BEIJING — China celebrated the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birth Thursday, with top leaders paying a ceremonial visit to Mao's mausoleum and praising the achievements of the man who founded the People's Republic of China.
While the celebrations were somewhat muted this year, the reverent remembrances were typical for China's Communist Party, which has traditionally turned to the late chairman for legitimacy. Mao remains a potent symbol in China, although analysts say the public has grown more ambivalent about his legacy.
Solemn and austere celebrations
President Xi Jinping called for austere celebrations to mark Mao’s birthday, consistent with his push against lavish ceremonies and wasteful public spending. China’s media have reported a general scaling down of budgets and events connected with the anniversary's celebrations.
Political scientist David Zweig says the muted celebrations do not mean that the leadership is keeping Mao at arm's length.
“They very much want to be certain that they get a good bounce from this, they want to keep Mao as an important player in the cards that they hold in their hands,” he said.
On Thursday, the Communist party's mouthpiece People's Daily celebrated Mao's success in liberating China's “semi-imperialistic, semi- feudal” society. It also stressed the new leadership is a continuation of Mao's work.
“The mission for generations of Chinese Communists has always been the same: revolution, construction and reform are deeply linked with each other in history,” the commentary read, “One development is accomplished on the basis of the one that came before.”
On Mao's errors, Chinese leaders have long embraced the view that there were missteps in the country's path towards a communist society. In the 1980’s former leader Deng Xiaoping's remarked that Mao was seven parts right, and only three parts wrong. That evaluation still holds for many Chinese historians as well as the public.
In Thursday's speech, Xi Jinping appeared to reference that view by saying that in evaluating a country’s history, one needs to consider the social conditions of the time.
“We cannot judge those people who came before us by the current conditions and the level of knowledge and development we have today. We also cannot expect from them the achievements only obtainable by later generations,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.
Critics say that such assessments do not take into account the most negative effects of some of Mao's campaigns, which have been largely forgotten by China's official historiography.
Among the most controversial policies were Mao's attempts to industrialize the Chinese countryside during the Great Leap Forward, which caused a mass famine and killed tens of million of people.
Ten years later, the cultural revolution threw the nation into a period of communist fervor and spurred a wave of political violence.
“The left and some people within the leadership in China worry that if you spend too much time criticizing Mao for the cultural revolution and the famine that you don't have that many years to glorify him, and therefore his legacy becomes much weaker,” says Zweig.
Ambivalence on Mao's legacy
Historian Xu Youyu talks of an ambivalence in contemporary attitudes about Mao.
“From the perspective of intellectuals, more negative things are said about Mao because there is more information out there about certain parts of history,” Xu says, “For example the fact that during the great leap forward Mao left more than 30 million people die of starvation is acknowledged by more people now.”
But at the same time, Xu says that the passing of time has softened the memories of many who suffered under Mao's rule, and for those among them who are seeking political power, celebrating Mao remains advantageous to their goals.
“They are more willing to talk about Mao's contributions because the sufferings are increasingly distant, but the opportunities for power are increasingly numerous,” Xu says.
Those who celebrate Mao’s record despite a personal history that is more complicated include China’s President Xi Jinping, whose father was purged and persecuted during the cultural revolution. Despite that history, Mr. Xi has become known for coining slogans reminiscent of Mao's times, and launching education campaigns that echo Mao’s pursuits for ideological purity.