China to mark birth of divisive leader Mao

China to mark birth of divisive leader Mao
Students hold portraits of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong during a commemorative event ahead of December 26

SHAOSHAN, China - 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.

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."

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