In a large mausoleum on Tiananmen Square, Beijing, lies a crystal sarcophagus containing the mortal remains of Mao Zedong. Every day, masses of Chinese citizens line up on this largest of the world’s public squares to view and pay tribute to him. An immense, framed portrait of Mao gazes beatifically upon them from the high walls of the once Forbidden City, a palace fortress at the edge of the square. A few years ago, I too had arrived hoping for a glimpse of the man—the spectacle of Mao’s refrigerated body held for me nearly as much morbid fascination as my interest in his legacy and place in the Chinese imagination.
As it happened, the mausoleum was closed for renovation. Disappointed, I mused that perhaps the real reason for closing the mausoleum was to hide the evidence that Mao had been turning in his grave of late: watching China grind from feudalism to communism to capitalism in a mere half century cannot be good for his repose. If “communism” means a classless society with a centrally planned economy in which the state owns the primary means of production, then poor old Mao—as the man who fought for it, forged it, and upheld it for decades—became irrelevant long ago. And though the frozen Mao may still be revered, the pulse of China throbs now to a different beat.
For some years now, the zeitgeist in China has been closer to what Deng Xiaoping, a successor to Mao, neatly voiced in 1993: “To get rich is glorious.” And today it seems that the only thing still communist about China is the name of the party that continues to rule it with an iron hand; for while China’s communist leaders have embraced capitalism with an astonishing zeal, they have not allowed the free flow of ideas and information within China. Ordinary citizens are actively kept in the dark even about the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. As I stood on the square, among the crowds of locals and holiday makers, flying kites or striking “I was there!” poses in front of Mao’s portrait, it struck me that most of the people around me—and most Chinese nationals under the age of 35—do not even know about the event that transpired there.