BEIJING - China's Communist Party chief Xi Jinping visited the mausoleum of Mao Zedong on Thursday, state media said, as the regime carefully marked the 120th birth anniversary of the controversial leader.
Mao - the founder of the People's Republic who led the country for 27 years until his death in 1976 - commands reverence among many Chinese but also condemnation by critics who say his disastrous political and economic campaigns led to tens of millions of deaths.
The ruling Communist Party has sought to balance praising the so-called Great Helmsman - from whom the legitimacy of its leadership derives - while also acknowledging that the founding father made "mistakes".
Xi and the six other members of the party's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, bowed three times at the mausoleum on Thursday morning and "jointly recalled Comrade Mao's glorious achievements", the official news agency Xinhua said in a brief report.
Ahead of the 120th anniversary - which has special resonance in China, the way a century holds symbolic significance in the West - Xi called for simple celebrations.
The Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling party, acknowledged on Thursday that Mao made "drastic mistakes" but accused his critics of seeking to distort history and obstruct China's development.
"Defaming Mao... neglects what China has achieved in the previous six decades," it said in an editorial.
"We can tell most of these detractors have ulterior motives to tarnish Mao's image and legacy to impede China's rejuvenation.
"Their thoughts have already deviated from the right path to evaluate a historical figure."
A gala performance to mark the occasion in the capital's Great Hall of the People had a reference to Mao in its title removed, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported this month.
The original name - "The Sun is Reddest, Chairman Mao is Dearest" - was changed to "A Hymn to my Country", it said. Both are well-known patriotic songs.
Materials that initially promoted the event as marking Mao's 120th birth anniversary were replaced with those highlighting the 65th year of the founding of the new China.
Among other commemoration events this week, the party has released a new chronicle of Mao's life and its official newspaper praised the ideological and practical foundation Mao that laid for China's future success.
Changsha, the capital of Mao's home province of Hunan in central China, has held a gala and symposium to celebrate its native son.