Going strong ... the popularity of Mao Zedong.

Going strong ... the popularity of Mao Zedong.

CHONGQING: It might seem odd that a man responsible for the starvation of more than 30 million people could be chosen to promote a restaurant, but there is no mistaking the avuncular features of Mao Zedong staring from the portrait above the entrance to the ''Red Leader'' Hot Pot eatery.

''Comrades! Welcome Comrades!'' breezes a pretty hostess dressed up as one of Chairman Mao's Red Guards, complete with armband and Mao lapel badge.

She is, of course, far too young to remember the Cultural Revolution, the Mao-inspired political civil war of 1966-1976 that tore her parents' generation apart. Back then ''comrade'' was the standard form of address; today it is only used by young Chinese as a slang word for ''gay''.

Going strong ... the popularity of Mao Zedong.

Going strong ... the popularity of Mao Zedong.

Welcome, then, to China 2011: a country of such abiding contradictions that the ruling Communist Party's darkest moment can be the subject of a vapid theme-restaurant, even as a battle rages between conservatives and reformers over the country's political direction.

Yesterday the party that Mao brought to power marked its 90th birthday, celebrating its founding by a small group of revolutionaries in Shanghai in 1921 with an outpouring of ''Red'' propaganda. Groups of party faithful gathered to sing ''Red'' songs; cinemas showed the state's latest star-studded propaganda epic, The Founding of a Party, while newspapers and television stations lionised the party's achievements.

This revival of the cult of Mao finds its apogee in the steaming megacity of Chongqing, whose charismatic Communist Party leader, Bo Xilai, has mounted a campaign to paint the city ''Red''.

However, for many Chinese, who have embraced the fruits of capitalism in recent decades, attempts by the party to take the ideological credit for China's transformation ring hollow. The party, for all its professions to clean up its act, is mired in constant corruption scandals and there is a widespread belief that it has become a decadent, self-enriching elite. This was a theme the President, Hu Jintao, addressed in a speech to mark the anniversary yesterday.

Mr Hu warned the ruling Communist Party faced severe ''growing pains'' as it turned 90 and that corruption, and alienation from China's people, could erode public support.

He lauded the party for leading China's rebirth but made clear that pitfalls lie ahead as it continues to strike an ungainly balance between economic openness and political rigidity.

The fight against corruption was the key to ''winning or losing public support and the life or death of the party,'' he said.

Telegraph, London / Agence France-Presse