BEIJING — Chinese police on Saturday arrested a man who allegedly tried to set fire to the giant portrait of Chairman Mao Tse-tung in Tiananmen Square, the official New China News Agency reported.
A man threw a homemade object at the painting of Communist China's founding father, causing smoke and fire to break out briefly on the bottom left-hand corner of the iconic portrait, which looms above the entrance to the Forbidden City.
Workers in a crane climbed up to sweep Mao's right shoulder with water and a broom. A black burn mark remained on the Great Helmsman's trademark gray suit.
A new portrait was scheduled to be put up Saturday night, the news agency said.
The suspect was identified as Gu Haiou, 35, an unemployed man from the far western Chinese city of Urumqi, capital of the restive Xinjiang autonomous region, home to ethnic Uighurs. He apparently had arrived in Beijing a few hours before tossing the object, authorities say.
Police immediately captured Gu and cleared the area of visitors.
China, with its booming capitalist-style economy and rising level of personal freedom, has turned much of the austere communism of the Mao era on its head. But the image of Mao remains sacrosanct, and its defamation is a serious crime.
"Mao is still the symbol of the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist government, therefore it cannot be touched," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley.
Saturday's incident came 18 years to the month after three men threw eggshells filled with paint on Mao's portrait at the height of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations. They received sentences ranging from 16 years to life in prison.
Lu Decheng, who was released after 10 years, fled to Canada. He said he had suffered beatings in prison and was forced to make Christmas lights as part of his labor and reform.
Yu Dongyue served 17 years. When he was released last year he reportedly was so mentally debilitated that he could not speak to his mother.
Their crime at the time was "counterrevolutionary destruction" and "counterrevolutionary incitement."
Gu's fate is unclear. Counterrevolutionary activity is no longer a formal charge. But political offenders can be detained under other charges, according to Xiao.
The Beijing Public Security Bureau told the New China News Agency that Gu had a history of mental illness.
Though the suspect's motivations may never become public, China is a country brimming with discontent rising from a growing income gap and widespread official corruption.
The government reported 87,000 illegal disturbances in 2005.
As the symbolic heart of the country, Tiananmen remains a preferred stage for many activists. But the massive public square is blanketed with police, and any act of protest is swiftly subdued.