Friday marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and ran it virtually uncontested until his death on September 9, 1976.
While his reputation was deeply tarnished by the chaos and destruction of the ultra-radical 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, subsequent generations have generally accepted the ruling Communist Party’s official verdict that he was on balance 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong.
Here are some ways Mao’s influence lingers in today’s very-different China:
Mao remains a revered figure. His birthplace in the village of Shaoshan in Hunan province receives millions of visitors a year, and his embalmed corpse lies within a hulking mausoleum in the center of sprawling Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. His portrait still hangs from iconic Tiananmen Gate, from which he proclaimed the establishment of the new communist state on Oct. 1, 1949, and his visage peers from every denomination of Chinese currency.
All are signs of how he has become a virtual symbol of state, even while in a modern industrial and increasingly capitalistic China that has veered greatly from his ideal of a radical communist state steeped in peasant virtues and egalitarian ideals.
LEGACY OF NATIONAL UNITY
Among Mao’s key achievements was the welding of a fractious China into a unitary state by overthrowing Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government, defeating warlord factions and cementing control over the peripheral western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. Mao’s state has actually grown with the reabsorption in recent decades of the former British colony of Hong Kong and Portuguese colony of Macau. China has also moved aggressively to assert its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, sparking frictions with its southern neighbors. One territory remains outside Beijing’s control, however: the self-governing island of Taiwan to which Chiang’s defeated forces retreated in 1949.
PARTY OVER ALL
Mao advocated strict Communist Party control over all aspects of life, and while his totalitarian state is a thing of the past, the party maintains an iron grip over political power. The last major challenge it faced, the 1989 pro-democracy protests centered on Tiananmen Square, were brutally suppressed and remain a taboo subject. China continues to imprison Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo for co-authoring a call for ending the communist monopoly on power, and civic and legal groups outside party control face constant harassment and persecution. A roundup of activist lawyers in June 2015 has sent a chill through the activist community, and the prospects for a movement arising to oppose the party seem next to nil.
A POWERFUL MILITARY
One of Mao’s most famous dictums was that political power came from the barrel of a gun, and the People’s Liberation Army remains the party’s house guard despite calls for it to shift loyalty to the government instead. In addition to retaining a monopoly on force at home, the PLA has become a growing force in regional and even global military affairs. With 2.3 million members, it is the world’s largest standing military, although plans call for it to shrink by 300,000. Years of double-digit percentage increases in China’s military budget _ now the world’s second-largest _ have transformed the army into an increasingly high-tech and battle-proficient force, despite not having engaged in any major conflict since 1979.
Not all is smooth sailing. The party Mao bequeathed to his successors remains brittle and intolerant, opaque and exclusive, placing hundreds of millions of Chinese outside the decision-making process. Pent-up frustrations occasionally burst into episodes of unrest, although the massive security state has shown its ability to suppress them. In addition, the nationalism unleashed by Mao may force the government to take hard-line positions that imperil its goal of being viewed as a responsible player in global society. Economic tensions deriving from Mao’s command economy also linger. In a move that might have pleased the revolutionary Mao, if not the later authoritarian leader, workers in China’s bloated state industries are growing restive over layoffs and cutbacks at a time when overall economic growth, while still robust, is slowing.