March 10, 2014
China celebrates Mao's birthday
China celebrated the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China, today, but with scaled-back festivities as President Xi Jinping embarks on broad economic reforms which have unsettled leftists.
Mao has become a potent symbol for leftists within the ruling Communist Party who feel that three decades of market-based reform have gone too far, creating social inequalities like a yawning rich-poor gap and pervasive corruption.
In venerating Mao, they sometimes seek to put pressure on the current leadership and its market-oriented policies while managing to avoid expressing open dissent.
While all seven members of the party's elite inner core, the Politburo Standing Committee, visited Mao's mausoleum on Tiananmen Square, other activities nationwide were toned down.
The state-run Xinhua news agency said on its Weibo microblog that the leaders, including Xi, bowed three times in front of a statue of Mao and paid their respects to his embalmed body, "recalling Comrade Mao Zedong's great achievements".
The party's official People's Daily newspaper pushed to its inside pages stories about Mao's birthday, although it did carry a commentary praising him as a "great patriot and hero".
A source with ties to the leadership said there would still be a high level of activity to mark the occasion but the number of events would be scaled back.
"The attendance of Standing Committee members is to placate leftists after reforms at the third plenum," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions for talking to a foreign reporter without permission.
China last month unwrapped its boldest set of economic and social reforms in nearly three decades, relaxing its one-child policy and further freeing up markets in order to put the world's second-largest economy on a more stable footing.
Still, Xi and his team gave themselves until 2020 to achieve "decisive" results - a tacit acknowledgement of the difficulty of the task when the state-run sector championed during Mao's heyday remains strong and when many are unhappy with growing social problems brought by the party's economic reforms.
"The celebrations have to be grand or people will not be happy," said another source, who has ties to the party's traditional leftists.
Mao, who died in 1976, remains a divisive figure.
His image adorns banknotes and his embalmed body attracts hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors a day to Beijing.
While the party has acknowledged he made mistakes, there has yet to be an official accounting for the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution or the millions of deaths from starvation during the 1958-61 Great Leap Forward.