Postcard from Beijing

Mao’s Mausoleum, Beijing. I am with a group of students attending the 2006 Harvard World Model UN in Beijing. Eight days into our trip, we find ourselves standing in line to see Mao Zedong in his tomb. The line moves quite quickly, considering its length and breadth. It stretches around and down past the austere, columned mausoleum which dominates the southern end of Tiananmen Square, and is perhaps a quarter mile long. The line is four and five people across, and winds around the front of the mausoleum then heads up the steps to the entrance. Before going up the steps, those in line may purchase artificial bouquets of red or yellow roses to leave inside the tomb.

Up the steps, the line moves with increased speed. It’s amazing, I’m about to see Chairman Mao, dead almost 30 years. The line divides as we enter a huge ante room, which military guards carefully monitor to make certain that all enter two abreast through a door at either side of the chamber. The far end is dominated by a gigantic marble statue of Mao, sitting in a chair, looking wise and warm. The statue’s pose is quite similar to that of Abe Lincoln in his memorial in Washington. Of course, in Washington, Abe himself is there in spirit only.

People are allowed to leave the lines and place their flowers at the base of the statue, where they stand for a moment. Some make small bows and wipe away tears. Through the doors at the rear of the ante chamber more guards keep us moving quickly; no pausing, no pictures — just look then exit. And there he is… Chairman Mao, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, the Great Helmsman. He lays in a glass-topped coffin, clad in his uniform, a light shinning on his face, a PRC flag tucked under his arms and covering him from the chest down. I have seen so many pictures of him while he was alive; I saw him on TV countless times when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s (when I knew of him as the leader of Red China). Now it’s hard to believe that he, well his body anyway, is right there, a few feet away. As they pass by, many of the people are now openly weeping, as though Mao had died yesterday and not 30 years ago.

Mao watch image from

We pass through the doors into the next room, our heads spinning with the image of Mao, dead in his glass case. And there he is again! On watches, key chains, plates, cigarette lighters, commemorative coins, post cards… indeed, it seems his face appears on just about any object that one might stamp an image. So, here we are, literally steps away from the Chairman, and we are before a gigantic souvenir stand. But, unlike the numerous vendors that we have encountered crassly hawking similar items on Tiananmen Square (and all over Beijing) this shop next to Mao is tasteful, with the items displayed in glass cases, like the real thing next door, and with suitably high prices. The students stock up on Mao lighters and buttons. I refrain from any purchases; I’ve already bought my Mao watch from one of those street vendors near a restaurant where we ate the day before. I bought the exact same watch, which is for sale in the mausoleum for around $10 US, for 16 Yuan, or the equivalent of two American dollars. Mao is on the face of the watch, his arm going up and down to mark the seconds. Actually, his motion reminds me a bit of the Atlanta Braves’ “Tomahawk Chop” fan salute. The watch was cheap, it seems to stop quite often, and I have to shake it to get Mao’s arm moving again.

As we walk around the mausoleum and back up Tiananmen Square, we move through groups of people heading towards the line to see Mao (longer now than it was when we arrived at the Square earlier in the morning); it strikes me that the vast majority of the people around the tomb this morning are middle-aged adults and senior citizens. I suppose that young Chinese go with their schools on official outings. Yet the fact that so many older people are out on a Saturday morning to pay their respects to Mao serves to underline some contradictions that I had read about before I arrived in China, and have noticed during my time here. I realize that nine days in Beijing provides no more foundation for assertions about China than several days in Moscow, Prague, London, or New York provides a basis for judgments about Russia, the Czech Republic, Britain, or the US. Still, here I am, and I have to make do with the time that I have. So, I think that many of those young people are probably still asleep this morning. I saw some of them only 12 hours ago, at the other China, or, another China; a country of clubs and capitalism, a very different China than the one memorialized in Mao’s tomb. Whereas the China of the tomb is the China of Maoism, of Chinese communism, of the 1937 Long March, and the 1949 revolution from which the PRC was born.

Last evening, we were in a setting wildly different from the tomb that I now stand next to. The Lovely Club is one of the many western-style clubs that, I am told, have blossomed all over Beijing. Techno music pounds non-stop, lights flash, the walls are covered with video projections, dancers gyrate on the stage and on the dance floor (which is on springs and actually bounces as the dancers speed up their frenzied moves). Liquor flows, and I see young Chinese awash in cash, spending it with impunity. The Lovely Club and Mao’s Tomb not only seem like two different Chinas from on another — they seem to be on two different planets.

