Chairman Mao is hyped as a hero for the tourist masses

Since China's State Council designated this year as the year of Red Tourism, an initiative designed to re-kindle faith in the present-day Communist Party (CCP), a booming Shaoshan has become an unlikely must-see on the tourist trail.

Legions of holiday-makers are flocking to the town, eager to learn more about the roots of the man who in his homeland is still regarded as having done more than any other to unify and form contemporary China.

The CCP knows that, now more than ever, faced with a population more interested in the latest mobile phone than political ideology, it needs a hero. And the Chairman fits the bill better than anyone.

China's State Council, therefore, has been trying to persuade domestic tourists, who made 111 million trips during the recent week-long October national holiday, to turn their backs on destinations such as Hong Kong's new Disneyland, Macau's casinos and the beaches of Hainan island. Instead, the council is promoting the dusty and remote city of Yan'an in Shaanxi province, where Mao and the CCP were based for a decade from 1937, as well as old Red Army battlefields and key sites along the route of the Long March.

For the first time in decades, Yan'an, Shaoshan, in Hunan province, and the Jinggangshan region in Jiangxi province, the first part of China that Mao and the CCP took control of in 1927, have been put on the map. And the government, hoping to gain some reflected glory from a man who remains more popular, 29 years after his death, than any of those who succeeded him, is delighted.

So far, its co-opting of Mao, who had a whole host of villas built around China for his holidays, is working brilliantly. Helped by nostalgia for the certainties of the Mao era and an increasingly nationalistic mood, the Red Tourism initiative has resulted in four million people visiting Yan'an this year.

One hundred and fifty locations in 13 provinces have been earmarked as Red Tourism sites. They range from Zunyi in Guizhou province, where Mao took over the CCP leadership and restaurants offer "Red Army banquets", with each dish named after a famous battle, to Xibaipo, a village in Hebei province that was Mao's last stop before he arrived in Beijing in 1949 and took power.

But nowhere is more sacred and popular than Mao's home village of Shaoshan in the southern province of Hunan. There, farm machinery remains in the field next to the yellow house where Mao was born in 1893. Men on bikes, with pigs in cages strapped to the back, cycle past. Mao's family home is guarded by an unsmiling PLA honour guard and the coaches that are backed up all the way along the road disgorge an almost continuous stream of red tourists.

Such is Mao's status in China that no one dares challenge the myths surrounding the man who may have united the country but also initiated such disastrous events as the Great Leap Forward, in which 30 million people died of famine, and the Cultural Revolution, which saw millions more Chinese denounced by their friends and neighbours and sent to labour camps or worse.

"In the eyes of Chinese historians, Mao is a controversial figure," says Yang Kui Song, a history professor at Peking University. "Some historians are very positive about him, but many criticise Mao in private. They'd never express their opinion openly. They'd get into trouble."

Mao's reputation has taken a battering in the West this year, following the publication of Jung Chang's long-awaited biography, Mao: The Unknown Story.

But Jung's book is banned in mainland China and her portrait of a master manipulator who regarded ordinary people as expendable and was interested only in maintaining his iron grip on power, would be greeted with shock and disbelief by most Chinese.

Never mind the fact that it was the leaders who followed Mao - Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zhemin and now Hu Jintao - who initiated the policies that have made China the fastest-growing economy in the world, it's Mao who is on every bank note and whose statue is in every town and city. And while Jung's book is not available, there is a vast array of kitsch Mao memorabilia, from key rings to alarm clocks and lighters.

The crowds thronging around Mao's childhood home in Shaoshan are a mixed bunch. Some of the older visitors are dressed in Mao caps and jackets, but there are plenty of couples clutching babies and camcorders, as well as students and schoolchildren.

People seem puzzled when I ask if they like Mao. "Of course we do," says one woman. "All Chinese people like Mao Tse-Tung. He is the Chairman and the new China was built by him."