Police officers, including undercover agents, infiltrated the long queues outside the mausoleum in Tiananmen Square on Saturday as people waited for a glimpse of Mao’s embalmed corpse.
The heightened security was a reminder of how sensitive the anniversary is to the Chinese government which still uses Mao as an ideological prop in an increasingly materialistic country.
Five years after his death the Communist Party officially declared the man who founded, “new China” but then plunged it into bouts of famine and chaos, “70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong”.
It has discouraged further discussion.
“Their legitimacy still relies upon his enormous legend. Khrushchev denounced Stalin knowing they could fall back on Lenin. But Mao is both,” says Roderick MacFarquhar, a Mao scholar at Harvard University.
“We adore Chairman Mao. We are farmers like him and have endured a lot of hardship”
Guo Xin, farmer
The government’s mixed assessment of Mao’s legacy is echoed by many who lived through first the famine caused by his Great Leap Forward and then the decade of chaos and persecution Mao began in 1966 when he launched the Cultural Revolution.
“Life is better today, we have a lot more opportunities and choices. In Mao’s day everything was rationed, from food to oil,” says Zhan Jingsheng, 50, a supermarket worker standing beneath the huge Mao portrait on the Tiananmen gate.
“But we have more worries. In Mao’s day the state took care of us and we couldn’t be fired. We did not have a lot, but we didn’t starve,” Zhan said.
However for many of the hundreds of millions of modern China’s rural poor who feel left behind by recent economic developments, Mao represents a government that cared about their plight.
“We adore Chairman Mao. We are farmers like him and have endured a lot of hardship,” says 45-year old Guo Xin, who had taken an overnight bus from neighbouring Hebei province to lay three yellow chrysanthemums at the Mausoleum at dawn.
But officials who use Mao’s image to shore up their authority are also wary of stirring up memories of his increasingly autocratic leadership and ruthless political campaigns, which claimed millions of lives.
“Life is better today, we have a lot more opportunities and choices. In Mao’s day everything was rationed, from food to oil”
Zhan Jingsheng, supermarket worker
A memorial gala with the throwback title “The reddest sun – Chairman Mao is the most beloved” held at the Great Hall of the People, on Friday got the briefest of write-ups in the Beijing daily.
Only the English-language China Daily, a government paper aimed mostly at foreigners, put the anniversary on its front page, but the article relied on foreigners’ comments, leaving out Chinese scholars’ views of their former leader.
For many of China’s younger generation, Mao’s relevance as anything more than an abstract figurehead is fading.
Strolling on the vast square to enjoy a rare day of sunshine in normally pollution-clogged Beijing, Li Xin, a 24-year-old clerk in a sports goods store, was oblivious to the day’s significance.
“What is it today? Teachers’ day?”, he said when asked if he was outside the Mausoleum to commemorate the anniversary.