Skip to main content

Shadow of Mao still lingers over China

By Stan Grant, CNN
updated 6:28 AM EST, Tue November 6, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mao Zedong can divide opinion in China, inspiring nostalgia in some and fear in others
  • Mao's "Great Leap Forward" and "Cultural Revolution" was disastrous for China
  • China is now less about one supreme leader and more about ruling by consensus
  • The country has grown into the world's second largest economy behind the U.S.

Beijing (CNN) -- To many people in China, Mao Zedong is the country's eternal father -- "No Mao, no China," is the mantra often repeated by his supporters.

His giant portrait hangs over the gate of Beijing's ancient Forbidden City like that of an emperor. Across the city, thousands flock every day to gaze at his body lying preserved in a mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.

His picture holds pride of place in many houses in villages across China.

To these people he remains a symbol of strength, a man born a peasant -- albeit a somewhat comfortable one -- who rose to lead the people's army of the Communist Party and unite a warring country.

Lately, Mao has re-emerged as the face of resistance and defiance more than three decades after his death. Young Chinese protesters have carried his image aloft during protests against Japan over disputed islands in the region. One young woman from Mao's home village in Hunan province lamented how weak she thought her country's leaders have become -- that if Mao were still alive then China would just take the islands.

Inside Communist Party Congress
China prepares for change
On China: Xi Jinping
China: U.S. election scapegoat?

Despite this reverence, Mao's remains a flawed legacy. For those who see strength in his face, others remember fear: revolution, paranoia, famine, brutality and tens of millions of deaths.

Read: China's 'lost generation' recall hardships

China suffered during high-profile campaigns introduced by Mao, such as the "Great Leap Forward," where millions of people died through starvation or persecution during a catastrophic attempt to modernize China between 1958 and 1961. Another disastrous period, known as the "Cultural Revolution," began in 1966 with the intention of reviving the revolutionary spirit of Communism. But over the next decade, millions of young people were forcibly removed from cities to learn from peasants in the countryside -- viewed as ideological role models by Mao -- causing massive social and economic upheaval.

On the streets of Beijing, when we mention Mao's name, seeking people's opinion, some are wary.

"Why are you asking me this?" asks one woman as she scurried away from our cameras. "Where is your identification, you shouldn't be talking about this," she warned.

Another young woman was more forthright: China needs no more of Mao.

"I think that Chairman Mao is a rather extreme person. We don't really need those who are too extreme; instead, we need people who can connect China with the international community. In the long run, this would be best for China," she said.

But many are wrapped up in an almost revolutionary nostalgia.

"The current leaders should be as strong as Mao," one Beijing resident said.

"For the Chinese people, he represents belief, a great man," said another.

As the Communist Party prepares for its 18th Party Congress on Thursday, when it will name a new leader, it will also reflect on a country that would be unrecognizable to Mao. This is no longer the land of gray suits and bicycles, it's all about Audi cars and Armani suits for many Chinese now.

Read: China's mystery man faces struggle at home and abroad

The country that once couldn't feed itself is now the world's second-largest economy and an emerging superpower to rival the United States. Mao's peasant revolution has given way to "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

Going back to Mao's path is definitely not an option. That has proven to be a dead end. Mao led a road to ruin.
Wang Kang

Yet Mao remains inescapable, not just in the minds of ordinary people nostalgic for the past, but at the heart of the party itself.

Bo Xilai, once tipped as a potential future President himself whose father was a Mao acolyte, launched an audacious bid to re-model the party in Mao's image.

As chief of the massive metropolis of Chongqing, Bo launched huge Cultural Revolution-style rallies, encouraging the singing of red songs -- songs popular during the country's revolution -- and chanting Mao-era slogans.

Bo won great favor with ordinary people. But as his popularity rose, his standing in a nervous Communist Party diminished. According to those close to him, Bo played with fire.

Read: Disgraced Bo faces criminal trial

"I think it was a huge misjudgment of Bo. Going back to Mao's path is definitely not an option. That has proven to be a dead end. Mao led a road to ruin," Wang Kang, a Chongqing scholar who knows Bo and his wife, told CNN.

As the world now knows, Bo is in disgrace and never got a chance to spread his new "gospel of Mao." He's been stripped of his party positions and faces prosecution in the wake of a political scandal while his wife, Gu Kailai, is in prison convicted of killing a British business associate.

This scandal has torn open the veil of secrecy around the party, and all of this in a year of political transition with a new generation led by Xi Jinping, the current vice president, preparing to take the helm.

Like Bo, Xi is a "princeling," the son of one of Mao's revolutionary inner circle.

Xi will inherit a different party -- the days of one supreme leader are over, according to long-time China watcher Mike Chinoy.

"This is a system that is based on consensus, not structured any longer to have a single dominant figure like a Mao Zedong or a Deng Xiaoping," he said.

Yet Xi must also walk the "maze of Mao," for he is a son of China's past as much as a leader of its future.

Like all Chinese, he will look at Mao's image and know the power of its symbolism, yet he will look past that and know his country's fate lies, perhaps, with moving even further from Mao's idea of China.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:53 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
China is building an island in the South China Sea that could accommodate an airstrip, according to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
North Korean refugees face a daunting journey to reach asylum in South Korea, with gangs of smugglers the only option.
updated 6:19 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
China and "probably one or two other" countries have the capacity to shut down the nation's power grid and other critical infrastructure.
updated 5:39 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
It'd be hard to find another country that has spent as much, and as furiously, as China on giving its next generation a head start.
updated 12:32 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
In 1985, Meng Weina set up China's first private special needs school in the southern city of Guangzhou.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
updated 10:38 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
updated 3:26 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
updated 8:01 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
updated 8:14 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
updated 12:51 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
updated 9:19 PM EST, Sun November 2, 2014
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
updated 12:00 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
updated 1:28 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
updated 1:18 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
ADVERTISEMENT