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Date Posted: 10:34 22/12/2003

Happy Birthday, Chairman Mao

Boxing Day marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Chairman Mao

CELEBRATIONS to mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of Chairman Mao have been a little more muted than one might have anticipated several months ago. Experts had predicted a torrent of Maodolatry, and the authorities were even reported to have approved the release of 'Mao rap' in an attempt to bring the irrepressible old bastard into the twenty-first century, and into the minds of the new generation. Here in Shanghai, however, there has, so far, been nothing of note.

Many moons ago, Running Dog – then a foreign student at Beijing's People's University – was asked to play a bit part in a TV movie dramatizing Chairman Mao's 43-day peace talks with Chiang Kai-shek in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing in 1945. Because that meeting was arranged by the United States, Running Dog's talents were required to fill the role of the US GI who helped Mao onto the plane. After the filming was complete, we found ourselves eating fish in a tiny restaurant on the outskirts of Beijing with one of the country's best-known Mao lookalikes. The memory of the 1989 massacre was still fresh, and Mao kitsch – lighters, badges, banners, posters, and huge alabaster statues in every school courtyard - was still everywhere, including on the TV screen.

Mao's latest comeback has apparently been set in motion by the new leadership, which is trying to undermine Jiang Zemin's 'Three Represents' through the use of Mao's old exhortation, 'serve the people'. After Jiang's decade in power, Hu Jintao is trying to root himself in the foundations of Party legitimacy, drawing on the mystique which still surrounds Mao, that big old bear of the Revolution who vanquished both the Japanese and the Nationalists and managed to unite the nation. It is a strategy fraught with complications. Mao's reputation, despite all the fudges and distortions of official Party history, is far from pristine. In Beijing, ten years ago, one wag shouted 'Long Live Chairman Mao' to the irascible lookalike after the filming had been completed. One wonders what he might have shouted in 2003.

While Mao's presence is still obvious in Beijing, here in Shanghai, you'd be hard-pressed to find any reference to him at all. Framed pictures of the Great Helmsman can be seen in some of the city's Hunan restaurants (Mao was born in Hunan Province), but again, they seem to offer only kitsch value. Has Mao been reduced to mere celebrity endorsement?

The government has become very sensitive about the use of Mao's image. According to the local press a few months ago, a Hunanese restaurant in Guangdong Province – the biggest beneficiary of economic reform following the end of Mao's turbulent rule - was forced to take down all its references to the Chairman, including a large poster hanging at the gate. The images were disrespectful, said the local authorities.

After two decades of reform, the government was in danger of losing control over its own iconography. It had become impossible for them to determine whether or not a six-foot bust of Chairman Mao was meant ironically - something like the Mao Zedong lighters that foreign tourists buy as a jokey novelty gift for their friends back home. The reformulations of old revolutionary standards by new Chinese rock groups also led to consternation: were these people taking the piss, and if so, how can we prove it?

THE CCP is trying to rebuild its presence among a generation which has little memory of its defining moments, and which has come of age in a period Mao would certainly have branded 'counter-revolutionary'. By doing so, the party is reminding us of a diametrically different age, a time when starvation was rife, when Mao suits were the only fashion, and when chucking your teachers out of the classroom window was a simple matter of routine. It is also opening itself up to ridicule.

What does Mao Zedong actually mean to people these days? By now, we all know, or think we know, a little more about his personal habits, his superstitions, and his sexual voraciousness, following the publication several years ago of the memoirs of his personal physician, Li Zhisui. Previously, Mao was placed either in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes, or in the rogue's gallery of twentieth-century tyrants. Some of his more poetic Western critics talked of the artist suddenly thrust into a position of power, trying desperately to shape the world in his own exalted image during three disastrous and intimately connected movements, the Hundred Flowers, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.

By now, however, it is enough to know that he was a cruel, toilet-mouthed sexual predator with a dubious grasp on reality. We learn about his green teeth, his penchant for Hong Kong action movies, and his innumerable failed attempts to learn English. We have heard, too, about his curious belief that he was a distant descendant of an old Ming Dynasty warrior, and about his reliance in later life on some Daoist mystic, telling him that he had to replenish his Yang with as much Yin as possible, which apparently required sex with even more virgins.

But at a remove from all this, we have the current leadership. We are told by the State media that the Party vice-chairman, Jiang acolyte Zeng Qinghong, visited the China People's Revolutionary Military Museum at the weekend to pay his respects at a specially-constructed exhibition of Mao memorabilia. It represents the incomparable esteem in which the new leadership hold the old generation of proletarian heroes, he was reported to have said. Mao was a great Marxist, a great Proletarian Revolutionary, a great strategist and theorist. His great thought will remain alongside Deng Xiaoping Theory and the Three Represents as a guide for our actions, he said.

