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Mao Portrait Damaged

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on May 14th, 2007

The immense portrait of Mao Zedong that dominates the north side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing was damaged on Saturday morning when a Chinese citizen hit it with an improvised firebomb. The weekend crowds were promptly shooed away, the square and roads leading in were closed and the portrait replaced by a duplicate overnight. During the rest of the weekend only limited access was permitted to ordinary Chinese and the atmosphere was described as "tense."

Chinese authorities detained a man from Urumqi, in Chinese controlled East Turkestan [Xinjiang] but as his name was given in Chinese form, it is impossible to determine whether he was in fact an ethnic Turk, or whether his action had any connection with the ongoing Turkish Muslim resistance to Chinese rule in Xinjiang.

The bomb throwing, which was witnessed by many tourists in the square, will be most unwelcome to the Chinese authorities who have made every effort to reduce the political sensitivity of this symbolic center of communist rule since the ghastly massacre of peaceful democracy protesters of June 4, 1989. The square is as sacred a space as exists in China, where Mao’s embalmed body rests in a crystal coffin in a memorial hall not far from the portrait. Repaving to eliminate tank tread marks from the massacre of 1989, elaborate floral plantings, and a solemn flag raising ceremony with honor guard every morning are among the measures the Party has taken to somehow make the square a focus of pride and loyalty to party after the nightmare of spring1989, when tanks and troops drove out democracy demonstrators, and randomly shot up crowds and buildings on the streets leading in and out. Bloody and mangled corpses filled hospital emergency rooms.

Black paint was subsequently hurled at the portrait, defacing it.

It seems, however, that the symbolic power of Tiananmen Square has only increased since then. Originally a small open area in front of the palace, surrounded by government buildings of Ming (1368-1648) and Qing vintage (1644-1912) it was created during the Great Leap Forward of 1958, when these historic structures were bulldozed to make way for a space greater even than Red Square in Moscow, the Great Hall of the People, and other Maoist follies.

Since the massacre, Tiananmen has never returned to normal. Time was that evening or even late night strolls there were a pleasant feature of Beijing life , but now it is sealed off tightly at 10 PM. Guards are inconspicuous but ubiquitous and numerous at all times.. Protesters gather there occasionally, usually protesting social and economic grievances. The Falungong gathered ten thousand practitioners there 2000, terrifying the leadership, which unleashed a vicious persecution that has neither ceased nor succeeded, In 2005 a small bomb exploded there. This of course is only what is reported and becomes known.

The bigger problem is for the Communist Party. By elevating the symbolic significance of the square in their iconography—with Mao’s corpse, the flag, the portrait, and various monuments they have unwittingly upped the political charge that crackles in Tiananmen. It remains public much of the time, difficult to secure—and thus the perfect place to make a negative symbolic statement—as the bomb thrower did—with every confidence that the Chinese and the world will find out.

But the biggest problem is Mao Zedong himself, who died in 1976 but is still accorded god-like status. He is held up as the liberator, the genius founder of New China, but as is now increasingly recognized, in China as well as in the rest of the world, as one of the great mass murderers of the last century, along with Hitler and Stalin, costing by one recent estimate, the lives of seventy million of his countrymen.

How much longer, one wonders, will Chinese feel as benevolent his gaze over their capital?

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