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Monday, 10 September, 2001, 12:32 GMT 13:32 UK
Mao: Powerful symbol, abandoned ideals
Mao banner
Mao Zedong is still revered 25 years after his death
By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Beijing

It has been 25 years since China's great helmsman, Mao Zedong, died.

A quarter of a century on, Chairman Mao is still revered in some circles in China with almost God-like status, in spite of the political turmoil and millions of deaths his rule caused.

In the wilting heat of the midday sun, thousands of Chinese tourists wait patiently in line for a glimpse of Chairman Mao's embalmed body.


I think it's very hard for the current leadership to totally get rid of Mao and consider him as negative leader.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the Centre for Research on Contemporary China
From all over China they come to visit his mausoleum in the centre of Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Since his death 25 years ago more than 120 million of them have filed past his crystal sarcophagus.

For some the experience is too much.

"When I saw Mao's body, tears came to my eyes," says one visitor.

"I'm so happy and excited. Mao's achievements should never be forgotten."

Revered leader

Considering the brutality of his rule, Mao remains surprisingly popular.

Mao's birthplace, deep in the countryside of central China, has become another shrine.

Mao Mausoleum
Millions still visit Mao's mausoleum
Crowds of tourists flock to Shaoshan to be shown around the humble farmhouse where Mao was born.

The local market overflows with Maoist kitsch.

It does a healthy trade in Mao badges, plastic Mao statues and reproductions of his famous Little Red Book.

Just down the road at the Mao theme park, a group of factory workers are on a day out.

They dress up in revolutionary uniforms and, plastic guns in hand, pose for a group photograph.

They were not even born when Mao died, but a young woman in the group describes him as a "great man".

Role model

"He sacrificed so much for the revolution," she says. "We should study him as a model."

But when asked about Mao's theories on class struggle, her young friend seems less sure.

"That has no meaning for us," he says. "That comes from a different age. There's no class struggle today."

China's young people know little of the appalling suffering Mao caused.

Chinese leader Jiang Zemin in Mao suit
Jiang Zemin mimics Mao
To them he is a symbol of national strength, a leader the world respected and feared.

Many older Chinese remember Mao's time as more equal and less corrupt than today's China.

But 25 years on, virtually everything Mao stood for has been abandoned.

In the shops and bars of Beijing and Shanghai, mass mobilisation has been replaced by mass consumerism.

In Mao's time capitalists were class enemies, to be rooted out and destroyed.

Today the Communist Party welcomes them into its own ranks.

De-Maoisation

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong, says modern China has undergone "a de facto de-Maoisation".

"But as far as the symbols, the figure of Mao in the official propaganda, I think it's very hard for the current leadership to totally get rid of Mao and consider him as negative leader," Mr Cabestan says.

As he reviews the troops on National Day, President Jiang Zemin consciously mimics Mao.

His clothes, even his gestures, ape his much more illustrious predecessor.

The vast portrait of Mao still stares out across Tiananmen Square from atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

As they prepare to take China into the capitalist club of the World Trade Organisation, today's Chinese leaders still cling to Mao as a potent symbol of the revolutionary legitimacy they themselves so clearly lack.

See also:

09 Dec 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Tourist trade banks on Mao's legend
07 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese media silent on Mao anniversary
09 Nov 99 | China 50 years of communism
Mao's legacy
04 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: China
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