It was a little surprising that Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) 120th birthday, which fell on Dec. 26, did not receive much international media attention. It was even more surprising that it was not celebrated with much gusto or on a grand scale in China, which might explain the subdued international coverage.
What might be the explanation for the less than grandiose celebrations? There have been reports that the event was going to be a grand affair all over the country, but it ended up being a much smaller — though dignified — occasion with the country’s leaders paying homage to Mao in Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) sought to put the celebration in perspective during his speech at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing when talking of Mao, as well as other revolutionary leaders, who led China’s communist revolution.
He reportedly said: “Revolutionary leaders [particularly Mao, whose birthday it was] are not gods, but human beings. [We] cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great, neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes.”
Ever since former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai (薄熙來), who invoked Mao and his legend to destabilize the political transition from former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to Xi, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has wrestled to balance Mao’s deified image with facts.
While Mao was a great revolutionary leader, he was still a human being and prone to mistakes like other people.
However, those mistakes and frailties remain a mystery because China’s post-Mao generations have no knowledge of them in the absence of any discussion or debate.
Hence, Mao’s deification continues.
Bo sought to use Mao’s legend as the people’s man to promote his own political ambitions to make it to the top, but lost, was purged and is now behind bars.
Xi has been watching his back for the likes of Bo who rallied around him, like former Chinese security czar and former Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang (周永康), who is being investigated for corruption, which, in political terms, could mean anything and everything.
Xi himself was toying with Mao’s image and legend after he became president because it was a populist thing to do, judging by how Bo was seemingly doing a good job of it before he was undone by his former police chief Wang Lijun (王立軍) and his wife, Gu Kailai (谷開來), who is serving a suspended death sentence for poisoning her British business associate Neil Heywood.
However, now that Xi is feeling more secure and has decided to liberalize China’s economy, relatively speaking, by giving the private sector a greater role, he feels the need to strike a balance between Mao’s popular image as a god-like figure who could not and did not make mistakes and a human being likely to err at any time.
That is about as far as any Chinese leader will go in assessing Mao’s role.
Even former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), who like many other leaders suffered when Mao launched his Great Cultural Revolution and might be considered the father China’s economic transformation, went only as far as telling Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci that Mao was 70 percent good and his mistakes amounted to only 30 percent.
Since Mao died in 1976, his successors, starting with Deng, have turned completely from his theory and practice of “perpetual revolution” to keep the revolution safe. Deng was for “learning from facts” and was not bound by ideology.