“At the center of the center of China lies a corpse that nobody dares remove.”
So runs the memorable opening line of “Behind the Forbidden Door,” a book published in 1985 by the Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani.
Today, 35 years after Mao Zedong’s death, the leader’s corpse still lies in the grandiose Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in the center ofTiananmen Square, the granite plain that is the symbolic center of this nation of more than 1.3 billion. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people stand in line, sometimes for hours, to view, for a few seconds, the embalmed body of the man so many Chinese still revere.
Yet 45 years ago, on May 16, 1966, this same man began the Cultural Revolution, an orgy of political violence that killed perhaps two million Chinese.
Mao’s preeminence in China is linked to his role in founding the People’s Republic in 1949. Yet his controversial political legacy, of which the Cultural Revolution is just one example, is growing more, not less, disputed, with time.
At stake is nothing less than long-stalled political reform, say some Chinese analysts and retired Communist Party officials.
“An honest, earnest, serious assessment of Mao based on facts” is “necessary,” Yawei Liu, director of the Carter Center’s China Program in Atlanta, said in an e-mail.
Mao’s legacy overshadows China to this day, so “without such a thorough verdict, it would be hard for China to launch meaningful political reform,” Mr. Liu said.
In China, the debate over Mao’s legacy is growing increasingly heated, conducted via Web sites, articles and books.
Broadly, liberals and pro-market forces stand on one side; leftists and Maoists on the other. The leftists, perhaps better organized, operate scores of Web sites, including the popular Utopia (www.wyzxsx.com), Mao Zedong Flag (www.maoflag.net) and Red China (www.redchinacn.com).
Behind this florescence of often-aggressive debate lies the pressure of decades of fast economic growth on the country’s rigid political framework, little changed since Mao’s day. The government has responded by trying to better manage social conflict and increasing repression.
The liberal faction harbors a wide range of opinion. Some see Mao as a deeply flawed figure who had his achievements. Others see him as merely power-mad, even a Machiavellian killer.
Leftists see Mao as a symbol of days when people were more equal and many things, including basic social services, were free or subsidized. Curiously, some rich businessmen belong here, too, having benefited enormously from the political stasis of the last decades.
A recent essay by the liberal economist Mao Yushi, “Returning Mao Zedong to his Original Person,” has highlighted the controversy.
Mr. Mao, who is no relation to Mao Zedong, accused the former leader of hypocrisy and unusual cruelty.
The Cultural Revolution was merely a ploy to destroy his many critics after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward famine, which killed around 30 million people, Mr. Mao wrote.
Evidence of cruelty is found, for example, in Mao’s indifference to the fate of friends he drove to suicide, wrote the economist, and that of President Liu Shaoqi, whom Mao first attacked, then pretended to save, only to have Mr. Liu expelled from the party on his 70th birthday, before dying, untended, in jail in 1969.
A document circulating online purporting to detail a proposal by top Communist Party officials to remove Mao Zedong Thought from party work, documents and policies, has also sharpened debate.
The supposed Politburo document, No. 179, dated Dec. 28, 2010, is said to have been proposed by Xi Jinping, the man expected to become China’s next president, and Wu Bangguo, the head of the National People’s Congress.
Even if a hoax — the internal workings of the Politburo are almost entirely opaque, and it is almost impossible to verify its authenticity — the document has refocused attention on the issue of Mao’s legacy among commentators and party officials.
A retired official at China’s National Defense University, Xin Ziling, reportedly called the document a “turning point” in Chinese politics, in an interview circulating on the Web. Mr. Xin could not be reached for comment.
“All this stuff indicates how central Mao is to China’s political orthodoxy,” said Mr. Liu of the Carter Center. “A clear verdict and break with Mao will pave the way for real political reform to take place.”
Leftists have reacted strongly to Mr. Mao’s essay, and the apparent move to delete Mao from official ideology. Some said that Mr. Mao, the economist, should provide evidence of his claims, or face the courts. Others reflected on the political value of Mao for the party.
“Separated from Mao, the Communist Party has no glory left!” said one commentator, Li Lin, in a typical entry on maoflag.net.
In Tiananmen Square on Sunday, Wang Yanjuan, 50, was one of thousands inching forward in line outside the mausoleum.
“For us, Mao Zedong is the founder of our country. We deeply admire him. He lives in our hearts,” said Ms. Wang, who is from the northeastern city of Shenyang. “In his day, education was free,” she added.
Her 76-year-old mother, in Beijing for the first time, had only one request: to see Mao’s body. “She doesn’t want to do anything else,” Ms. Wang said. “When we’ve done this, we can go home.”
Inside the mausoleum, suddenly, he’s there, flat on his back inside a thick crystal coffin. His face glows orangeish under bright lights.
His springy gray hair is neatly combed back at the sides. He is dressed in a gray tunic, the Communist Party flag — gold hammer and sickle on a red background — draping his body from the chest down. An armed honor guard of two soldiers stares somberly ahead.
Back outside, Ms. Wang, for whom this is a second visit, appeared satisfied. “That was very good,” she said.
What does her mother think?
“It’s the same for her. Very good,” Ms. Wang said. But, pointing at her 20-year-old daughter, up ahead, she said: “My daughter, she’s young and doesn’t care so much. I don’t think young people could accept Mao’s times as we did.”
Via NYT http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/world/asia/06iht-letter06.html