Chinese state media on Friday marked the 40th anniversary of the death of the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong, with articles praising him, but President Xi Jinping visited a school and did not mention the day. Mao, who died in 1976, remains a divisive figure. His image adorns banknotes and his embalmed body attracts hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors a day to Beijing.
While the ruling Communist Party has acknowledged Mao made mistakes, there has yet to be an official accounting for the chaos of the Cultural Revolution when Mao declared class war, or the millions of deaths from starvation during the 1958-61 Great Leap Forward, a failed attempt at rapid industrialisation. The Hunan Daily, the main party paper in Mao’s home province in the south of China, carried a small article on its front page proclaiming “Chairman Mao, the people cherish your memory”, but banished to its fifth page a longer article about him.
The party’s official People’s Daily carried several pictures of him on its Weibo microblog along with a collection of some of his most well-known quotes and asked people to name their favourite. However it disabled the comments section. Xi, who doubles as party and military chief, made no mention of Mao in his main activity for the day as reported by state media, going to a Beijing school ahead of China’s Teachers Day, which falls on Saturday.
While there he “underscored the importance of better basic education”, according to Xinhua news agency, and watched students playing football, Xi’s favourite sport. Xi suffered personally during the Cultural Revolution when his father was imprisoned. Xi was sent to the countryside to live with peasants, like millions of other urban Chinese youth.
Mao has become a potent symbol for leftists within and without the party who feel three decades of market-based reform have gone too far, creating social inequalities like poverty and graft. In lauding Mao, they sometimes seek to put pressure on the current leadership and its market-oriented policies. A day earlier, a small group of Mao fans attended the opening of a calligraphy and art exhibition about him in Beijing.
“Chinese people, the broad masses of the Chinese people, in their hearts, have never forgotten Mao Zedong. They will remember him forever. And they still promote his principles,” artist Yao Weidong told Reuters. “So if there are corrupt officials, we use Mao Zedong Thought to defeat them. We all remember very clearly. Most of us have not forgotten Chairman Mao.”