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Chinese leaders continue to hold Mao aloft, even as they embrace capitalism

BEIJING—As China hurtles down the capitalist road, the communist ideals of the modern nation's founder, Mao Zedong, lie discarded in the gutter.

Yet Mao is still enshrined as China's greatest leader. His large portrait, solemn and slightly enigmatic, looks out over Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of the nation.

The Communist Party clutches Mao as a monumental figurehead, 29 years after his death. Party leaders won't let go of him as long as they retain their monopoly on political power. The preamble to China's Constitution hails "Mao Zedong Thought" for helping to guide China into the present. His likeness appears on nearly every piece of currency.

But Mao's ideas appear to have little relevance. Long gone is the cradle-to-grave system of Spartan housing, medical care and schooling that was guaranteed to everyone after the revolution in 1949. Mao reviled capitalism and oversaw industrial and rural development based on egalitarianism and central government planning. Soon after his death in 1976, China haltingly began to embrace capitalism, rely on market forces and end its isolation from most of the rest of the world.

One can only imagine the shock that the Great Helmsman would feel if he came back to life and strolled through China's cities. But that misses the broader point: Whatever the Chinese Communist Party's orientation, it retains Mao's propensity for authoritarian rule and uses him as a vital buttress to its own legitimacy.

The result is one of the world's great dramas: The party wants to maintain its iron grip on political power, but it also must permit China's economy to grow within a global system in order to meet the sky-high hopes of the Chinese people for better lives.

Debate about Mao is largely off limits in China. In many ways, his public image is as frozen and static as his waxen body in a mausoleum on Tiananmen Square.

"Mao is a man of significant merits as well as weaknesses," said Xu Mingyang, a 27-year-old white-collar worker who was waiting to enter the mausoleum, repeating a common view espoused by the government that Mao was an epic figure with shortcomings near the end of his life.

Opinion polls routinely show schoolchildren listing Mao as their greatest hero, even above their parents, while young adults view him as a distant, even irrelevant, figure. Older Chinese are split. Some voice exhaustion at the social turmoil during his rule, while others, mainly rural peasants, admire him and long for the economic stability of his era rather than the vulnerability they feel today.

Outside China, new allegations are arising of some of the terrible costs of Mao's rule from 1949 until his death.

A new book, "Mao: The Unknown Story," by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, portrays him as a monster in Hitler's league, guilty of some 70 million deaths during the Great Leap Forward, Mao's drive beginning in 1958 to push all workers to meet unrealistic industrial and agricultural goals, and the Cultural Revolution, the 1966-76 period, in which he sanctioned national turmoil.

A bestseller in India, Singapore and the United Kingdom, the book appeared in October in the United States.

Few Chinese, however, seem interested in debating whether Mao was a titan, a tyrant, or both.

"There's enough awareness that the system is corrupt and Mao had horrible flaws as a human being, but there's no interest in digging it up further," said Richard D. Baum, a Chinese scholar from the University of California at Los Angeles who's teaching at Peking University. "When something you've been brought up with as second nature is shown to be a lie, most people don't want to hear it. It's too jarring."

Any Chinese older than 40 recalls the time when Mao was hailed as unfailingly brilliant despite policies that forced bitter hardships on millions of people.

"He was seen as the great leader, the greatest man in the world. I have been brainwashed with that idea since I was very young. He was a god," said Zhou Duo, a former Marxist economics professor who's now a dissident intellectual.

Mao rose from humble beginnings in rural Hunan province, steeped in the rural poverty, backwardness and national weakness that prevailed in China at the beginning of the last century. He rose to lead the fledgling Communist Party, amassing an army that routed the U.S.-backed Nationalist government in 1949.

He set out to build a new, unified China, unleashing sweeping campaigns to destroy the "Four Olds": old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits.

Within two years of taking power, Mao's troops took on U.S.-led military forces on the Korean Peninsula, fighting them to a stalemate, a huge boost to the nation's self-esteem. In the 1950s, relations cooled with the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, China conducted nuclear weapons tests. In 1971, Mao agreed to detente with the United States in an effort to curb the Soviet Union.

Defenders of Mao say China couldn't be where it is today without the experience of nation-building and constant social turmoil during his rule.

"It's complicated to describe Mao. You can't just use a simple word like `tyrant,'" said Hu Angang, the head of China studies at Tsinghua University, one of the nation's most prestigious. "Mao was a great person because both his successes and failures were great, even phenomenal. It's hard for foreigners to understand."

The party keeps Mao in such a tight embrace, Hu said, because "Mao's ideas, words and works can be seen as the party's assets, and Mao's mistakes can be seen as the party's liabilities."

It comes as no surprise, then, that the party largely forbids access to archives that would shed light on Mao's rule, and controls his image through strict media censorship.

In an assessment of Mao's rule that gave the party wiggle room to outmaneuver criticism, successor and former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping said that Mao was "70 percent good and 30 percent bad."

Even those less prone to empty praise of Mao say his revolution brought lasting benefits to China, including greater equality.

"The revolution broke down those old class barriers. Young people are not aware of those barriers," said Cui Zhiyuan, a University of Chicago-trained political scientist.

Turmoil and violence engulfed China during the Cultural Revolution, when students turned on teachers and workers turned on bosses, and when simply having known foreigners or owning foreign or classical Chinese artworks could call down the wrath of roving Red Guards. Some social scientists say the experiences of this time may have led Chinese to an aversion to unrest and a willingness to focus their energy on economic growth rather than political change.

Since the late 1970s, party leaders have veered China away from communism, yet they refuse to acknowledge that Mao, were he alive, would be unsettled by the changes.

"They kept the political system, but China is now practicing the market economy, which Mao deeply opposed," said Zhang Zuhua, a former Communist Youth League official who quit the party. "Mao's ideas have been discarded."

What Mao would recognize is the familiar massive structure of the all-powerful party that he once built and led. It still runs in Marxist style, with a central committee of nearly 200 members. At the apex of formal power is the nine-member standing committee. Since Mao's death, however, no Chinese leader has amassed the formidable power that he wielded.

Today, no one dares suggest that past leaders were prone to error, or worse, for fear that that criticism could suddenly snowball and shake the party's foundations, scholars said.

"Too many people in the system owe their careers to the party. If you say the party is corrupt, what becomes of those people? They lose their legitimacy," said Baum, the UCLA scholar.

Any references to Mao in China today are largely ceremonial, or raised to make a political point. In late 2003, President Hu Jintao spoke on the 110th anniversary of Mao's birth, appealing to government officials to be frugal. Some observers said the message was a warning about corruption.

As Mao's huge visage looks out from over the main gate to the Forbidden City, which faces Tiananmen Square, numerous police monitor the tourists and passers-by.

In 1989, as part of pro-democracy demonstrations that the army quelled with tanks and gunfire, a few protesters splattered red paint on the portrait of Mao. They were quickly arrested and given prison terms of up to 15 years.

A refurbished portrait went up immediately.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-MAO

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