CONTINUITY is crucial for Party propagandists, and they usually insist that the nation has in fact plotted an even, steady course. There were exceptions – the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in particular – but these can be attributed to a number of malign 'counter-revolutionary' influences, and were not actually the responsibility of the Party as a whole.

This took a lot of unconvincing finessing on the part of the post-Mao leadership. To resurrect Mao, they had to demonize Mao's troubled deputy, Lin Biao, and also the group of leftists – led by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing – who later became known as the Gang of Four. They also had to argue that the revolutionary madness of the 1960s and 1970s was not the real course taken by Marxist history, but an aberration. They had to create an ur-Mao, a Platonic Mao.

When Deng Xiaoping, whose centenary will be celebrated next year, finally returned from exile and replaced Mao's stooge, Hua Guofeng, as Party Secretary, continuity and legitimacy were genuine problems. A volte-face was required, but how could this be done without attacking the old leader, described by Orville Schell as 'the keystone of the ideological arch that still held up the Chinese Communist Party's right to rule'. After a process referred to as 'de-Maoification' from 1979 to 1980, during which the new leadership even considered dumping Mao's old cadaver and demolishing the mausoleum in which it was kept, the Party propagandists holed themselves up for years in an attempt to formulate a coherent, ideologically acceptable version of CCP history, one that could justify the current change of direction without undermining the Party's hold.

They eventually came out with the famous 70-30 ratio. The idea was that 70% of Mao's work was correct, and 30% was incorrect. To make such a calculation work, you have to underestimate the impact of the biggest man-made disaster in history, the Great Leap Forward, and the biggest campaign of political persecution since Stalin's Red Terror, the Cultural Revolution, and emphasize Mao Zedong's wartime achievements. In the Soviet Union, the dichotomy between 'good Communist' and 'bad Communist' was created through the image of Lenin, the revolutionary hero, and Stalin, the dark perversion of Lenin's revolutionary ideals. In China, a similar distinction was now being made between early Mao and late Mao, and it rested on the assumption that he had been corrupted by Lin Biao, and the Gang of Four.

Deng Xiaoping found personality cults abhorrent. He had been, after all, the victim of the Mao cult on two occasions. However, he was astute enough to understand the crucial but ambiguous role played by Mao in Party history. As a result, he came out with the idea of 'scientific' Mao Zedong Thought. Deng Xiaoping sought to take control of the chaotic, protean force that Mao represented, expressed with such rare abandon during the Cultural Revolution, and create a series of formal principles – encapsulated in an official 'canon' of Mao's writings - from which even Mao himself had deviated in his later years.

And so, Mao became a strange totem, both icon and bogeyman for a new generation of pragmatic leaders. A power struggle in 1987 which resulted in the dismissal of Hu Yaobang led to a new Mao propaganda blitz. The events of 1989, settled in favour of the Party's hardliners, led to another ideological freeze, again dominated by the image of Chairman Mao, his portrait at the Forbidden City symbolically cleansed of the red paint that had been thrown at it by student protestors.

AFTER THE Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia fell into a long period of instability and impoverishment, it was a commonplace for many Western journalists based in Moscow to cite some addled old-timer waxing nostalgic about the days of Stalin. In fact, a survey held in Russia in 1999 revealed that 51% of those polled believed that the inchoate Brezhnev era was the best the twentieth century had to offer, and certainly better than the uncertainties of the 1990s. This was understandable: as a result of IMF 'shock therapy', Russian GDP fell an astonishing 54% in the 1990s.

Things were different in China, in its cities at least, partly because of the relative success of reform, but also because of the gruesome depths to which China had descended during the Mao era. Most seemed grateful that China had moved on, and many lived in mortal fear that another round of chaos might suddenly ensue. Deng Xiaoping himself was certainly worried about 'leftist re-emergence', and just two or three years after approving the crackdown on Tian'anmen Square, was even considering 'reversing the verdict' against the protestors and rehabilitating the leader most associated with them, Zhao Ziyang.

So what had Mao really become? Dictator kitsch is a common phenomenon, and is usually much of a muchness, ranging from the grotesque mass parades of Pyongyang to the ubiquitous official portraits of Saddam's Baghdad. The image of the leader is plastered on badges and wristwatches, banners and plates, hats and T-shirts, in attempt to drown all cultural resistance.

In The Republic of Fear, Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya described the prevalence of kitsch as a way of filling in the gaps left once civil society has been destroyed. Art was replaced by propaganda - by the dictator's poems or paintings, by specially-commissioned hymns, and by the slogans and blazons of the government.

By now, however, the Mao cult must compete with a thriving civil culture, and it can no longer set the terms. The Mao icon is dunked into the turbid soup of consumer society, and there is no way of telling how he'll eventually turn out. While the Party still has the means of imposing a brutal veto on the debate, it is merely one voice among many. Mao, as Warhol had envisaged in his famous prints, has now been packaged, both ideologically and commercially, and for the youngsters in modern-day China, he is nothing more than a old name in desperate need of rebranding.

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