Mao 100th birthday shows emperor still has clothes

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

December 23, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- There have been no reports of cackling coming from the transparent casket in Mao Tse-tung's huge mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. But somehow "The Great Helmsman" must be laughing.

With the approach of the 100th anniversary of his birth Sunday, the predictable hoopla is on.

Communist Party boss Jiang Zemin -- a lackluster figure who couldn't hold a candle to the late chairman -- made a pilgrimage this week to Mao's hometown to unveil a new statue of the late leader.

Researchers are turning out mounds of new treatises on Mao. The state press is rife with articles about almost anyone who crossed his path, even an elevator operator who served him.

But don't be misled: More than 17 years after his death at 82 -- or 83, by the Chinese way of figuring age -- Mao and his failed vision of radical collectivism have become irrelevant here. Mao's successor -- 89-year-old Deng Xiaoping, himself now believed at death's door -- essentially has eclipsed him.

"Class struggle," a main thrust of Maoism, has been replaced by the struggle for cash. "Self-reliance," another ideological cornerstone, has been swamped by foreign capital and technology.

Under Mr. Deng, China embraces a form of state-led capitalism as raw as anything in the West in the 19th century.

The Communist Party still runs China, but it's not in the vanguard of much but corruption.

Even Mao's surviving relatives are virtual recluses. His only grandson to bear his surname is a 23-year-old obese diabetic who spends a lot of time in the hospital.

But Mao still is revered. More than anyone, he gave China sovereignty over itself, after a century of humiliating incursions by the West. "Without Mao," Chinese commonly say, "there would be no China."

To many Chinese -- even many who suffered in Mao's last demented campaign, the decade-long Cultural Revolution which only ended with his death -- Mao is the equivalent of George Washington (founding father), Thomas Jefferson (essential philosopher) and Abraham Lincoln (liberator), all combined into one persona.

So Mao retains clout as a powerful icon here. After all, even more than Mr. Deng, Mao was an emperor in a society which has a long, still strong authoritarian tradition.

Many peasants -- falling behind their urban cousins in the national race to get rich -- long for the more equitable, shared poverty under Mao's despotism.

Even among the more successful operators in post-Mao China, "The Great Helmsman's" pictures and medallions serve as amulets to ward off misfortune.

Not surprisingly, there's a lively market here for kiss-and-tell memoirs from those claiming to know the intimate details of his life.

A book written by one of Mao's former bodyguards has the leader prowling around late at night in the Forbidden City searching for an appropriate spot to relieve his constipation.

The latest revelation -- that Mao was comforted by a steady stream of young girls -- comes from his doctor of 22 years, Li HD, who now lives in Chicago. Many Chinese long ago heard such lurid stories but aren't impressed.

Emperors are expected to lead that kind of life. "Of course he had many women," says a Beijing official, only half tongue-in-check. "Emperors always have concubines."

Dr. Li cast Mao's habits in much the same vein. "Women felt honored to have sex with Mao," he said. "It was the glorious and natural thing to do because Mao was God and supreme ruler."

But the doctor's claim immediately raised the ire of China's Foreign Ministry, particularly because it was aired as part of a British Broadcasting Corp. TV documentary this week.

China and Britain are locked in a nasty spat over Hong Kong, and China wasted no time in decrying the BBC's "degeneration of journalistic ethics" and "political motivation of hostility toward China."

Mao likely would have loved the whole flap.

Instead of just hollow eulogies from his successors, who no longer believe in his ideas, the chairman's 100th birthday now is marked by a reminder that his legacy retains a certain imperial power -- one that still can fan the fires of a fight with colonialists, as well as fulfill the royal expectations of the masses.

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