Every day, they arrive by the thousand from all corners of China: tourists, workers from state enterprises, even look-alikes. They flock straight to the statue of former Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong.
The mood is one not so much one of respect, but of adoration.
For 50 euros you can present the founding father of the People’s Republic of China with a floral tribute; for 120, two soldiers will lay it in place.
But in Shaoshan, Mao’s birthplace, money doesn’t matter.
“You shouldn’t even ask how much the flowers cost, you can’t measure it in money,” said Mr. Liu, who dipped into his savings and travelled 1,500 kilometres to pay homage to the late leader. “I think they’re priceless.”
For people like Mr. Liu, the trip to Shaoshan is an overwhelming experience. “I’m feeling an uncontrollable wave of emotion here,” he said. “I also took the opportunity to make a wish. I wished for our motherland to become prosperous.”
Prosperity has certainly come to Shaoshan, located in the south-central Hunan province. The town has a massive “red tourism” industry, with a museum, a library, a cultural centre and soon a theatre, all dedicated to Mao.
For the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birthday, the city has spent over 200 million euros in renovations and infrastructure.
Highlighting Mao’s frugal side, downplaying the deaths
Tian Haiming, a local businessman, is proud of the result.
Like many locals, he deals in objects commemorating the leader. Tourists are his main market, but not the only one. For a fee, Mr. Tien will even carry out a ceremony in honour of Mao.
The onetime farmer is indeed now a canny businessman. But, he says, he remains a Maoist above all.
“As a native of Shaoshan, my duty is to convey what this culture is about,” he said. “There’s no connection at all with the commercial side.”
The “Mao merchants” are now facing a new challenge: the anti-extravagance campaign led by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has demanded a sober anniversary.
In the Shaoshan memorial hall, it’s Mao’s frugal side that is being highlighted. It’s a theme that still resonates with a population which is still very critical of inequality.
Meanwhile, amid all the celebratory and commemorative events, the millions of death ascribed to Chairman Mao are rarely mentioned. Chinese schools still teach the official line: Mao’s actions were 30 percent wrong, but 70 percent right.