SHAOSHAN, China: Admirers of Communist China’s founder Mao Zedong celebrated the 120th anniversary of his birth on Thursday with noodles and fireworks, as President Xi Jinping carefully marked the occasion by visiting the controversial leader’s preserved corpse.
Mao—the founder of the People’s Republic who led the country for 27 years until his death in 1976—commands reverence among many Chinese but also condemnation by critics who say his disastrous political and economic campaigns led to tens of millions of deaths.
The ruling Communist Party has sought to balance praising the so-called Great Helmsman—from whom the legitimacy of its leadership derives—while also acknowledging that he made “mistakes.”
At the same time Mao has emerged as a rallying point for those discontented with the stark inequality and widespread corruption that have accompanied China’s market-led boom.
Thousands stood through the night near his childhood home in Shaoshan, in the central province of Hunan, where fireworks streaked the sky above a giant statue of him.
“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 others cried “Long live Chairman Mao.”
At least 100 self-described “Red Internet friends,” a group of activists to the left of the current Communist Party leadership, were present, some waving homemade red flags and shouting for “the downfall of American imperialism.”
Several said that police detained pro-Mao activists from different provinces to prevent them attending the anniversary, underscoring the challenge faced by China’s leaders.
“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.
Some of the celebrations had religious overtones, with pilgrims burning fragrant incense, bowing and calling for blessings from the late leader.
“We are lighting incense to express our thanks to Mao Zedong,” said He Peng, a middle aged woman, after kneeling on the ground and reciting a poem in praise of him.
Much of the 1.94 billion yuan ($320 million) reportedly budgeted by Shaoshan for the anniversary went up in smoke during firework display, which lasted more than four hours, and down the throats of the thousands who lined up for free servings of noodles—a traditional birthday meal in China.
“Through eating these noodles we can be happy, they express long life and our love for Chairman Mao, who is great,” said a 63-year-old woman surnamed Ding, after tucking into a steaming bowl, adding that Mao “defeated Japanese imperialism.”
But Mao’s legacy remains a divisive topic in China, where the Communist Party’s official stance is that he was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong”—and it has never allowed an open historical reckoning of his actions.
Political initiatives launched by Mao such as the “Great Leap Forward” and the Cultural Revolution led to more than 40 million deaths through violence and starvation, according to some Chinese and foreign estimates.
In Beijing, China’s top seven-ranked politicians including Xi and Premier Li Keqiang visited the mausoleum where Mao’s preserved body lies on public display on Thursday morning, the official Xinhua news agency said.
They bowed three times and “jointly recalled Comrade Mao’s glorious achievements,” it added in a brief report.
The celebrations in Shaoshan, where pilgrims sung Mao-era songs such as “The East Is Red,” at times resembled the “Red song” concerts championed by ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai, who was sentenced to life in prison on corruption charges this year.
Some of those paying respects to Mao said they remained loyal to Bo, the highest profile politician to be sentenced in decades and whose brash political style is said to have alienated party leaders.
“All those who love Chairman Mao also love Secretary Bo,” one middle-aged man surnamed Shan said, adding: “Mao is our great leader.”