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Beijing scales back Mao's birthday celebrations

Publication Date : 18-12-2013


Just a week before Mao Zedong's 120th birth anniversary, China is scaling back celebrations that many thought would be grand and lavish given President Xi Jinping's Maoist adoration.

A commemorative event to be held at the Great Hall of the People on Mao's birthday on Dec 26 has been changed to a New Year gala on the instructions of officials, according to media reports quoting organisers last week.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has also instructed that all Mao-related events and promotional materials be sent to its publicity office for approval.

A 100-episode documentary series on Mao to be aired by state broadcaster CCTV has reportedly been shelved as well and will be replaced by one on late vice-premier Nie Rongzhen.

The scaling-back runs against initial expectations that this year's celebration would eclipse that in 2003, when China marked the 110th birthday of the man who took control of the country in 1949 after the communists defeated Kuomintang forces.

One key reason was that since taking power in November last year, Xi has struck many to be a fan of Mao, who died in 1976.

He has made remarks that many took to be a defence of the late strongman. He had said the period of reform and opening up under Deng Xiaoping from 1978 could not be used to negate the Mao years which were marked by the decade-long Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, both of which plunged China into turmoil and left millions dead.

Xi has also revived Maoist practices, such as making top officials criticise themselves and each other publicly as part of a party-rectification campaign.

All this led officials in Hunan province - Mao was born in the Hunan city of Shaoshan, now a popular tourist spot - to spend two billion yuan (US$326 million) on 12 projects to mark Mao's birthday. In contrast, the 2003 celebrations cost 400 million yuan ($66 million).

"Basically, Hunan wanted to curry favour with the top leaders but got it wrong," said Renmin University analyst Zhang Ming.

Analysts cite various reasons for the CCP or Xi deciding to scale back celebrations.

One could be that, having declared a crackdown on extravagance by officials since taking power, Xi wants to ensure that the celebrations do not get out of hand and invite criticisms that he applies double standards when it came to Mao. This perhaps explains why during a visit to Hunan last month, he had called for celebrations to be "solemn, austere and practical".

Another reason could be that the CCP chief is not a genuine Mao fan. His defence of the late chairman was intended to appease the leftist faction so that he could push his economically liberal agenda, which was unveiled at the CCP's recent policy summit.

Having achieved his goal by launching arguably the most comprehensive plate of economic and social reforms for the next decade, there is now less reason for Xi to support lavish celebrations, say analysts.

Singapore-based observer Bo Zhiyue believes Xi may also have been stung by criticisms of his overt adoration of Mao in the past year.

"Xi had considered Mao to be an icon whose legacy could not be questioned. But now he realises that Mao is a much more controversial and problematic figure and that it is not worthwhile anymore to play the Mao card," he told The Straits Times.

But cancelling the anniversary events could also pose a headache for him, added Dr Bo, an analyst at the East Asian Institute.

"He spent a whole year getting people excited about the celebrations... Many princelings are fans of Mao. These last-minute cancellations could upset them and trigger a backlash for Xi."


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