Mao remembered: But who
By Li Yong Yan
BEIJING - Some people die hard. Their legacies
are harder to bury. Considering that the only four
20th-century mummies that remain in the world - Lenin,
Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung - were all
communists, it should be no surprise that, 27 years
after Mao's death, he is coming back to occupy the
central stage this week in Beijing. The government is
throwing a grand extravaganza to mark Mao's 110th
birthday on Friday, December 26.
On the program
A seminar on Mao Zedong thought.
A Mao-themed arts exposition.
A photo exhibition with Mao as the only subject.
A commemorative set of stamps in Mao's memory.
A book by Mao's only grandson on Mao's career.
A 40-part television series on Mao's earlier life.
The main event is a government-sponsored concert
that will feature a 160-piece orchestra. The theme, of
course, is "China has brought forth a Mao Zedong". To
anyone familiar with the Cultural Revolution, that is
the first line of the lyrics in the favorite tune "The
East Is Red". The concert will open with a 200-singer
chorus bellowing out the rest of the words in the song:
The East is red, the sun is up.
brought forth a Mao Zedong.
He works for the
happiness of the people, and
He is the great savior
to the Chinese nation.
All this sound and
nostalgia makes one wonder why Mao's 100th birthday went
by uncelebrated and unsung. To understand why, it is
necessary to know who in China misses the man who was
responsible for up to 40 million unjust, unnecessary or
unnatural deaths by initiating or intensifying war,
famine, or political persecution, or by allowing people
under his control to do so.
Party. Not the 60-million-member party as a whole,
but the handful of Politburo members who rule the land.
When we say China is anything but a democracy, that is
because first and foremost, there is no election, no
accountability, no transparency within the party. But
the government has been like this for 50 years, so why
the frenzy about Mao this year?
The current crop
of leaders does not miss Mao so much for his persona or
leadership style as for his clout and supremacy.
Increasingly, the leaders in Beijing feel the foundation
of their power shaking under their feet. Whatever they
do, they are bound to hear criticism from left and
right, within and without. If they visit one more
flood-savaged village than their predecessors did, it is
to upstage the third-generation leaders in an attempt to
win support for themselves. If they send condolences to
Turkish victims who were killed in a terrorist bombing,
they are criticized for turning a blind eye to Chinese
miners buried alive in yet another coal-mine tragedy. So
they long for the days when Mao was legitimacy itself,
and his every word was a "Supreme Instruction" that
carried an automatic death penalty for anyone who dared
to question it. Anxious to shore up their legitimacy any
way they can, Beijing's leaders are invoking the spirit
of the Great Leader that they hope may shine on them,
Communist ideologues and propagandists.
These are the now underutilized mouthpieces of
yesterday. Nearly all the hot shots during Mao's reign
came from the propaganda departments. They had unlimited
budgets; they dominated every newspaper page, radio
frequency and TV channel. They were the ones who called
the shots. The whole nation danced to their tune,
literally. At the peak of the Cultural Revolution,
nearly every Chinese, old and young, was ordered to
learn a dancing ritual named, appropriately, "Loyalty
Dance". The choreography was fairly simple: pound your
chest, raise your arms, stomp your feet and then shout
at the top of your lungs: "Long live Chairman Mao!"
Now, with the bankruptcy of the communist
ideology and the increasing access to commercial
entertainment previously denied to the public, the only
solace these propagandists have is reminiscing about the
good old days. An opportunity to re-enact the symbolic
shows popular in the Cultural Revolution will be sweetly
Pensioners. These people have
missed the train that is called "reform and opening up".
They benefited greatly from Mao's Revolution, which
plucked them from dire poverty in rural areas and turned
them into "cadres", or government employees. Everything
from housing to funerals was provided free of charge by
But the economic and political
landscape has changed beyond their comfort and
acceptance. These old retirees find to their dismay that
their meager pension that used to be the object of
admiration is no longer enough to afford them the same
status in life. The list of free medicine available is
shrinking by the month while the new cadres are
enriching themselves in ways these old "revolutionaries"
never imagined possible back when they were the ones in
power. The same post of, say, police chief gives the
present office holder a floor space of both a free
apartment and an office twice as large as previous
accommodations and an Audi sedan to boot, compared with
the rickety Russian-made jeep of 20 years ago.
There is not a thing these pensioners can do. So
it becomes a favorite pastime during their daily morning
walks in the park to lambaste the current occupiers in
the Central Committee's Compound at the heart of
Beijing. No new polices will please them. Opening China
up to foreign investments is a betrayal of socialist
ideals, for did not Mao eradicate exploitation of man by
man? "So many of my comrades-in-arms have laid down
their lives to drive the imperialists away, only for the
party to invite these devils back in 50 years later."
Forsaking the ideology-based foreign policy that marked
the United States as the arch enemy of mankind is
therefore "kowtowing to the very opponents we fought
fiercely on the Korean battleground". All this
displeasure boils up into a yearning for the Mao days
when there were absolutely no movie stars, private
entrepreneurs or foreigners to share the power and glory
vested in the identity of a "cadre". Naturally, "Nothing
is redder than the Sun, and nobody is dearer than
Chairman Mao" rings especially true to these
Urban workers. This
is supposed to be the "leading class" in China as
enshrined in the constitution. But in reality, these are
the people who have fallen hard from the reform wagon,
been laid off from state-owned enterprises that are
mismanaged into bankruptcy, thrown out of work from
mines that have been depleted over the decades. Their
misery is further compounded by the ever-rising costs of
utilities, education and especially medical care. Unable
to see through the gloom shrouding their life, they wish
they could go back to the past when they had life
employment and free visits to the hospital, when
everyone in the neighborhood traveled around on a
bicycle instead of a Volkswagen, when officials were
much less corrupt and when the monthly quota of one
pound of meat per head was not marinated in pesticide.
Thus Mao becomes the common anchor for all these
intentions and emotions that combine to create the
spectacle on a central stage in Beijing on what some
loyal Maoists call the Christmas of China that falls on
However, legitimacy will forever
remain elusive to a government that convicts a motorist
for manslaughter for running over a pedestrian but gives
a tyrant a shrine in the middle of Tiananmen Square. If
history is any guide, it is only a matter of time before
Mao's legacy is finally put to rest.
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