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Chairman Mao Still a Hero 25 Years after His Death - 2001-09-06

China is marking the 25th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong (Sep. 9), founder of the People's Republic of China. Although Chairman Mao is being held by many as being responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese, through his disastrous political campaigns, many Chinese still worship him.

It is a typical mid-morning outside Chairman Mao's mausoleum at Tiananmen Square. Thousands of Chinese, from around the country, are lining up to catch a glimpse of his embalmed body. Guards order the visitors, almost all of whom are from out of town, to stay silent and not to jump ahead in the line.

Inside the cavernous hall, a computerized ticker keeps track of how many visitors have already filed through at 10 a.m.: 8,550 and counting. Finally, the line curves around into a smaller chamber, where Chairman Mao himself lies under a case of glass, draped in a red flag, his waxen face lit up like a lurid orange light bulb. Visitors gaze at the body for just a few seconds, and then it's over. The back exit of the mausoleum is filled with Mao souvenirs, which visitors eagerly snatch up.

A young man visiting from the far northern Harbin Province says it was a profound experience to see the founder of Communist China in person. He says "Chairman Mao is still a great man and that, without him, China would not be successful today."

The official Communist party verdict on Mao Zedong is that he made what are called "gross mistakes," during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s to early 70s, but that his contributions to China far outweigh his mistakes.

Much of the rest of the world views Mao as a tyrant, whose Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution campaigns were responsible for millions of deaths. Older, educated Chinese who suffered under his rule cannot stand to be reminded of him.

A-60-something year-old Beijinger, Mr. Zhao, waits impatiently at the back of the Mao mausoleum for his 20-year-old nephew from Qingdao port to come out. Mr. Zhao says, "I saw Mao's body once, years ago, in the late 1970s, when our work unit made us come." But, he says once is enough. He adds that Mao did many terrible things in his life.

Yet for countless Chinese today, Chairman Mao is still a romantic ideal, a symbol of the days when everyone was equal and strove together against impossible odds for the common good. Twenty-first century China may be more prosperous than decades ago, but also faces a huge and widening income gap, rampant official corruption and massive social dislocation caused by economic reforms.

A 53-year-old former Red Guard, Mr. Xin, says he still worships Mao. Twenty-five years after Mao's death, Mr. Xin is able to recite long passages from Chairman Mao's famous quotations.

"When I worked as a teenage train driver," Mr. Xin says with enthusiasm, "I used to answer the phone by saying, 'Fight selfishness and struggle against revisionism!'" The slogan is one of many used to denounce class enemies during the Cultural Revolution.

Mr. Xin says, "When Chairman Mao was in power, no one thought of himself. We were all equal." But now, he says, "people are selfish and corrupt because everyone wants to make money."

A 52-year-old antique seller Ms. An, also reveres Mao. Her favorite songs are the Communist eulogies to him. She says, "He is still the leader of our country. He sacrificed a lot for the Chinese people." She says she remembers, as a child, seeing Chairman Mao speaking from a podium on Tiananmen Square. She says she was quite excited.

Her voice lowered to a whisper, Ms. An says, "Today's leaders don't even come close to Mao." She says, "If he were still alive, there wouldn't be all this corruption."

Then Ms. An hears another favorite song on her tape recorder and jumps up to turn it louder. Almost every Chinese today still knows these lyrics by heart:

"Our beloved leader, Chairman Mao. You are the red sun in our hearts. May you live on and on forever."