Updated: 12/24/2013 14:24 | By Agence France-Presse

China to mark birth of divisive leader Mao

Thousands of Mao Zedong admirers will descend on central China this week to mark the 120th anniversary of the former leader's birth -- an occasion that represents a tricky balancing act for the government.


China to mark birth of divisive leader Mao

People bow to a bronze statue of China's former leader Mao Zedong in Shaoshan, in China's central province of Hunan on December 24, 2013

Chinese remain divided over the founder of the People's Republic, with many nostalgic towards his 27-year-rule and others insisting his policies led to the deaths of millions.

The anniversary, which falls on Thursday, has particular significance this year and authorities in Mao's hometown have reportedly spent billions, even as President Xi Jinping called for "simple" celebrations.

"The anniversary is a big date for Chinese people," said Shen Yang, a 48-year-old businessman who will travel to Shaoshan in Hunan province, where Mao spent some of his formative years.

China traditionally measured time in 60-year cycles and Shen added: "It's the best date for us to express our faith in and respect for Mao Zedong.

"I believe that the new China created by Mao was great, and that's why we should celebrate and believe in him."

For others, Mao -- who in 1949 led the Communist party to victory in a brutal civil war and died in 1976 -- is remembered as a tyrant who led disastrous political campaigns that killed tens of millions.

He consolidated his power in the 1950s with brutal purges of opponents, while estimates say more than a million people were slaughtered in a movement to redistribute rural land to China's peasants.

Even deadlier was the "Great Leap Forward" launched in 1958, an attempt to boost China's economy that led to a famine in which some say more than 40 million people starved to death.

Next came the 1966 to 1976 "Cultural Revolution," seen as an effort by Mao to eliminate political enemies, leading to violence that one account estimates caused half a million deaths in 1967 alone.

But there has never been a full historical reckoning of his actions in China, where the ruling party censors accounts of his rule that highlight brutality and challenge the official line.

"Mao's biggest sin is that he interrupted China's progress towards constitutionalism and democracy," Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan wrote in an online commentary on the anniversary.

"He took China into class warfare, and into the dead end of a one-party system."

But the Communist party "continues to use Mao as a sort of father figure for the revolution", said Kirk Denton, of Ohio State University.

"It does so because the very legitimacy of the party is tied to that revolution and its narrative of national liberation."

The party reversed economic course following Mao's death, ushering in unprecedented growth that it uses to justify its claim to power, and it acknowledges that he made "mistakes".

But the body of the "Great Helmsman" remains on public display in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, as does his portrait.

Reports in October said that Xiangtan city, which includes Shaoshan -- where Mao lived from birth until his teens -- would spend 15.5 billion yuan ($2.5 billion) to mark the occasion, including a plan to renovate the house where he lived, infrastructure projects and a "large-scale" cultural performance.

But Chinese internet users slammed the expense as wasteful, before Xi called for celebrations to be "solemn, simple and pragmatic," state media reported last month.

While China's leaders are wary of perceived extravagance, analysts say they also have to be careful about praising Mao too much, particularly after the downfall of former politician Bo Xilai.

Bo, who was sentenced to life in jail for corruption in September, embarked on a campaign of Maoist revivalism during his time as party chief of Chongqing, with mass rallies and promoting the singing of "red songs". 

Mao has emerged as a rallying point for those who lament China's growing rich-poor gap and rampant corruption.

"There's a delicate line to walk by the government that wants to celebrate him, but only parts of him," said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a China expert at the University of California Irvine.

"They don't want notions floating around that Mao was better than the current leaders by caring more about the plight of the poor, and being less corrupt."

Xi has links to Mao through his father -- a revolutionary general -- and has sought to revive some of the leader's tactics, subjecting officials to "self-criticism" sessions.

But economically he has vowed market-friendly reforms closer to those advocated by Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping.

Hotels across Shaoshan said they were booked out ahead of the event, and Mao supporters told AFP that China needed to remember his legacy.

"There are powerful groups who seek to blemish the image of Mao Zedong and attack his legacy. Their aim is to remove the influence of Mao on Chinese politics and leave the socialist path," said Shen, the businessman.

"Those of us who have faith in Mao Zedong need to stand up bravely and express our attitude."

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