‘Revolutionary Leaders Are Not Gods’: China’s Leader Xi on Mao’s 120th Birthday

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People gather at a square where the statue of Mao Zedong stands, while fireworks explode to celebrate his 120th birthday in Shaoshan, China, on Dec. 26, 2013

He was no god. That was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s assessment of Mao Zedong on the 120th anniversary of the Great Helmsman’s birthday. In a Dec. 26 speech at the Great Hall of the People — the squat, socialist edifice abutting Tiananmen Square in Beijing — Xi laid out his judgment on the founder of the People’s Republic of China, who is alternately adored for unifying the Chinese people under communist rule and reviled for his disastrous political campaigns that destroyed millions of lives:

Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings; [we] cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great; neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes, [we] should not simply attribute the success in historically favorable circumstances to individuals, nor should we blame individuals for setbacks in adverse [situations]; [we] cannot use today’s conditions and level of development and understanding to judge our predecessors, nor can we expect the predecessors to have done things that only the successors can do.

(MORE: China Marks Mao’s Birthday With Controlled Tribute)

The official reckoning of Mao’s legacy, released not long after the ruinous Cultural Revolution, deemed that the Chairman was 70% good and 30% bad. Xi’s own father Xi Zhongxun, a communist revolutionary elder, was persecuted during that chaotic decade.

Since coming to power last year as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi has praised the spirit of Mao Zedong Thought, a paean to revolutionary class struggle that might seem at odds with modern-day China. Xi has revived Maoist notions like “mass line” campaigns designed to reinvigorate the party through nationwide soul-searching and housecleaning. As defender of a party committed to continuing its rule of the People’s Republic, Xi on Thursday praised Mao as “a great figure who changed the face of the nation and led the Chinese people to a new destiny.”

But expectations that Mao’s 120th birthday would be celebrated with a wave of national red fervor were dampened when plans for certain festivities were curtailed. On Thursday, Xi also noted that Mao had made “serious mistakes” during his later years leading China. One century and two decades after the Great Helmsman’s birth, the 70/30 formula still appears to hold.

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