Mao fans bow before gold image of Communist China's founder
A man waves a red flag in front of a bronze statue of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Shaoshan, China's central province of Hunan on December 24, 2013
Pilgrims from across the country lit firecrackers and offered flowers in Shaoshan, where Mao was born 120 years ago Thursday, to celebrate a man blamed for tens of millions of deaths but widely viewed as the father of modern China.
"He is a great leader who sacrificed his interests so we could be liberated," said retired teacher Fu Mengnan, after prostrating herself on the ground in front of a giant bronze statue of the leader.
"I have an image of Chairman Mao at home, and bow in front of it every morning and evening," the 56-year-old added. "I think he is a Buddha, and I am wishing him happy birthday to show that I'll never forget him."
The 12-decade anniversary has a special resonance in China, which traditionally measured time in 60-year cycles.
But while Mao's portly grandson Mao Xinyu appeared in Shaoshan on Tuesday, he was joined by merely provincial-level officials, in accordance with a call by President Xi Jinping for anniversary celebrations to be "simple".
Mao's legacy remains a divisive topic in China, where the ruling Communist Party's official stance is that he was "70 percent right and 30 percent wrong" -- and it has never allowed an open historical reckoning of his actions.
Political initiatives launched by Mao such as the "Great Leap Forward," and the "Cultural Revolution" led to more than 40 million deaths through violence and starvation, according to some Chinese and foreign estimates.
Analysts say Mao has emerged as a rallying point for those discontented with rising inequality and rampant corruption, presenting a potential challenge to a leadership which does not tolerate public dissent.
One self-described Maoist from the central city of Changsha said he and at least four other people had been prevented from leaving their homes on Tuesday, and had been warned not to hold a discussion forum about Mao.
"The speaker at our event has been detained in his home by the government," said the man, surnamed Liu.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a China expert at the University of California Irvine, told AFP the Communist party had to walk "a delicate line" in how it treated the anniversary.
"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," he said.
China's state-run Global Times newspaper on Wednesday attempted to back the official line, publishing a survey in which a majority of respondents thought that Mao's achievements outweighed his mistakes.
Some at Shaoshan, in the central province of Hunan, expressed a belief that despite unprecedented economic growth, their country had taken the wrong path since Mao's death in 1976.
"There are a lot of problems in today's China, and the way to solve them is with Mao Zedong Thought," said Chen Yaoyao, a man in his forties who wore a bright red jacket.
"I hope we can realise true communism in China."
In apparent defiance of the President's request, a solid gold statue of the leader worth a reported $16 million was proudly on display -- with a steady stream of admirers kneeling on red cushions to pay it their respects.
But for some, even the gleaming metal memorial failed to do justice to the leader once referred to as the "Great Helmsman".
"In our hearts, Chairman Mao is worth even more than gold," said Li Tianxing, a 22-year-old hotel worker who travelled from a neigbouring province to catch a glimpse of the statue.
Official memorials in Shaoshan, where Mao lived until his teens, celebrate his role as a revolutionary leader and make little reference to the millions of deaths he presided over.
Celebrations cost Shaoshan 1.94 billion yuan ($320 million), according to Xinhua news agency, and were expected to continue into the night with acolytes gathering to launch fireworks and sing songs in praise of Mao.
"This place should be hot and noisy, because it's the place where the red sun was born," tour guide Shen Chao told a busload of eager visitors as they rolled through rice fields near Mao's former home.
But earlier, he had confided to AFP: "Mao Zedong is an example of what can happen when power gets out of control. I see him as the last emperor of China."
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