|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

SHAOSHAN, China — Despite the Communist Party's efforts to celebrate today's 110th anniversary of Mao Tse-tung's birth with reverence and awe, for many here in his hometown, it's more about cashing in.

Restaurants bearing Mao's name compete aggressively to serve visitors the sauteed fatty pork dish he loved. Mao lighters, snow domes and figurines fly off the shelves of souvenir stands. In another sign of China's economic transformation, local entrepreneurs have even leased a local graveyard holding six of Mao's relatives for its tourist potential.

"Mao didn't do much for his hometown while he was alive," a local limousine driver said. "But he sure made a big contribution in death."

Today's milestone comes as China struggles to bridge the yawning gap between its socialist ideology and market-driven reality.

The once-godlike image of the Great Helmsman is still carefully managed by propagandists within the Chinese Communist Party wary of any criticism that might reflect poorly on Mao and, by extension, the current leadership.

Sanctioned Web sites, school textbooks and the official media make little or no mention of controversial Maoist policies like the Great Leap Forward collectivization campaign that cost millions of Chinese lives. An exhibition of 110 photographs taken by 110 photographers for this 110th anniversary in Shaoshan, in Hunan province, treats the Cultural Revolution as if it hadn't happened.

Regardless, average Chinese continue to revere and respect the man widely credited with unifying China and ending decades of foreign subjugation. In parts of the countryside, people still claim to see his image in trees and shadows more than 27 years after his death. His multifaceted mythology -- Washington, Lincoln, Superman and Elvis rolled into one -- continues to hang over China like a heavy mist.

Laurence Brahm, owner of a Communist memorabilia restaurant and hotel in Beijing featuring chairs and limousines that once belonged to the former leadership, says Mao has a spiritual hold on many citizens matched only by a few of the greatest emperors in the nation's history.

Taxi drivers carry Mao medallions for safe driving. More than 4 million people a year pay tribute to his waxy body in Tiananmen Square. A Web site offering virtual flowers in his memory boasts 200,000 hits a day.

The depth of feeling varies by generations, however. Most people over 40 -- including those left behind by the market economy who recall Mao's era with nostalgia -- maintain a strong connection.

"I'm very worried China is too concerned with money," said Peng Zhengfu, 63, a farmer and party member who came to Shaoshan to honor Mao. "He gave us our world, our greatness. People would be much better off today if they still studied his words."

The thirtysomething generation, which is producing interesting artistic interpretations of Mao, also has a strong connection but for a different reason, experts say. In many ways their personal lives directly mirrored China's wrenching turn to capitalism.

Below them is the group the Communist Party may be most worried about. Chinese in their teens and early 20s certainly know who Mao was, but many consider his relevance to their lives limited.

"People my age or younger are more concerned with their future, jobs, trying to get more personal freedom," said Zhu Li, a recent graduate of Peking University whose grandfather participated in Mao's historic Long March.

Given Mao's near-universal resonance, however, some believe that state propagandists would have a powerful way to reach the young if they allowed Mao's image to change with the times. But such an idea is still sacrilegious to party stalwarts.

"If they'd only let him be on T-shirts, his face different colors, wearing a ponytail, he'd be tremendously popular and his descendants would be rich," said Hung Huang, publisher of the Chinese edition of Seventeen magazine.

Most of this week's state-sanctioned festivities take predictable forms as the party and local governments draw on Mao's anniversary to bolster their legitimacy and his legacy. Included in the lineup are concerts, books, newly minted stamps, television specials and a six-part documentary.

In a tepid step to reach the younger generation, however, the party has approved a Mao rap song. It's only 30 seconds long, and the lyrics are based on Mao's "Two Musts" principles. But there it is, to a pounding beat -- his admonishment that cadres must remain humble and prudent and persevere with "plain living and hard struggle."

Several of Mao's relatives traveled to his birthplace this week to mark the anniversary. As reporters angled for position, Shao Hua -- a photographer, People's Liberation Army general and Mao daughter-in-law -- opened an exhibit of historical shots commemorating Mao's life.

China's Great Leader, who came to power with his party in 1949 vowing to shun the cult of personality, changed his mind on that score after consolidating his power.

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