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China can't let go of Mao but young won't take it as Red

It might seem odd that a man responsible for the starvation of more than 30 million people could be chosen to promote a restaurant, but there is no mistaking the avuncular features of Mao Zedong staring from the portrait above the entrance to the 'Red Leader' Hot Pot restaurant.

"Comrades! Welcome, comrades!" breezes a pretty hostess dressed up as one of Chairman Mao's Red Guards, complete with armband and Mao lapel badge.

She is, of course, far too young to remember the Cultural Revolution, the Mao-inspired political civil war of 1966-1976 that tore her parents' generation apart. Back then "comrade" was the standard form of address; today it is only used by young Chinese as a slang word for "gay".

Welcome, then, to China 2011: a country of such abiding contradictions that the ruling Communist Party's darkest moment can be the subject of a vapid theme restaurant, even as a battle rages between conservatives and reformers over the country's political direction.

Today the party that Mao brought to power will mark its 90th birthday, celebrating its founding by a small group of revolutionaries in Shanghai in 1921 with an outpouring of 'Red' propaganda.

Groups of party faithful will gather to sing 'Red' songs; cinemas will show the state's latest star-studded propaganda epic, 'The Founding of a Party', while newspapers and television stations will lionise the party's achievements.

This revival of the cult of Mao finds its apogee in the steaming southern megacity of Chongqing, whose charismatic Communist Party leader, Bo Xilai, has mounted a campaign to paint the city 'Red'. Party cadres have gathered to sing rousing old party songs, citizens have been bombarded with millions of text messages carrying selected Mao bon mots, and the city's satellite television station broadcasts only improving red-themed programmes.

It is difficult to know how seriously to take China's red revival. To Western eyes the campaigns are almost beyond parody. And it seems the young are either openly scornful or just plain uninterested.

"Honestly, I don't like all that 'Red' stuff," says 18-year-old Han Yutong, who dreams of being a TV anchorwoman. "I think it's just for show, just a propaganda exercise for the party."

"Mao doesn't mean much to me," agrees a 26-year-old diner. "You should ask our parents about him, they remember the Cultural Revolution. Mao's just a national leader. He's not good, not bad."

"Was it really 30 million that died in the famine (of 1959-61)? I never heard about that," adds Luo Dong, a 19-year-old, looking vaguely troubled as he dunks another slice of beef into a pot of bubbling oil. "But then I did study sciences. I want to be an environmentalist."

To listen to their blase responses, you could be forgiven for thinking that the resurgence of the red Left was a theatrical irrelevance put on by the state.

But to others, the revival reflects an ideological battle behind the scenes among the political elite, pitting those -- like Mr Bo -- who want to see the communist state forcefully reassert its grip on power, against more liberal, reforming forces.

Thoughts are turning to which direction the next generation of leaders, who assume power next year, will take China: will they turn to the left, curtailing freedoms and stepping up party controls, or go right, embracing a more liberal agenda that will build a more independent civil society, as a prelude to democracy many years hence?

In recent months, in a portent that China might be "turning left", there has been a marked tightening of security, with more than 100 activists arrested, including the artist Ai Weiwei, who was released on bail last week after 81 days in detention.

Mr Bo, one of the few charismatic figures in politics, is unapologetic, claiming that his red song campaigns -- and the communist spirit they evoke -- were the driving force behind China's great revival.

"Not only have they (red songs) allowed an impoverished, weak, quasi-colonised and semi-closed China to establish itself among the great peoples of the world," he says. "It has also enabled us to become the world's second largest economy."

However, for many Chinese, who have embraced the fruits of capitalism in recent decades, attempts by the party to take the ideological credit for China's transformation ring hollow. The party is mired in constant corruption scandals and there is a widespread belief it has become a decadent, self-enriching elite.

Another of Mr Bo's more high-profile attempts to "reconnect" the party and proletariat demonstrates the depths of the party's trust problem. This year, in a deliberate echo of Mao's re-education campaigns, Mr Bo ordered 10,000 officials "back to the countryside" to deepen their understanding of the problems of the rural poor.

Officials were ordered to spend their weekends farming and Chongqing's TV station duly showed them tilling the land, and planting peach trees as a gift to the agricultural poor.

However, when this reporter visited Guangfu, the poor farmers made no secret that the scheme was a sham, explaining that local officials had paid five villagers 800 yuan (€86) each a month to do the work.

Such stories go to the heart of the cynicism that many feel towards the party, with some activists openly deriding the red schemes of Mr Bo -- who chose to educate his son, Bo Guagua, at Harrow, Oxford and Harvard -- as hypocritical nonsense.

"This is an absurd era: they encourage you to sing the revolutionary songs, but do not encourage you to make revolution," a Chongqing-based activist, He Bing, wrote in a pithy microblog post.

Such talk can prove dangerous, as Fang Hong, a retired forestry worker discovered in April, when he was sentenced to a year of "re-education through labour" for posting a rude joke about Mr Bo (his name puns loosely in Chinese with the word for "erection") on his microblog.

Not everyone derides Mr Bo. Supporters say that aside from his clunky socialist propaganda -- which is proclaimed from hoardings along Chongqing's highways -- he has done much that is good, building low-cost housing, cleaning up corruption and boosting benefits for the poor.

Support is also guaranteed from party cadres gathered in the main square outside City Hall.

"We sing because it makes us happy and is good for our health," says He Rongjun (57) a laid-off textile worker (and not a party member). "We never sing songs from the Cultural Revolution, they raise too many painful memories. If we sing songs to the party, it is for the good things that the party has brought, the prosperity.

"It is impossible to go back (to the era of the Cultural Revolution). People just aren't like that any more. They are not stupid, they cannot be told what to think and they won't just listen blindly to what the party says, not any more."

And that simple truth, as Mr Bo's 'Red' campaigns perhaps inadvertently show, may yet prove to be the Communist Party's biggest headache of all. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent