Businessman Chen Jiashu ditched Mao Zedong in favour of Harry Potter long ago, because that is what his customers want.

The owner of a small family-run factory that produces pins by the millions, Chen has been in a better position than most to watch as China has quietly abandoned the heroes of communism in favour of the icons of commercialism.

At his small plant in a suburb near Wenzhou, a city in the east of China famed for its entrepreneurial spirit, Chen said: "We used to get a lot of orders for Mao Zedong pins, but today there is very little demand for Mao products."

His single order for 10,000 Mao pins early in the year was a mere fraction of the 200 million he assembles annually.

"Now I do pins for the companies who are having promotional events for something like Harry Potter, Star Wars or Coca-Cola," said 50-year-old Chen, a straight-talking man who served in the Chinese army in the 1970s.

Superstition

Thirty years after his death, Mao may still be regarded by some as the country's greatest modern leader but his once-iron grip over Chinese society has been reduced to a superstitious if somewhat sinister tourist trinket.

Chen said: "Buyers are gift companies, travellers or shops in Mao's hometown of Shaoshan. Most people buy Mao badges to collect, as a lucky pendant to hang on the wall or in a car because some believe Mao will bring them luck and peace."

"I believe in that too," Chen said with an embarrassed smile, recalling how 30 years ago the fervour of the times had demanded that all Chinese show their loyalty to the nation by owning some piece of Mao memorabilia.

"Nobody will buy Mao pins to wear now."

City success

Deng Xiaoping's call in 1979 for a loosening of the Marxist-Maoist ideology that had straitjacketed the nation for decades was the first step in China's long march towards becoming one of the globe's biggest economies.

Wenzhou, a city cut off from the mainland by lush mountains, snaking rivers and marshy farmland but blessed with natural harbours, seized the chance to return to its traditional trading roots after long being ignored by Beijing's central planners.

It was not long after Chen's return from the army in 1980, that Wenzhou gained nationwide fame for becoming the first Chinese city in which the private sector dominated the economy.

"One year after China had started the economic reform and  opening many families here had already begun producing pins and badges," Chen said, recalling his own start in the business in 1985.

The bet has paid off handsomely for Chen making him a millionaire.

Chen insists he is not yet successful and aims to become the world's number one manufacturer.

Mao would surely turn in his grave, especially if he heard that Chen's 300 workers now concentrate on making badges for many of the world's armed forces, including the US, Mongolia and the Japanese police.