IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How does Chairman Mao fit into China today?

As China marks the 30 anniversary of Mao Zedong’s death on Saturday, the legacy of the revolutionary and his role in the new China’s explosive economic development are a study in contradictions. NBC's Mike Kiselycznyk reports from Beijing.
/ Source: NBC News

As China marks the 30thanniversary of Mao Zedong’s death on Saturday, the legacy of the revolutionary who established the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and his role in the new China’s explosive economic development are a study in contradictions.

China has embraced capitalism, yet officially remains a communist nation. China continues to open up to the outside world, but the administration of President Hu Jintao strictly limits the flow of information into the communist nation. 

Still as the country experiences unparalleled economic growth, nostalgia for Mao and his conservative and socialist ideals — focused on the people and self-sufficiency — has grown among China’s farmers and the working class.

So where does that leave Great Leader Chairman Mao?

‘Remembering Mao’
Renowned China expert Sidney Rittenberg, 85, recently appeared before a full house in Beijing to deliver a talk "Remembering Mao: What his legacy means for today's Chinese.”

“Mao was fascinated all his life, starting with his study of Buddhism, by contradiction,” said Rittenberg, who first met Mao in 1946, served for three decades as his translator and worked with many of Communist China’s top leaders. He was jailed on two separate occasions, for a total of 16 years, and although he left the Chinese Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution, he is the only American to have ever become a member of the CCP.

Rittenberg went on to say that Mao wrote, “Contradiction is the world, the world is contradiction.”

Mao was perhaps foretelling his own role in modern China, where despite the country’s rapid modernization, there is still nostalgia for the “good old days” that Mao represents.

“Mao’s revival in Chinese society is understandable,” said Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Although people were poor under Mao, they were more equal and their lives were much simpler than today.”

Using hard line stance when convenient
Despite China’s rapid economic advances, there is still widespread dissatisfaction. Chinese public security officials estimate that there were 87,000 demonstrations in 2005 — that’s a tenfold increase from the 8,700 demonstrations recorded in 1993.

In response to internal unrest, Hu’s administration has increasingly utilized Maoist-style slogans and speeches to reach out to disgruntled members of Chinese society. 

In 2003, at the 110th commemoration of Mao’s birth, Hu said, “We must persist in doing everything for the sake of the masses ... and in building a party that serves the interests of the public and governs for the people.”

But like so much in China today, there is a hint of contradiction in the recent revival of Maoism. Even as the party preaches many of the principles Mao espoused, the party leadership is slowly moving Mao out of political discourse.

Erased from history books
This fall, high school students in Shanghai will open new textbooks that mention Mao only once. The new textbooks will focus on “social harmony” and the path of China’s future development.

The omission from the textbooks would surely sting Mao, whom Rittenberg recalled saying, “The worst thing that can happen to a man is to be buried twice.”

But Mao’s role in China’s history is not being re-examined by the party leadership. Actually, the lack of scrutiny surrounding Mao’s role in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution — in which tens of millions died — has only served to reinforce the perception among most Chinese that Mao is a hero.

Older generations of Chinese who remember Mao personally and younger generations of students who only know of Mao through history, both see Mao as the father of modern China.

“Mao made many mistakes, but he had a very broad vision for China,” said Tim, a third-year Beijing University business management student who did not wish to reveal his full name. “His vision was important for China’s development, and so he is a hero for the Chinese.”

Signs of Maoism today — invisible
Despite the almost mythical stature Mao retains in China, the man so many Chinese revere would never have envisioned the unbridled capitalism and openness of China today.

Asked what remnants of Maoism he saw in Chinese society, Rittenberg slowly held up a small magnifying glass and said, “I have looked everywhere; I don’t see a thing ... not a thing.”

Mike Kiselycznyk is a researcher in NBC News' Beijing bureau.