News / Asia

China Marks Mao’s 120th Birthday With Muted Celebrations

  • People stand in line to enter the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Beijing, Dec. 26, 2013.
  • A man holds up a portrait of Mao Zedong as he and others gather in front of a giant statue of Mao to celebrate the 120th birth anniversary of the former leader in his hometown, Shaoshan, Dec. 26, 2013.
  • Retired female workers dressed as red army soldiers sing revolutionary songs during a performance to mark the 120th birth anniversary of Mao Zedong in Huaibei, Anhui province, China, Dec. 26, 2013.
  • Boats carrying a giant image of Mao Zedong and Chinese national flags lead winter swimmers in the Yangtze River to celebrate the 120th birth anniversary of Mao in Wuhan, Hubei province, Dec. 26, 2013.
  • Supporters wave a flag with an image of Mao Zedong that says "People missing Chairman Mao", as people gather to celebrate the 120th birth anniversary of the former leader in his hometown, Shaoshan, Dec. 25, 2013.
PHOTOS: China Observes Mao's Birthday
VOA News
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.”

Mao's errors

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.

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Comment Sorting
by: No Tongsuland from: Japan
December 26, 2013 2:05 PM
What a pity! Millions of souls of the dead by ridiculous policiies, such as Great Leap Forward, are completely wiped out from the history. Although China persistently wants to dwell on the past such as WWII, Xi never showed any respet to such innocent peoples' tragedy today. In China, peoples' lives seem to be much cheaper than ......
In Response

by: Willam KD from: China
December 26, 2013 11:18 PM
Have you considered that the role of you Japanese when you said chinese people's live seem to be cheaper? The relationship between you and American seem to like a pet in good hearing, a dog in fact and its master!

by: Roman from: France
December 26, 2013 2:04 PM
If China is within the concert of nations today it's because of Nixon and Kissinger. Though much has been done and time will perhaps consent to higher heights, China lags behind in spiritual values crushed by the same leadership. What ancient Chinese philosophers have said still remains dormant in China today.

by: Willam KD from: China
December 26, 2013 10:58 AM
In this world,no one is perfect. Mao is still in our heart because he saved China. As a young man, I admire Mao because his life that full of fighting and succes always encourge me to face and handle the difficulties in my life rather than flee
In Response

by: Ed from: USA
December 27, 2013 12:01 AM
Does the deaths of millions, many by starvation and executions, mean nothing to you? The little red book required to be carried by everyone....brainwashing at it`s best. It won`t be long before the great Chairman will be in the dust bin of history like all political despots.

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