BEIJING — A curious thing happened two weeks ago as China was preparing celebrations for the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth. One of the main events — a symphony of favorite Communist songs at the Great Hall of the People — got an abrupt name change.
No longer would it be called “The Sun is Reddest, Chairman Mao is Dearest.” Instead, all traces of China’s founding father were quietly scrubbed from posters, ticketing Web sites and programs, and the show repackaged as a more generic New Year’s gala called “Singing the Motherland’s Praises.”
The sudden alteration — ordered from on high — is just one of many signs these days of the Communist Party’s uneasy feelings about the late Chairman Mao, whose birthday is Thursday.
Even decades after his death, there is uncertainty about how to tackle the legacy of the man who cemented the party’s grip on power but was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, disastrous policies and brutal purges.
At the heart of that ambivalence is a debate over China’s future. Die-hard leftists are pushing for the country’s new leaders to revive Mao’s teachings as a path to stronger nationalism, economic equality and party legitimacy. Meanwhile, liberals say the time has come not only for economic reforms and other new paths forward, but also for an honest assessment of China’s troubled past.
“Mao has never left China’s political stage,” said Guo Songmin, a well-known leftist commentator. “Now all sides want to use him to influence China’s political direction.”
Mao is everywhere, even after death.
In addition to that unavoidable portrait overlooking Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, he appears on most of China’s bank notes, is invoked countless times a day in party speeches and remains a staple of state-sponsored TV dramas and movies. This month, however, the Mao industry shifted into overdrive, with restaurants flogging his favorite dishes, cities plastering his sayings on walls and a plethora of statues making their debut — the most notable (ahem, gaudy) of which has been a $16.5 million gold version inlaid with gems.
Beyond the flash, however, many still hold dear his ideals.
For Cao Zhaojin, Mao represents a simpler time before China became so money-obsessed. The 59-year-old retired Beijing factory worker keeps large poster boards of the Great Helmsman at home, which is lined with Mao’s selected works and calendars with classic quotes.
“Chairman Mao represents a belief in communism, in putting the collective good ahead of yourself, in selfless contribution and values,” he said. “Look at our society today. . . . Nobody believes in anything anymore but money and personal gain.”
Representing the opposition, Bao Tong — a former aide to party leader Zhao Ziyang, who was purged during the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown — penned a scathing editorial Monday decrying the creation of a false “myth of Mao” that “still haunts China today.”
In his essay, Bao described Mao as a megalomaniac who sold Chinese workers on a pipe dream of equality, sacrificed millions in pursuit of vanity and ruthlessly killed all rivals.
In a phone interview from his Beijing home, where he is under house arrest, Bao said he had his essay smuggled out to Radio Free Asia because he believes that how China thinks of Mao has a huge effect on its present and future. “China cannot turn a blind eye to these facts,” he said.
Outspoken criticism of Mao remains rare in the party. But official assessments have slowly evolved.
An editorial this week in the Global Times, a nationalistic state-controlled newspaper, dismissed recent repudiations of Mao as “a childish fantasy.” But even it acknowledged that assessing his legacy these days “is not easy because we are still living in the ‘era of Mao.’ ”
As a result, many officials this year are carefully taking their cues from China’s new top leader, President Xi Jinping.
Xi’s term began last year with Maoists secretly hopeful that he shared their views. But Xi has since proved more complex and pragmatic than leftists or liberals would prefer. His actions have appeared driven not by ideology but by consolidation of power above all else, analysts and party officials say.
Last month, on a visit to Mao’s home province of Hunan, Xi warned officials to tone down the Mao worship this year, calling for events that are “grand” but “simple and pragmatic.”
While Xi’s message may have encouraged some to scale back their plans, local jurisdictions with historical ties to Mao have largely ignored it.
Mao’s home town of Shaoshan has spent $320 million in preparation — renovating historical sites and museums, organizing galas, and building new roads and other infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to pass through. Many hotels have been fully booked for days leading up to the anniversary. Merchants in town say they have stocked up on Mao tchotchkes of every kind — busts and statues, key rings, commemorative liquor, little red books of his sayings and photos from every phase of his life.
Whatever else Mao may mean politically or ideologically these days, at least for a week, those in the industry hope that interest in the founder of China’s socialist state will translate into little mountains of cash.
Liu Liu and Chen Guo contributed to this report.