Meet the 'Red Song Commander'
To commemorate Mao's 120th birth anniversary, Red Song choir conductor Dai Cheng begins preparations for an elaborate celebration.PT1M59S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2z9p0 620 349 December 12, 2013
During the Cultural Revolution, ''red'' songs of revolution revering Mao Zedong were sung throughout the country - on street corners, in factories, and in the field. The pace of change and development in the past 30 years means China has largely moved on, but the Communist Party retains an uneasy relationship with its iconic founding father and his controversial legacy.
December 26 marks the 120th anniversary of Mao's birth, and celebrations and remembrance events are being planned on a nationwide scale. The red songs, too, will be revived.
Deng Xiaoping, and more recently Wen Jiabao, have both acknowledged the Cultural Revolution was a mistake. But the time remains largely hidden from view and much of the official party narrative remains that Mao was a brilliant leader who helped drag a disunited nation out of decades of civil war and set it on its path of rejuvenation and modernisation.
Mao Zedong. Photo: AFP
At best, Mao was a complex and controversial character. His detractors simply point to the fact his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution directly resulted in the deaths of tens of millions, a toll unmatched by the worst of history's dictators. As much as it might jar with the reality of those who lived through the suffering and terror of his reign, Mao's portrait still hangs proudly over Tiananmen Square, where queues of people still line up daily outside the mausoleum to catch a glimpse of him in his crystal coffin.
Hopes that China may finally be ready to confront the horrors of its past were raised when Chen Xiaolu, a former Red Guard, stepped forward in August with a public apology for his actions during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976.
''I wasn't brave enough to stop the inhumane persecutions, because I feared I would be accused of protecting the old ways and being a counter-revolutionary,'' Chen said in an internet post that quickly went viral. ''It was a terrifying time.''
Chen, the son of long-time foreign minister Chen Yi, was the most prominent among several former Red Guards who have publicly apologised in the lead-up to Mao's birth anniversary celebrations. Rather surprisingly, the apologies have had a mixed reception. Perhaps the speed of development and the relentless pursuit of material wealth in China has proved perplexing, but a resurgence of leftist, Maoist ideology has taken hold for some.
In Changzhou, a historic city downstream of the Yangtze River in southern Jiangsu province, Dai Cheng has taken his admiration of Chairman Mao to levels of almost religious fanaticism. With a booming voice and an infectious personality to match, the 61-year-old former Red Guard leads a red song choir with almost 200 predominantly middle-aged and elderly members who pine for what he says were the simpler, purer days under Mao's reign.
''During Mao's time, people lived with honour. Regardless of how much power you had, or how lowly you were in society, you were all equal,'' Dai says. ''Now it's completely the opposite. Power and money go completely hand-in-hand. Even fools can see that ordinary people don't have money, don't have rights, and don't have a future.''
Dai is known as the Red Song Commander, not least because of the way he barks orders at his followers, and the gusto with which he conducts the choir - forceful flailing of the arms, his face contorted with concentration. Self-taught, Dai sold his family home - wrecking his marriage in the process - to help fund competition entry fees and regular tours. Their relationship has improved, but his wife lives in Shanghai with his daughter, while he lives in his office in Changzhou. Every day is now consumed with an increasingly forlorn battle, spreading Mao Zedong Thought in a rapidly modernising China.
Since taking power, much has been made of President Xi Jinping's frequent invoking of Mao Zedong ideology, seen as a tactic to win back the hearts and minds of a populace feeling increasingly alienated and angered by government waste and corruption. The comparisons have intensified as Xi has surprised observers with how swiftly he has consolidated his authority in an ideologically divided Communist Party.
And while Xi has clearly signalled intentions to continue the reform and opening up of China's economy, right-leaning intellectuals and libertarians have been alarmed by a crackdown on the internet and media which has had a chilling effect on free speech.
''I think Xi hasn't even made his own mind up with which direction he wants to take the country,'' says Mao Yushi, a veteran economist. ''Xi is trying to consolidate his power through Mao regardless [of whether] he believes in him or not. This is a mistaken mindset. The Communist Party won its legitimacy not from Mao's rule but from 30 years of reform and opening up.''
Many even consider it important to observe the tone with which the government carries out the celebration for Mao's anniversary. The benchmark has been set - celebrations for the 100th birth anniversary of Xi's own father - revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun - were marked with official ceremonies attended by senior party leaders, the broadcast of a six-part documentary series and the release of a commemorative biography and postage stamp set.
The Xiangtan local government, which administers Mao's home town of Shaoshan, in Hunan province, said it would spend more than $300 million on its celebrations, including mass singing and a noodle feast. But in a tour to Hunan province last month, Xi said the celebrations for Mao's anniversary should be solemn, simple and pragmatic.
An official Beijing event to be held at the Great Hall of the People, originally intended to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birth, was abruptly changed to a new year gala. And a 100-episode television series about Mao originally to be aired this month was pulled from broadcast, the Global Times reported.
''The authorities don't want the commemorations for Mao to be high-profile,'' said Wang Zhanyang, director of the Political Science Department at the Central Institute of Socialism. ''Some regional conservative people and officials with vested interests want to restrain reform by falsely promoting some of Mao's most conservative thoughts, which is not what the party follows.''
In Changzhou, Dai says the downfall of the Communist Party will come if it continues to distance itself from Mao's teachings. ''People are soulless. This society's problems aren't fixed by 'Three Represents' or Deng Xiaoping or scientific development or this dream or the other,'' he says, referring to the political slogans of more recent leaders, including Xi Jinping's China Dream.
The praise for Mao, he says, should be sung long beyond his milestone anniversary this month. As if to drive home the point, Dai spontaneously belts out the opening lines of famous The East Is Red in which Mao is compared to the rising sun.
As his mouth widens, his entire body quivers as he hits the high notes. His eyes well with tears, and it looks like he may well become overwhelmed with emotion. ''We love Chairman Mao with our hearts, so we sing with all our emotion,'' he says. ''At this time, you can't help but reminisce about Chairman Mao.''