This other China is a China clubs and commerce, of material goods and western products. I realize that when one goes, as I have done, to former communist states like Russia, Hungary, Romania, or the Czech Republic, it is easy to note the obvious: westernization, often in the form of food (McDonalds, Burger King, Dominoes, Pizza Hut, the Hard Rock Café, etc.), has flooded these countries. And it is easy to bemoan the way American / western food, movies, music have, in some respects, turned these countries into American clones. Observing Beijing’s streets, it would be hard (except for the Chinese characters on the signs) to distinguish them from streets similarly glutted with billboards and neon in other large cities. Observing this, a few key questions come to mind: What might Mao think if he could take a stroll from his tomb along the streets of modern Beijing? What would he think of the Lovely Club? What would he think of the grandparents who weep at his bier? Have they failed to pass his teachings on to their children and grandchildren?

Apparently, the current crop of Chinese communist leaders is also uncertain about the fit between Maoism and the communist party’s market-oriented reforms. Leaked minutes of a secret, high-level party meeting reported that “Officials and scholars who had been convened last month to advise senior Chinese leaders disagreed sharply on how to advance economic and legal reforms…” They are in quite a quandary. First, “they were alarmed by the resurgence of socialist thinkers critical of the lurch towards capitalism…” Second, there is concern over “the widening gap between rich and poor…” (The New York Times, 7 April 2006) The leaders who support the economic reforms are caught between the old style Maoists who want to return to Maoist ways, and their own concern over the negative impact of their reforms. The price of capitalism has indeed been high, but that was a price Mao was also willing to pay, as he pushed China’s industrialization during his time as China’s leader.

China’s modernization has not displaced the nation’s most vital piece of its past, which is located just a short ride from Beijing. It is, in all its awe inspiring grandeur, no less than Mao, the symbol of the nation: the Great Wall. Neither picture nor any description can prepare one for its magnificence. Like the Parthenon (another wonder of the past which I have seen) it completely lives up to its billing. The Chinese have invested much time, effort, and money in restoring major portions of the wall, near Beijing and in other regions of the country. From the top of the segment near Beijing, one can look in almost any direction and see the wall, extending into the distance. It is gray and majestic as it snakes up and down along mountains, which are rocky in some spots, thickly forested in others. Seeing this remains the most vivid memory of my China trip.

The memory is vivid not only because of the structure itself, but because it is impossible to stand on the wall and not imagine the suffering of those who built it; those who carried the stones, put them in place, and, as our guide told us, often filled the gaps between those stones with their bodies. And it is true that some things have remained the same in the new China. Whether during the time of Imperial China, or the People’s Republic of China, China has never been for the people, at least in terms of any political, economic, or social decisions made by the leadership. The people serve the government, not the other way around. Following Mao’s political dictates, the leadership allows no dissent, and even works to keep the Chinese internet free of democratic content (especially access to sites such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch). In fact, “Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo worked with China to restrict access to material or reveal the identity of users with dissident postings.” (The Christian Science Monitor 14 February 2006).

Knowing this, it was fascinating to observe our guide’s friendliness, openness, and spontaneity vanish immediately when asked about Red Square’s infamous scene from 17 years ago. The same guide who regaled us with a lively, anecdotal packed tour through the Forbidden City was much less forthcoming as we walked around the Square. “What do you think about what happened here in June 1989?” inquired one of my charges. “The students were misguided. Chairman Mao knows best,” she responded, as though he were still alive. When it comes to politics in China, it seems Mao is still alive.

The polarity of China is as oppressive as it is ironic. There is an unspoken pact between the government and the people, especially young Chinese people. The people focus on making money, shopping, clubbing, and enjoying the material goods of a burgeoning market economy. The government takes care of the nation’s political life; at the cost of no political liberty, no freedom, and no dissent. Will the young Chinese continue to buy into this arrangement? Maybe, maybe not. As a Chinese student said to a member of my class at our conference, during a discussion of this ‘bargain’, “Oh yeah; yeah, we love Mao. Whatever.” And my Mao watch? Darn thing’s stopped, again.