Communist China’s president Xi Jinping acknowledged Thursday its founding father Mao Zedong made “mistakes”, as admirers celebrated the 120th anniversary of the late leader’s birth with noodles and fireworks.
Mao is the centrepiece of the ruling party’s pantheon and commands reverence among many Chinese, including some frustrated by the current state of the nation, but is also condemned by those who say his political and economic campaigns caused tens of millions of deaths.
The combination left authorities looking to mark the occasion with a tricky balancing act.
“Mao is a great figure who changed the face of the nation and led the Chinese people to a new destiny,” Xi said in Beijing, according to the official news agency Xinhua.
But he added: “Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings. (We) cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great.
“Neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes.”
Xi — who has regularly cited Mao’s theories — and six other top-ranked leaders visited Mao’s mausoleum in the morning where they bowed three times to his statue and “jointly recalled Comrade Mao’s glorious achievements”, Xinhua said.
The 12-decade anniversary has a special resonance in China, which traditionally measured time in 60-year cycles.
Near Mao’s childhood home in Shaoshan, in the central province of Hunan, thousands of fans stood through the night and praised the founder of the People’s Republic, who led the country for 27 years until his death in 1976.
“Mao was a great leader of the Chinese nation, he was a perfect person and for us young people he is someone to learn from,” said Jiang Qi, 33, a construction company employee, as he watched fireworks streak above a giant statue of Mao.
Fans — including at least two Mao lookalikes — jostled for position and bowed in front of the statue.
Some of the celebrations had religious overtones, with pilgrims burning incense, bowing and calling for blessings from the “Great Helmsman”.
“We are lighting incense to express our thanks to Mao Zedong,” said He Peng, a middle-aged woman who knelt on the ground and recited a poem in praise of him.
Mao’s sometimes autocratic rule remains a divisive topic in China, where the Communist Party’s official stance is that he was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong”. It has never allowed an open historical reckoning of his actions.
Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” is estimated by Western historians to have led to as many as 45 million deaths from famine, and his Cultural Revolution plunged China into a decade of violent chaos.
At the same time Mao has emerged as a rallying point for some nationalists and those discontented with the inequality and corruption that have accompanied China’s market-driven economic boom.
At least 100 self-described “Red Internet friends”, a group of activists to the left of the current Communist Party leadership, were present in Shaoshan.
Several said police detained pro-Mao activists from different provinces to prevent them attending, underscoring the challenge Mao’s legacy poses to the leadership.
“The police have intercepted many, many of us,” said a man surnamed Wei, who held a banner with Mao’s face and did not wish to give his full name for fear of reprisals.
“The government is not as upright as Chairman Mao, so they are afraid, they are all corrupt,” he added.
Much of the 1.94 billion yuan ($320 million) reportedly budgeted by Shaoshan for the anniversary went up in smoke during a four-hour fireworks display, and down the throats of thousands who lined up for free noodles -– a traditional birthday meal.
Vendors lined the streets selling Mao memorabilia and pilgrims wearing red scarves sang Mao-era songs such as “The East Is Red”.
At times they gave the celebrations an air of the “Red Song” concerts championed by ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai.
Bo, whose brash political style is said to have alienated party elders, was condemned to life in prison on corruption charges earlier this year, making him the highest-profile Chinese politician to be sentenced in decades, but some said they remained loyal to him.
“All those who love Chairman Mao also love Secretary Bo,” said one middle-aged man surnamed Shan, adding: “Mao is our great leader.”