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Sunday, 15 August 2010

Commemoration and Irony

The post-Mao generations of leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have wrestled with a continuous problem- how to treat the memory of the man who engineered the Party's own near destruction during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

The '70 percent good, 30 percent bad' official judgement on Mao serves to dispel any further public debate on his period in power and his legacy, but clearly one size does not fit all. As well as this quantitative verdict, the most obvious visual reminder of the Chairman's vital role in the history of modern China and the Party is his huge portrait affixed to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, overlooking Tiananmen Square. As well as gazing down upon the crowds of Chinese and foreign visitors who throng Tiananmen every day, the portrait looks out towards the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall on the opposite side of the Square

Akin to the example of Lenin in Russia, the fact that the Hall exists at all demonstrates the vitality of Mao Zedong Thought to the CCP's own mandate to rule in China. With Mao's life and political philosophy so closely interwoven with that of the CCP's, the post-Mao generations of leaders have had little choice but to keep the Party closely aligned with Maoism, while at the same time introducing elements of the thought of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao into the political equation. In effect, the Hall also serves as a way for the Party to control remnants of the 'cult' of Mao that climaxed during the Cultural Revolution era. Year by year, hundreds of thousands of Chinese pay their respects to the Great Helmsman, laying flowers purchased during the long wait in the queue to see Mao's body or bowing respectfully in the Solemn Hall of Last Respects. Through such regimented commemoration, the Party is able to make Mao's hallowed status work to its advantage, something that was not possible during the second half of the 1960s.

As well as observing outpourings of respect, the western visitor to the Memorial Hall with even a limited knowledge of modern Chinese history can easily be struck by a sense of irony. The English language official leaflet purchased for two Yuan in the queue to get into the building states that “[the Hall] is a place that the people of all China's ethnic groups wish to visit”. Yet, those wishing to see Mao's body must pass through numerous security checkpoints seemingly intended less to counter a possible threat from a foreign visitor, and more to guard against the actions of a Chinese national. Whatever the CPC may like to suggest publicly, this is a clear acknowledgement by the Party that within China itself Mao is far from universally admired.

In addition, the same leaflet draws attention to the fact that, along with Mao's body, the Memorial Hall houses memorial chambers to “six great revolutionaries”- Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De, Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun (as well as the Chairman himself). The implied sense of revolutionary unity between these individuals (backed up by a picture of the six having a “friendly conversation” in 1962) masks the true reality: that the six had differing opinions on the nature of China's socialist development. Not surprisingly, the fact that Mao's five fellow revolutionaries were all caught up in the political and social turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (albeit to vastly varying degrees) is also omitted from the literature.

The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall represents a fascinating example of a way in which a state can try to come to terms with the controversial legacy of a former leader. While the very nature of the building's set-up suggests a continued feeling of uncertainty in the higher echelons of the CCP over how Mao (and his revolutionary comrades) should be remembered, there can be no doubt that, 34 years after his death, Mao and his Thought remains of paramount importance to Chinese socialism. Although such ideology has been combined with the theory of other important Chinese Communists, the Party's legitimacy relies on the validity of Mao Zedong Thought and the Maoist era. While this is still the status quo, the Great Helmsman's face will continue to stare across Tiananmen Square towards his own mausoleum.

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