At the start of September, it was the 40th anniversary of Chairman Mao’s death. He continues to be a controversial figure for both the government, and the people of China.
Thousands of pilgrims queued outside the Forbidden City to see Mao’s embalmed body, and thousands more went to his birth place to lay flowers – over social media app WeChat over 2.5 million people took part in an online flower-laying campaign. However, official media was very quiet about the anniversary; the Communist Party newspaper didn’t even print an article about it. Chinese censors also reduced online discussion of the anniversary, and there was no official event to commemorate their former leader.
This reflects the complicated legacy that Mao left in China. He transformed the country into a New China and established control over the entirety of the country and stimulated economic growth, yet he also was accused of causing a famine that killed an estimated 45 million people and his Cultural Revolution was a political disaster. His successor, Deng Xiaoping made it clear that ’70 percent of Mao’s work was good, 30 per cent was wrong‘, and with that remark created a split between Mao’s China and the one he wanted to create.
However, in a country with soaring inequality and corruption many Chinese think back fondly on a time before market reforms when all were all equal; this in turn puts pressure on the current leadership who follow this policy.
The government did take the opportunity of the anniversary of the Great Helmsman’s death to warn against taking extreme views and trying to right his wrongs. They are in the difficult position of trying to maintain Mao’s image as China’s hero, whilst not letting people forget that the Communist Party is different now, and it is them, and not Mao to whom they owe their loyalty.
The way that the current president, Xi Jinping, is doing this is by making himself China’s strongest leader since Mao. He is portraying himself in the same vein – as a leader who will protect the Chinese people. The development of such a form of charisma could almost be perceived as a personality cult, though it is unlikely he will ever gain the worship enjoyed by Chairman Mao.
His anti-corruption campaign takes a leaf from Mao’s book. He presents himself as cleansing without mercy, as being the party in the interest of the people, cracking down on ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’ alike. In reality, he is ensuring power is recentralised around him, and that smaller officials cannot step out of line.
This recentralisation is also a way to stop the government excessively spending money since the economy is slowing down. However, the big impact is that it is pulling the party down towards the level of the people to show that Xi Jinping’s government is working in their interest, just as Chairman Mao once did.
The difference now is that this leadership wants stability, and to leave class struggle and revolution behind with Mao in the Forbidden City, and move on into a brighter, future where the free market and Communism coexists. Whether this can fully be achieved, however, remains to be seen.