Memories are made of Mao
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - Two elderly people, wearing headscarves in the manner of peasants from Shanxi province, had just left the south gate of the Forbidden City - the former imperial palace in the heart of Beijing. They turned, and raised their heads toward the giant portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square, then placed their hands together in a gesture of reverence typically used in religions all over the world.

A young policeman wearing white gloves who was patrolling the area approached the couple, with a smile on his face. The two politely lowered their heads and moved on. The guard is accustomed to this: many visitors from rural areas still pay homage to the Great Helmsman, chairman Mao Zedong, who was leader of the People's Republic of China from its establishment in

1949 until his death on September 9, 1976.

Yet, this September 9, China woke up as if it were just another ordinary day; Beijing concealed under a wall of official silence the anniversary of Mao's death. This silence is stronger than the boom of a thousand cannons - China is proceeding quietly and prudently - but surely - with the process of de-Maoification.

Many schoolbooks today devote less space to Mao than they did in previous years. The official People's University Press, part of the People's University established by Mao, has translated a biography critical of Mao written by Ross Terrill, Mao: A Biography. The volume recounts how, in 1930, Mao could have saved his second wife, Yang Kaihui, who was captured by the Nationalists and tortured to death. Even Mao's portrait in Tiananmen is reduced in size every year by a few centimeters.

This is a complete reversal from 30 or so years ago, when Mao was the object of divine worship and portraits of his chubby, balding figure were like the holy pictures that are displayed at feasts for the saints in some countries.

Thirty-three years ago when Mao died, people wept in the streets. Many thought it was the end of the world, or simply refused to accept the fact as they believed Mao would live forever.

The faith in Mao dies hard. Many taxi drivers in Beijing still display in their cabs a portrait of the young Mao, just like Neapolitans with Madonna or a crucifix. Many in the countryside retain his huge portrait at the center of their houses. His face still features on bank notes.

Officially, while there is no fanfare about Mao, he is not demonized, despite his highly controversial socio-political programs, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which causing untold destruction to culture, society, and the economy.

Mao's thinking is still a matter of careful study at universities. His only grandchild - an extremely chubby figure - appears on television for special occasions, wearing the uniform of a starched young colonel in memory of his grandfather.

Mao's towering legacy will be represented as an important part of a blockbuster film, Jianguo Daye (Lofty Ambitions of Founding a Republic), that will be released on October 1 as part of the celebrations for the the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. (See China's birthday movie has many seeing red Asia Times Online, August 26, 2009.)

All the same, the anniversary of his death was not mentioned in the state media - a significant omission on the eve of the important 60th anniversary, and an even more significant omission on the eve of the Communist Party's plenum that started on September 15.

The famous "Mao Zedong thought" is already buried under a wave of new ideas. These include the reformist theories of Deng Xiaoping, paramount leader from 1978 to the early 1990s; the "Three Represents" of party chief Jiang Zemin adopted in 2002, and the "harmonious society" of current President Hu Jintao.

The party that Mao molded and shaped is operating in accordance with all theories in a "scientific manner", that is, the old ideas are still cherished as old principles, but the real drivers are the new theories.

Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa.

(Copyright 2009 Francesco Sisci.)