Mao in the Middle

June 14, 2013 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Articles by

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SHANGHAI — “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal” is the largest collection of the artist’s works ever to appear in Asia. The two-year tour, which has already had stops in Hong Kong and Singapore, is now showing in Shanghai at the recently opened state-run Power Station of Art — minus Warhol’s iconic silkscreen paintings of Mao.

It’s unclear whether those portraits were kept out of the exhibit at the authorities’ explicit request or because of self-censorship on the organizers’ part. Either way, their absence reveals an acceptance of the Chinese leadership’s continuing effort to protect the use of its founding father’s image. Warhol’s Mao paintings are “provocatively colored” and “stretch the official acceptance too far,” according to an editorial in the nationalist Global Times newspaper.

Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based political analyst, told me this week that Mao has the status of “a demigod,” and one cannot be “allowed to make a portrait of God. It’s like desecration.”

Instead, top-down consecration is the order of the day. Under the new administration of President Xi Jinping, Chinese authorities have banned the discussion of seven subjects in school, notably freedom of speech and past errors of the Chinese Communist Party. In an homage to a policy Mao enacted in 1958, all officers above the rank of lieutenant-colonel must do tours of duty as ordinary soldiers. And there are indications that Xi will endorse a large commemoration of the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birthday in December: Officials in Mao’s ancestral hometown of Shaoshan are already making plans to spend close to $1 billion on festivities and the construction of memorial buildings, according to the South China Morning Post.

By suppressing criticism of Mao — and by extension, of the Chinese Communist Party’s less-than-rosy past — Xi is pursuing two ends: To bolster nationalism in China and cement his own position. As the son of a revolutionary, his authority in the country’s top job depends partly on his family connections to Mao. And although Mao led tens of millions of his citizens’ to their deaths during his chaotic rule from 1949 to 1976 — winning himself comparisons to Hitler and Stalin abroad — in China he is still revered by many as the nation’s father.

No matter that, like other princelings, Xi witnessed his parents suffer political purges under Mao and was himself “sent down” to the countryside as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution. Or that during the reform era, Deng Xiaoping reversed most of his predecessor’s catastrophic economic policies. As Bao Pu, the son of a famous dissident and the Hong Kong-based publisher of banned books, told me this week: “The leaders have done everything Mao hated.” Yet while rejecting Mao’s policies, Bao said, they have used his image to dress up the party’s rhetoric and give heft to its past.

Thus Mao remains the enduring emblem of the Chinese Communist Party. His portrait still bears down on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Every day, thousands of people queue up outside his vast mausoleum to pay respect to his embalmed body. Nearby, street vendors hawk cigarette lighters and wristwatches bearing his image. Tourists, local and foreign alike, buy these trinkets with Chinese banknotes displaying his face. Some taxi drivers hang small charms with Mao’s portrait in their cabs, believing them to bring good luck.

“To completely negate Mao Zedong would lead to the demise of the Chinese Communist Party and to great chaos in China,” Xi reportedly said earlier this year. And so for now the country’s leaders only partially negate Mao.

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