Skip to main content

Shadow of Mao still lingers over China

By Stan Grant, CNN
November 6, 2012 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
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
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0513 GMT (1313 HKT)
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0908 GMT (1708 HKT)
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 0452 GMT (1252 HKT)
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0631 GMT (1431 HKT)
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0656 GMT (1456 HKT)
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
ADVERTISEMENT