Mon, Nov 29, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Money rules in Mao's hometown

The irony of worshipping Mao Zedongin dog-eat-dog capitalist China is loston the millions who visit theformer ruler's hometown in Hunan

AFP , SHAOSHAN, CHINA

Visitors to Shaoshan give praise to the late helmsman.

PHOTO: AFP

In Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) hometown of Shaoshan, "long live Chairman Mao" booms from speakers as people tumble out of buses onto a small square, donning caps emblazoned with their tourist group affiliation.

They chatter excitedly as they approach the 6m-tall bronze statue of the dictator outfitted in thick shoes and double-breasted military coat, before stopping to pose and snap photos in front of the revered revolutionary leader.

Twenty-eight years after his death and despite wide recognition in China that he committed grave errors which caused the deaths of tens of millions of people, Mao is still regarded by many as the country's greatest modern leader.

"I worship him. Most of the people coming here worship him," said Wang Ming, 35, a resident of Nanjing who travelled more than 1,500km to Shaoshan in central Hunan Province.

"He had a rebellious spirit and he led such a small and tiny army to fight against the Kuomintang, and he saved the country and the people."

At a strategically placed flower stand that sits on the small square, tourists line-up to buy bouquets that cost as much as 399 yuan (US$48). They place them gently and respectfully at the base of the statue.

Though even state media today continues to remind people that Mao was just a man and not a god, here the admonishment seems to fall on deaf ears.

People pray in front of his statue by bringing their hands together and kowtowing three times -- a ritual that in ancient, feudal China was reserved for the emperor alone.

"I pray that he may give me strength and courage to live a good life," said Zhu He, a visitor from Hubei Province.

On any given day, Mao's hometown is overrun with more than 4,000 tourists, or about 1.5 million visitors a year. It has become a money-spinning attraction that symbolizes one of the great contradictions of the politics of the ruling Communist Party of China.

Mao's vision of an egalitarian, Communist utopia has largely become an anachronism in a country that increasingly defines itself with market capitalist values.

Where once the Communist Party could justify its self-appointed totalitarian rule over its 1.3 billion people because the historical forces of the proletarian revolution were in its favor, 25 years of market economic reforms has vanquished that mandate.

Indeed, in front of a temple dedicated to him, where Mao and first wife Yang Kaihui told peasants to cast off their feudal and capitalist chains, hawkers do brisk business in Mao paraphernalia.

Anything and everything is available: postcards, books, statues, key rings, lighters, even the "East is Red" cigarettes named after a famous song composed in Mao's honor.

That the chairman's popularity continues nearly unadulterated is as much a result of Beijing's efforts to present all top leaders in the best light possible.

In this way, they guarantee the Communist Party's infallibility, said Joseph Cheng, a China analyst at City University of Hong Kong.

"To discredit Mao opens up Pandora's box," said Cheng. "Any leader could be criticized and then anything could be opened up for interpretation."

As such, the Mao Zedong Memorial Museum here remains an orgiastic celebration of Mao's achievements and the party's self-appointed mandate as the country's historically chosen rulers.

Pekjing University history professor Liu Zuxi argues respect for Mao goes beyond the myth-spinning of the party.

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