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120 years after birth, Mao's presence lingers

Beijing, Dec 23, 2013 (AP) 19:30 IST
Students hold portraits of China's late Chairman Mao during a commemorative event ahead of the 120th anniversary of Mao's birth, at a university campus in Taiyuan
With his image gracing bank notes and staring out from Tiananmen Gate, Mao Zedong remains a constant presence in China 120 years after his birth, revered as a hero who founded the communist state and restored national pride, even as China moves ever further from his vision of a communist society.

China is marking Thursday's anniversary of his birth with relatively understated celebrations, a far cry from the cult of personality that once surrounded Mao, and a sign of how far China has travelled in the 37 years since his death and more than three decades since the junking of orthodox Marxism.

President Xi Jinping invokes Mao in his fight against corruption and borrows Maoist concepts such as the "mass line" to extol the virtues of close ties between the rulers and those ruled.
Yet he has also proposed giving the free market a "decisive role" in the economy, a concept that would have been anathema to the "Great Helmsman," as Mao was called.

Still, as heirs of the rigid one-party political system imposed by Mao and his party comrades, the current leadership has a strong interest in venerating his memory.

"Because Mao was founder of the communist state, to commemorate Mao is to in fact demonstrate the legitimacy of their own rule," says historian and political analyst Zhang Lifan.

The run-up to the anniversary has included dozens of symposiums, exhibitions, concerts and television specials.

Not surprisingly, many are looking to cash in on the date, especially in his home village of Shaoshan in the central province of Hunan. Mao worship is a cornerstone of the local economy, and the town fathers are using USD 2.5 billion in public funds to renovate museums and historical sites, along with highways, schools and other infrastructure.

Sites associated with Mao around the country are getting facelifts as part of an effort to promote "red tourism" and bring development to some of China's least developed areas.Excess is also making a showing, including a USD 16 million gilded statue of the man - blinged-out with precious gems - in the city of Shenzhen, and a special-edition offering of China's most expensive liquor.

Mao remains a strong symbolic presence, though not nearly as ubiquitous he was during his lifetime. Thousands of Chinese tourists line up daily to view his embalmed body in its Tiananmen Square mausoleum, which has also undergone renovation.

His image graces almost all bank notes from 1 to 100 yuan, and Chinese studios crank out a steady flow of new movies and television series based on highly sterilised versions of his life and the party's history.

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