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China marks muted 120th birthday of Mao

President Xi notes "mistakes' of country's founding father during scaled-back festivities.

Last updated: 26 Dec 2013 17:47
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An impersonator shakes hands during the 120th anniversary of the late leader's birth [Reuters]

Communist China's President Xi Jinping has led celebrations of Mao Zedong's 120th birthday anniversary, praising the country's founding father whille acknowledging that he made "mistakes" during his reign.

China's leaders bowed three times before a statue of Mao on Thursday, in carefully controlled celebrations.

"Mao is a great figure who changed the face of the nation and led the Chinese people to a new destiny," Xi said in Beijing, according to the official news agency Xinhua.

Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings.

Xi Jinping, Chinese President

But Xi also said that "revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings" and cannot be worshipped like gods.

"[We] cannot refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great," he said.

"Neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes," Xi added.

The new president's approach underscored the delicate balancing act the Communist Party leadership, installed last year, has to perform in managing perceptions of Mao's legacy.

In a sign of the relatively understated approach the party is taking with the anniversary, there was no mention of Mao's birthday on the front page of the party's flagship People's Daily. Instead it was relegated to page seven of the paper.

Pro-Mao activists detained

Even as celebrations continued, several said police had also detained pro-Mao activists from different provinces to prevent them from attending, highlighting the challenge Mao's legacy poses to the leadership.

"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.

Meanwhile censors appeared to be busy scrubbing criticism of Mao off China's social media sites, with messages that questioned his legacy disappearing within minutes of being posted.

Sixty-year cycle

The 12-decade anniversary has a special resonance in China, which traditionally measured time in 60-year cycles.

Near Mao's childhood home in Shaoshan, in the central province of Hunan, thousands of fans stood through the night and praised the founder of the People's Republic, who led the country for 27 years until his death in 1976.

An estimated  $320m was reportedly budgeted by the Shaoshan government for the anniversary, to cover a four-hour fireworks display and the feeding of free noodles, a traditional birthday meal, to thousands of spectators.

Since Mao's death, the Chinese government has never allowed an open historical reckoning of his actions.

Under Mao's leadership, China lurched between industrialisation drives and violent political campaigns.

Mao's "Great Leap Forward" is estimated by Western historians to have led to as many as 45 million deaths from famine, and his Cultural Revolution plunged China into a decade of violent chaos.

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