While he was still alive, Chairman Mao Zedong’s greatest worry was that a capitalist revival would take hold in China and wipe away his utopian vision of communism.
As China marks 40 years since his death on September 9 1976, it is clear his worst fears have been realised.
Mao is still officially regarded as the founding father of modern China but the stark contrast between his egalitarian economic ideas and today’s freewheeling capitalism make the ruling Communist party extremely wary of too much sentimentality.
Commemorations this year have been tightly curtailed and state media warned on Friday against anyone holding “extreme views” of the former dictator.
This reflects the fact that Mao is more popular now than at any other time since his death, which brought an end to the disastrous decade of turmoil known as the Cultural Revolution.
Historians estimate that Mao was responsible for between 40m and 70m deaths in his numerous political purges and a famine in the late 1950s caused by his “Great Leap Forward” economic policies.
But for many in China, especially young people who are not taught about these “mistakes”, Mao represents a fairer and less corrupt age.
“A lot of today’s societal problems in China were all caused by departures from the spirit of ‘Mao Zedong Thought’,” said Sima Nan, a celebrity blogger and devout “neo-Maoist”. But “in contrary to the wishes and efforts of those who vilify Mao, Mao now increasingly possesses a kind of divinity.”
In recent years Taoist-style temples devoted to Mao have sprung up across the country, an ironic development given that Mao was a staunch atheist who sought to stamp out religion and “superstitions”.
On Friday, tens of thousands of ordinary people flocked to Mao’s home village in rural central China to bow and pray before his statue under the watchful eye of a large police presence.
Meanwhile Alibaba, the US-listed ecommerce group, has incurred the wrath of neo-Maoist groups for scheduling an “alcohol festival” on Friday to promote online liquor sales. The Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of “nine” is the same as that of the word for alcohol.
“Only those soulless counter-revolutionaries and traitors celebrate the day of the passing of the Chinese people’s great leader Chairman Mao so what on earth are you doing [Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder and executive chairman]?” said an article posted on two of China’s leading neo-Maoist websites.
The tension over how to remember the “great helmsman” extends beyond China’s borders. In Sydney and Melbourne local governments cancelled planned concertscommemorating Mao’s death after Chinese Australians complained that the content venerating the dictator was insensitive.
Experts on the neo-Maoist phenomenon say China’s current leaders regard this movement as the most potent challenge to their rule, precisely because Mao is still honoured as the founder of the nation even as his political and economic ideas have been abandoned.
As the chairman himself said in 1963: If “the landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements and monsters are all allowed to crawl out … then it will not be long before a counter-revolutionary restoration on a national scale inevitably occurred, the Marxist-Leninist party would undoubtedly become a revisionist party or a fascist party.”
Tags: Chairman Mao, China, Chinese Communist Party, Communist Party, Cultural Revolution, egalitarian economic ideas, founder of the People's Republic of China, founding father of modern China, Mao Zedong, Marxist-Leninist party, September 9 marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping