Today, 35 years after Mao Zedong’s death, his corpse still lies in the grandiose Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in the center of Tiananmen Square, the granite plain that is the symbolic center of this nation of more than 1.3 billion. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people stand in line, sometimes for hours, to view, for a few seconds, the embalmed body of the man so many Chinese still revere. Yet 45 years ago, on May 16, 1966, this same man began the Cultural Revolution, an orgy of political violence that killed perhaps two million Chinese. Mao’s preeminence in China is linked to his role in founding the People’s Republic in 1949. Yet his controversial political legacy, of which the Cultural Revolution is just one example, is growing more, not less, disputed, with time.
At stake is nothing less than long-stalled political reform, say some Chinese analysts and retired Communist Party officials. “An honest, earnest, serious assessment of Mao based on facts” is “necessary,” Yawei Liu, director of the Carter Center’s China Program in Atlanta, said in an e-mail. Mao’s legacy overshadows China to this day, so “without such a thorough verdict, it would be hard for China to launch meaningful political reform,” Mr. Liu said. In China, the debate over Mao’s legacy is growing increasingly heated, conducted via Web sites, articles and books.
Broadly, liberals and pro-market forces stand on one side; leftists and Maoists on the other. The leftists, perhaps better organized, operate scores of Web sites, including the popular Utopia (www.wyzxsx.com), Mao Zedong Flag (www.maoflag.net) and Red China (www.redchinacn.com). Behind this florescence of often-aggressive debate lies the pressure of decades of fast economic growth on the country’s rigid political framework, little changed since Mao’s day. The government has responded by trying to better manage social conflict and increasing repression. The liberal faction harbors a wide range of opinion. Some see Mao as a deeply flawed figure who had his achievements. Others see him as merely power-mad, even a Machiavellian killer. Leftists see Mao as a symbol of days when people were more equal and many things, including basic social services, were free or subsidized. Curiously, some rich businessmen belong here, too, having benefited enormously from the political stasis of the last decades. A recent essay by the liberal economist Mao Yushi, “Returning Mao Zedong to his Original Person,” has highlighted the controversy.