SHAOSHAN (AFP) – Admirers of Communist China’s founder Mao Zedong celebrated the 120th anniversary of his birth Thursday with noodles and fireworks, as President Xi Jinping marked the occasion by visiting the controversial leader’s preserved corpse.
Thousands stood through the night in Shaoshan near the childhood home of Mao, who led the country for 27 years.
He commands reverence among many Chinese, but also condemnation by those who say his political and economic campaigns caused tens of millions of deaths.
“Mao was a great leader of the Chinese nation, he was a perfect person and for us young people he is someone to learn from,” said Jiang Qi, 33, a construction company employee, as he watched fireworks streak above a giant statue of Mao, who died in 1976.
Mao fans — including at least two Mao lookalikes — jostled for position and bowed in front of the statue, while others shouted “Long live Chairman Mao!”
The ruling Communist Party has sought to balance praise for the revolutionary leader — whose theories Xi has regularly cited — while also acknowledging that he made “mistakes”.
At the same time Mao has emerged as a rallying point for some nationalists and those discontented with the stark inequality and widespread corruption that have accompanied China’s market-driven economic boom.
The 12-decade anniversary has a special resonance in China, which traditionally measured time in 60-year cycles.
At least 100 self-described “Red Internet friends”, a group of activists to the left of the current Communist Party leadership, were present in Shaoshan, in the central province of Hunan. Some waved home-made red flags and shouted for “the downfall of American imperialism”.
Several said police detained pro-Mao activists from different provinces to prevent them attending the anniversary, underscoring the challenge Mao’s legacy poses to the leadership.
“The police have intercepted many, many of us,” said a man surnamed Wei, who held a banner with Mao’s face and did not wish to give his full name for fear of reprisals.
“The government is not as upright as Chairman Mao, so they are afraid, they are all corrupt,” he added.
Some of the celebrations had religious overtones, with pilgrims burning fragrant incense, bowing and calling for blessings from the man once known as the “Great Helmsman”.
“We are lighting incense to express our thanks to Mao Zedong,” said He Peng, a middle-aged woman who knelt on the ground and recited a poem in praise of him.
Much of the 1.94 billion yuan ($320 million) reportedly budgeted by Shaoshan for the anniversary went up in smoke during a fireworks display, which lasted more than four hours, and down the throats of the thousands who lined up for free noodles — a traditional birthday meal in China.
“Through eating these noodles we can be happy, they express long life and our love for Chairman Mao, who is great,” said a 63-year-old woman surnamed Ding, after tucking into a steaming bowl, adding that Mao “defeated Japanese imperialism”.
But Mao’s sometimes autocratic rule remains a divisive topic in China, where the Communist Party’s official stance is that he was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong” — and it has never allowed an open historical reckoning of his actions.
Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” is estimated by Western historians to have led to as many as 45 million deaths from famine, and his Cultural Revolution plunged China into a decade of violent chaos.
In Beijing, China’s top seven-ranked politicians including Xi and Premier Li Keqiang visited the mausoleum where Mao’s preserved body lies on public display on Thursday morning, the official Xinhua news agency said.
They bowed three times and “jointly recalled Comrade Mao’s glorious achievements”, it added in a brief report.
Vendors lined the streets selling Mao memorabilia in Shaoshan, where pilgrims wore red scarves and sung Mao-era songs such as “The East Is Red”. At times they gave the celebrations an air of the “Red Song” concerts championed by ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai.
Bo, whose brash political style is said to have alienated party elders, was condemned to life in prison on corruption charges earlier this year, making him the highest-profile Chinese politician to be sentenced in decades, but some said they remained loyal to him.
“All those who love Chairman Mao also love Secretary Bo,” said one middle-aged man surnamed Shan, adding: “Mao is our great leader.”