Throngs of pilgrims lined up at Mao Zedong’s mausoleum Friday to pay tribute on the 40th anniversary of his death, but state media were notably quiet on the founder of Communist China.

Mao’s corpse lies preserved in state at the centre of Beijing, watched over by a giant portrait hanging on the walls of the Forbidden City overlooking Tiananmen Square.

Friday, which marks 40 years since Mao’s death in 1976, saw thousands of tourists in neon hats and parasols waiting two hours or more to shuffle silently past the Great Helmsman’s body, garbed in an eponymous grey suit.

Mao Zedong. Photo: Wikicommons.

“I felt like the whole world was collapsing” when he died, said a woman surnamed Huang, who timed her trip from Shenzhen — far in southern China — to coincide with the anniversary.

While many ordinary people revere Mao as the creator of “New China“, his legacy is shadowed by the failed policies of the Great Leap Forward, which saw tens of millions of deaths, and the orgy of violence in the Cultural Revolution that deeply scarred the national psyche.

Official media barely touched on the anniversary, with no articles or editorials on the subject in Friday’s flagship party newspaper People’s Daily or in the nationalistic Chinese-language Global Times.

Those outlets that did address it were largely in English, with the Global Times’ English edition declaring: “Despite popular foreign depictions of Mao as a ruthless strongman who brought China into chaos, the Chinese government still upholds his positive legacy and his indelible role in the history of the Communist Party of China.”

It also warned against “extreme views” about the leader, calling out those who “still worship him as a god and try to right all his wrongs”.

The English service of the official news agency Xinhua said: “Forty years after his death, the country he founded has gone through some dramatic changes, but he remains an influential figure.”

 ‘Still a great man’ 

As visitors pushed forward at the mausoleum, two Beijing men talked fondly of Mao’s era, saying people then were less obsessed with money, and urged a foreigner to study Mao Zedong Thought.

They paused when Mao’s portly grandson Mao Xinyu, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army, climbed the stairs to the mausoleum to pay his respects while tourists clamoured to take his photo.

Many said they were nostalgic for a simpler time, and recalled with poignance how their country was transformed after Mao’s death by the market reform brought in under Deng Xiaoping.

“Though in the past 40 years our material lives have changed for the better, the honesty and humanity of Mao’s era are nowhere to be found,” said Huang, the visitor from Shenzhen, adding that “everyone now is self-centred.”

A middle-aged man surnamed Wang said that if Mao were still alive, “our lives would absolutely be better”, adding that while he did not view Mao as a god, “he is still a great man”.

As a young factory worker, he recalled, he could visit a doctor for free, families did not lock their doors, and corruption cases were small-scale and punished harshly — sometimes with execution.

“But now, everyone’s humanity has become twisted because of money. Look how many people come of their own will to see Chairman Mao, but Deng Xiaoping also has a memorial hall, and you don’t see nearly so many ordinary people come.”

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