HONG KONG — Earlier this year, overzealous entrepreneurs and villagers erected a statue of Mao in a Henan field. It was over 36.6 meters (120 feet) tall, painted gold, and, if one can believe the People’s Daily Online, cost nearly half a billion dollars to build.
The exact purpose of the statue, aside from “commemorating” Mao, was unclear, but the Great Helmsman’s stolid gilded countenance bore witness to the contradictory attitudes that prevail in today’s China, where the shadow of Mao and the ghosts of Tiananmen still mingle, and where President and Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has taken on some of Mao’s cultish allure.
Social media users mocked the giant statue, noting the irony of its placement in Henan province, which was one of the hardest hit regions during the famine that resulted from Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
Then, days after its completion, officials moved in to dismantle the statue. Its legs were torn off and a black cloth was draped over its head. Again, the exact reason was not publicly stated, but local officials did say the statue’s construction was not registered and approved by the relevant ministries.
At this time of year, the paradoxes of Chinese history become especially acute. May marks the anniversary of the Cultural Revolution’s first days; this year was its 50th. June was when protestors gathered in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to demand more freedoms and government accountability from a government that already appeard open to reform. Two leaders—Mao Zedong, the icon of revolution, and Deng Xiaoping, the hero of reform—are the memetic figures tied to these episodes.
Nowadays, historians of the Chinese Communist Party tout a phrase in the founding mythology of Mao’s China. They call it the “century of humiliation,” which encapsulates a series of events that severely weakened the Chinese state: Two “Opium Wars” with the British Empire, both lost; the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war that left 20 to 30 million dead; continued defeats in armed conflict with Japan that included what some call the Forgotten Holocaust.
Mao’s rise was a clear consequence of national disgrace, as well as the contradiction between the Chinese empire’s prowess in past dynasties and the failure to keep up with western technological advances.
Mao’s greatest achievement as a national leader was ending a sense of ignominy. His success as a political operative was connecting national pride with the legitimacy of his party, an idea that persists today. His unforgivable failure was placing ideology before basic human needs, devastating the economy, destroying countless artifacts, starving millions.
After Mao’s death, Chinese political leadership designed a separation of powers to prevent Mao-style rule from happening again. Factional fissures deepened.
Once the Tiananmen protests broke out in 1989, political reformers lost influence, rapid centralization of power took place and the cult of personality returned to the political realm. Deng’s clout as a reformer was significantly diminished, although he retained his position as a top leader. Around him, hardliners inspired by Mao rose again.
Decades later, the Cultural Revolution remains a tricky topic in China. Those years scarred the nation, with as many as 1.5 million people killed and an untold number of cultural relics destroyed by the Red Guards.
In April, when the last surviving member of the Central Cultural Revolution Group passed away, the CCP stayed quiet.
Officials attempt to walk a fine line as they label Mao a hero, but also acknowledge that he made “personal mistakes.” The party line is that Mao’s theory was correct and led to the CCP’s greater success, but human blunders marred his legacy.
Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao and was actually purged twice during the Cultural Revolution, referred to his predecessor as “70 percent good, 30 percent bad.”
The general population holds mixed views, too, although without the confident clarity of Deng. Plenty realize the Helmsman’s policies left the nation in a bleak state, though just as many think of him as a great leader, even god-like.
Even so, the mythology of Mao Zedong’s greatness lives on. The giant statue of Henan was but one example. Shrines dedicated to him have appeared as well.
A temple in Sichuan province gives devotees the chance to worship, again, gold-painted statues of deceased Chinese communists. Below them, a banner reads, “When we drink, we do not forget he who dug the well; in bliss, we do not forget Mao Zedong.” Ironically, the temple’s original structure, which was built in the 1700s, was destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
The deification doesn’t stop there. Another temple in Guangdong province has two statues of Mao. The first was placed so that “old values” could be passed on. Though the CCP forbids its members to practice religious activities, at least one local cadre has been spotted on his knees before the statues, planting offerings of lit incense sticks.
Last December, CCP mouthpiece The Global Times reported that Mao worship is becoming increasingly common in rural China, and ardent Mao followers are pushing for Dec. 26, his birthday, to become a public festival.
Official intervention hasn’t stopped private parties from glorifying one of Mao’s most devastating, destructive ideas.
This year, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, festivities began on May 2, when singers belted out a song titled Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman. That mouthful is a red song, a Mao-era hymn meant to incite intense reverence for the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Zedong himself. It was performed by a girl group called 56 Flowers, whose debut last year was a rendition of The Chinese Dream is the Most Beautiful, a concept that China’s current president, Xi Jinping, champions.
More notable still was the venue for 56 Flowers’ May 2 performance. The concert took place in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, on the edge of Tiananmen Square. It is where the National People’s Congress, or China’s parliament, meets every year. High-level diplomatic events are also held at that location, and, 27 years ago, about a million people assembled nearby in hopes of a better China.
There is a more cynical take on Mao’s life and deeds, one involving hard currency.
A set of old ceramic plates made in the 1960s that bear images of the man giving speeches, saluting the nation, and posing before natural wonders can be auctioned for nearly half a million renminbi, or just over $73,000. Replicas of mangoes that he distributed as rewards to loyal workers are cheaper: they’re traded at a few hundred dollars. Original Mao badges are prized possessions of some collectors.
Perhaps the most extreme example is the production of a 50-kilo solid gold Mao. It was unveiled at a Shenzhen art exhibition in December 2013, meant to commemorate the man’s 120th birthday. Producing the piece required eight months of work by over 20 artists who shaped gold, carved jade, and set precious stones. In all, the statue cost over $15 million.
Critics of China’s current president, Xi Jinping, have compared him to the Great Helmsman. Since becoming the nation’s top political and military leader in 2012, Xi has pushed hard to punish corrupt officials, which some say has caused major factional strife within the CCP. Political dissidents, human rights lawyers, and journalists also have been threatened, detained, or jailed, and paraded before cameras to “confess” their crimes.
At the same time, wave after wave of sleek, though often ridiculed, propaganda cartoon videos portray a fuzzy, friendly image of Xi. His fans call him Xi Dada, which means “Uncle Xi” or “Papa Xi.” (However, the term was recently banned from appearing in Chinese news reports.)
There is a cult of personality surrounding Xi, but to call him Mao 2.0 is inaccurate. The thing to keep in mind is that Xi’s rise, power, and policies only make sense if we view them as a consequence of Mao's chaotic leadership. Xi’s legitimacy is traced back to a time when he was “sent down” to the countryside to labor shoulder to shoulder with peasants. This was something many young men and women experienced for about two decades starting in the 1950s.
There lies the power of Mao Zedong—years after his death, when well-intentioned individuals are finally able to say the man was flawed, his ghost is still a key to understanding China in the 21st century.
Mao’s treatment now, whether as misguided hero worship or a means to acquire cold profits, reflects a nation trying to make sense of a delicate past and figure out its collective identity. To do so, one question must be asked: who in modern Chinese history can we be proud of?
The answer, many still think, lies in the most popular portrait in China, the one of Mao that still hangs above Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace.