China Contemplates Mao's Legacy on His 120th Birthday

People commemorate the 120th anniversary of the birth of Mao Zedong at Mao Zedong Square in Shaoshan, China, on Dec. 26 Photograph by Imaginechina via AP Photo

Seventy percent good, 30 percent bad: That’s the official appraisal of the legacy of Mao Zedong, a revolutionary, founding father, savior to the masses, philosopher, and poet rolled into one—or alternately, tyrant, murderer, and monster, depending on whom you talk to.

Across China, there’s a new focus on Mao, who more than anyone is responsible for the creation of the People’s Republic of China. Party secretary Xi Jinping has encouraged the attention: “We must not abandon Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought; otherwise, we will lose our foundation,” Xi said during a speech in November 2012. Xi has resurrected core Mao principles, including the “mass line,” or ensuring that the 85 million-member Communist Party learns from and remains close to the people, and revolutionary-era tactics such as cadre self-criticisms. Xi, premier Li Keqiang, and the five other members of the party’s politburo standing committee visited Mao’s mausoleum in the center of Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Dec. 26.

An open examination of Mao’s responsibility for the horrendous manmade catastrophes of the 1958-61 Great Leap Forward and the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution is not allowed. Tens of millions died during those years, and countless more suffered. Yet schools present a largely positive view of Mao’s legacy to Chinese students.

Still, a recent poll by the state-owned newspaper Global Times shows that Chinese fault Mao most for his role in the twin national tragedies. Of the 1,045 people queried in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Xi’an, Changsha, and Shenyang, nearly 80 percent said Mao’s major mistake was the Cultural Revolution, while around 60 percent said the same about Mao’s pushing of the Great Leap Forward, an all-out effort to develop the economy overnight that led to mass starvation. Forty-six percent criticized Mao for his “launching of a personality cult,” the Global Times reported on Dec. 24.

Overall, however, Chinese spoke favorably of Mao. More than 85 percent saw his merits as “greatly outweighing his mistakes.” And more than 90 percent felt “reverence or respect” toward the former Chinese leader. The findings also showed that people over 50 and those with just a high school or vocational school education were more inclined to feel positive about Mao, while those with a college education and higher were most critical.

So what were seen as his achievements? Almost nine out of ten cited his role founding an independent China through revolution. Nearly 60 percent, by contrast, praised Mao for pushing the idea of “serving the people and spreading the notion of fairness”—that’s hardly a surprise as China struggles today with a large income gap, raising the ire of many.

“Fairness being the second-most popular of Mao’s merits makes sense, as it’s part of the reason that people miss the Mao era, because the wealth gap was not as big as now,” said Zhao Zhikui, a research fellow at the Academy of Marxism under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Global Times reported.

The survey also showed that Chinese credit Mao for helping to make China into a nuclear power, strengthening the country’s international standing, building a stronger relationship with the U.S., and pushing for women’s rights. Also important: “advancing the industrial and economic systems.” And the vast majority, or more than 90 percent, said that Mao’s influence is still felt today.

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