It isn’t often that I get to spend time with mass murderers, let alone the greatest mass murderer in history. But in playing tourist in Beijing I had a chance to hang out with the Great Helmsman himself, Mao Zedong.
His mausoleum sits at the center of Tiananmen Square, facing the Gate of Heavenly Peace with its famous Mao portrait. The facility’s hours of operation are few and the number of visitors many. When I joined the line mid-morning it began at the building’s side, headed to the rear, then reversed course back toward the front. The line moved at a steady slow walk, with individuals and groups constantly attempting to push by and gain a couple feet.
The lines split apart going through a security check-point—no doubt, al-Qaeda has placed the mausoleum high on its target list. The line then reformed and moved forward again. Vendors sold flowers which people deposited on entering the mausoleum, in front of a statue of a sitting Mao, backed by a painting of a peaceful mountain scene. He looked thoughtful, as if plotting his next madcap scheme, a la the “Great Leap Forward,” actually into the abyss, and the Cultural Revolution, which consumed even the most dedicated communists.
In the next room the Great Man—assuming it really is him—lies under glass beneath a blanket decorated by a hammer and sickle. Two soldiers stood guard behind him, while mausoleum staff urged onlookers to move along. No time to look at the body of the greatest mass murderer in history, who caused decades of human carnage.
The two lines reunited in the final room before exiting the mausoleum. Outside were a variety of vendors offering Mao tchotchke. What home should be without a Mao picture, or even better, a Mao statue?
Then the viewers flowed back into Tiananmen Square. How many revered the man, whom the government today claims was 70 percent right, 30 percent wrong, is impossible to know. A number bought flowers, an obvious sign of respect. The mausoleum reportedly is a favored destination of rural folks.
Eventually the People’s Republic of China will have to confront Mao’s legacy. The country has moved dramatically beyond him—he wouldn’t recognize his nation’s capital, highlighted by wide boulevards, modern office buildings, and frenetic economic activity. His ruthless, unpredictable dictatorship has disappeared, but in its place has emerged a blander, more prosaic and bureaucratic authoritarian system. Some day the Chinese people will bury Mao along with his legacy. Then they truly will be free.