Tough times breed nostalgia for Mao
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - Although Mao Zedong died 33 years ago, the founding father of communist China seems to still be alive in the hearts of many Chinese.

A new wave of nostalgia for the late chairman is sweeping the nation ahead of the 60th birthday of People's Republic of China (PRC) and amid the global financial crisis
. The leader, who led the PRC from its establishment until his death in 1976, is surging though his brand of socialism has long been officially abandoned and there has been criticism of "serious mistakes" such as the Cultural Revolution.

Chingming is a traditional Chinese festival for the dead when families tend to the graves of their ancestors. It normally falls on April 4-5 each year. During Chingming this year, tens of thousands of visitors flocked into Shaoshan, Mao's native village in Hunan province, to pay homage. According to Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao daily, on April 2 alone at least 30,000 people from various places of the country visited Shaoshan.

The visitors ranged from retired party and government officials to primary and high school pupils. They first bowed and placed wreaths at a 10.1-meter-tall bronze statue of Mao erected in the village - the numerical figure 10.1 stands for October 1, the date on which Mao declared the founding of the PRC in 1949. They then visited the mud-walled, clay-tile-roofed rural house where Mao was born. Many also went to pay tribute to the tombs of Mao's parents and ancestors near the village.

Another sign of growing nostalgia for Mao is the comeback in popularity of his Little Red Book among Chinese university students, according to a report by the France24 news channel. "We are selling five times as many copies of his book as before the [financial] crisis," said Fan Jinggang, the owner of neo-leftist Utopia Bookstore near Peking University. He said 200 copies had been sold a month since the start of the economic downturn late last year.

The global financial crisis has already cost some 25 million migrant workers their jobs in China, and university graduates also face an uncertain future.

"I have spent so much money in going to university to study," 22-year-old student Yang Lu was quoted as saying on the France24 report. "I will graduate next June, but I don't know if I will be able to find work. In this kind of situation, how could we not feel nostalgic for the Mao era, when all students were guaranteed work?"

Chinese are also increasingly worshipping the late chairman like a god. The Beijing-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group last year conducted a survey on religious beliefs in 40 cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan.

It found that 11.5% of the families surveyed had a shrine in their homes of Mao, in the form of a statue or bust. This was only slightly less than the number of families (12.1%) that keep memorial tablets of their ancestors. Only 9.9% of families had a Buddhist icon, and 9.3% and 8.8% of families worshiped icons of the God of Fortune and God of Land, respectively. The survey did not cover rural areas, where many families are known to keep statues or pictures of Mao in their homes.

According to Hong Kong's Ming Pao daily, some of the visitors to Shaoshan during the Chingming Festival prayed to Mao to bless them with health, fortune or love, while some high-school students hoped Mao would help them pass their university entrance exams. Some retired cadres prayed to Mao for an end to official corruption.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao was worshipped like a god with his Little Red Book read like the bible. But shortly after his death, his merits were re-evaluated by the party when it was led by Deng Xiaoping, whose reform and open-door policy ran counter to Mao's ideal of socialism.

In the 1980s, Mao was "taken down from the sacred shrine" and articles and novels published that denounced the Cultural Revolution, a nationwide social and political upheaval spearheaded by Mao that he hoped would eliminate his political rivals and revolutionize Chinese society.

Between 1966 and 1968, Mao encouraged his young supporters, the Red Guards, to take over power from state authorities and form "revolutionary committees" to replace government establishments. But soon Mao's supporters split into factions and started fighting one another. In the chaos and violence that ensued, millions were killed and millions more injured or imprisoned.

Then in 1993, the centenary of Mao's birth, a wave of nostalgia for the chairman swept the country. It was partially encouraged with official memorial activities. Some people close to Mao, such as his guards, secretaries or doctors and nurses, published articles or books about his daily life, and movies and television series about Mao in war times were screened. One feature was common in all of them, Mao was depicted as a human leader - a great one, but not a god.

Even after Mao was removed from the "sacred shrine", some mysterious phenomena seemingly occurred that added to his god-like status. On its completion, Mao's statue was inaugurated on December 20, 1993, six days before Mao's 100th birthday. Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited it to remove the red silk covering the statue, but after several tries he still could not pull down the cover. After some whispered advice from one of his staff, Jiang respectfully stepped back and bowed three times to Mao's statue. Only after this did he succeed in pulling down the silk. Stories like this have led many people to believe that Mao had become a god after his death.

But the worship of Mao like a god, for whatever reasons, is just a by-product of the growing nostalgia for the chairman. Although Chinese people may generally live a better life today, they feel much less secure and safe than under Mao's rule.

"I earned less than 100 yuan a month [US$14 at today's exchange rates] in Mao's time. I could barely save each month but I never worried about anything. My work unit would take care of everything for me: housing, medical care, retirement and my children's education, though there were no luxuries. If I had some problem, I could always turn to my work unit for help. Now I receive 3,000 yuan as a [monthly] pension, but I have to count every penny - everything is so expensive and no one will take care of me now if I fall ill," said a retired middle-ranking official in Beijing.

China today faces social evils which were apparently less common - or publicized - during Mao's rule, such as rampant official corruption, a growing wealth gap, and rising crime such as drug abuse and prostitution. This is another reason people fondly remember the Mao era.

In a old joke, Deng was troubled by growing problems caused by his reforms, so one night he paid a visit to Mao's memorial hall at Tiananmen Square. Looking at Mao lying in his crystal coffin, Deng murmured, "Chairman, pray tell me how to deal with the problems." Suddenly Mao sat up pointing a finger at Deng and said, "You come in, I go out. And all these problems will be solved!" The joke shows that even years ago public discontent with societal problems had already began to grow and people wished for a strongman like Mao to solve them.

In the hope of finding a solution to these problems, some educated people such as the neo-leftists are re-reading Mao's works. They are outspoken critics of capitalist-style economic reforms and demand a return to some sort of socialism. (See China at a crossroad: Right or left?, Asia Times Online, Apr 24, 2009)

But the liberal intellectuals who support capitalist-style reforms strongly resent the public nostalgia for Mao. Well-known author Zhang Xianliang, who is also deputy to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, once tabled a motion urging the government to suppress the nostalgia for Mao, saying such sentiment would jeopardize ongoing reform and "opening up".

Apparently for Chinese communist leaders, Mao is still a legacy. So, public nostalgia for Mao could help justify the legitimacy of the communist rule of the country. For, while Mao's socialism is abandoned in practice, Mao Zedong thought is still upheld by the party, at least in theory. In this sense, the nostalgic sentiments could also somehow help fill the nation's ideological vacuum left by reform and "opening up".

However, for the communist leaders, nostalgia for Mao could also be a double-edged sword. If they fail to ease growing public discontent behind such nostalgic feelings, one day public discontent could erupt and threaten their rule.