In holy birthplace of Maoism, profit-making is king Nostalgia and bitterness blend in China's search for prosperity

July 11, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

SHAOSHAN, China -- In one of his more famous poems, Mao Tse-tung urged his countrymen to "seize the day, seize the hour." And here in the birthplace of the Great Helmsman of China's Communist revolution, they're doing just that.

But profit's what they have in mind.

Mao was born in a simple, brick home in this small town in 1893. With the approach of the 100th anniversary of his birth Dec. 26, few here see any contradiction in making money from the memory of one of history's most fervent anti-capitalists.

In a two-story, concrete house about a mile from Mao's home, the newly opened Shaoshan Statue Factory is turning out thousands of small busts of the late chairman to sell to tourists. Sales are brisk.

On the streets of Shaoshan, peasant peddlers offer an endless array of other Mao paraphernalia: badges, pins, pens, postcards, books, platters, photos, wall hangings, T-shirts, tapes, lighters that play "The East is Red" and holders for name cards emblazoned with another of his famed sayings, "A bright future is ahead."

Shaoshan isn't the only Mao profiteer. A Hong Kong company sells a watch with a holographic image of Mao. A foreign travel agent pitches trips on Mao's former train. China's central bank offers an 18-karat-gold commemorative coin, inlaid with diamonds.

But nowhere else does Mao's 100th birthday mean as much as in Shaoshan, one of Chinese communism's most holy places.

For the celebration, the rutted roads into the town are under repair. It has a new, four-story schoolhouse. More than $1 million is going into renovating the Mao exhibition hall, constructing 50 stone tablets bearing Mao's poems and erecting a 33-foot-high bronze statue of him in a new central square.

Shaoshan officials look forward to thousands showing up here for Mao's birthday, including a delegation of top national leaders from Beijing.

"Certainly," beams Wen Hui Kang, a town official, "this is a big opportunity for us."

This is particularly so because the centennial comes as Mao's image enjoys a marked resurgence throughout China, a popular revival that began after the 1989 massacre of the Tiananmen Square protesters in Beijing.

Chinese taxi, bus and truck drivers ward off accidents by hanging small, laminated photos of Mao in their vehicles. There's a booming trade among collectors of old Mao badges and pins, of which several hundred million were made during the 1960s and 1970s.

A dozen state-financed Mao films resurrect his colossal achievements. Chatty books titillate with earthy tales about his personal life, the latest gossip being that his sole surviving son is brain-damaged from child abuse by a caretaker.

The number of people voluntarily making the pilgrimage to Shaoshan now approaches the level of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when 1.2 million people a year were dispatched to pay homage here.

In the uncertain years after his death in 1976, the number of visitors annually dropped to about 200,000.

The renewed popularity of Mao, the apostle of egalitarian collectivism, coexists with China's dramatic movement over the past few years toward free-market economics and more individualistic lifestyles.

Backlash against corruption

Indeed, many say the revival is a backlash against the pervasive corruption and feverish embrace of money-making in China.

They say it reflects nostalgia for the simpler, more idealistic days of the 1950s, the first decade of socialism here.

"People are more well-off today, but they still like Mao because they think that people's spirit and relations were better in his time," says Huang Wei, 23, a hotel manager in Changsha, the Hunan province capital, 65 miles from Shaoshan.

The scene in the lobby of Mr. Huang's fancy hotel reflects the difference: a loud collection of wheeler-dealers and bureaucrats eating, drinking and talking on their ubiquitous portable phones -- just the sort that Mao loathed and temporarily drove from the forefront of the Chinese scene.

But if Mao is a handy focus for nostalgia in the face of rapid social changes, he also provokes the most bitter Chinese memories.

Few Chinese have forgotten the last 20 years of Mao's life, when he produced mass starvation with his failed "Great Leap Forward" to extreme collectivism in 1958-1960 and then moved on to the Cultural Revolution's political witch hunts, which turned almost as deadly.

"Mao was a dictator, just like Stalin," says Jiang Liming, 54, a chemical engineer in Beijing. "People say he did good things, but those were overwhelmed by the evil he unleashed."

A secretary at a Beijing import company demands: "If Mao was so great, why did my family have to beg for food and I was often beaten up during the Cultural Revolution?"

But the Communist Party's official verdict on Mao, rendered in 1981, is that his policies were 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong. And so to attack Mao here is still to attack the whole Chinese system.

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