'In the days of Chairman Mao, people were short of money. Now they are short of virtue'

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The Independent Online
Exactly 20 years ago yesterday, Ms Chen was working in a Peking clothes factory when a sombre radio announcement came over the loudspeakers. Chairman Mao was dead, the stunned workers were told.

"I felt very depressed," she remembers. "It seemed as if the sky would collapse and the country was coming to an end. Everyone cried; some loudly, most quietly."

Ms Chen, now 58, was a schoolteacher before she was sent to work in the factory. She had witnessed the brutality of Mao's Cultural Revolution, yet was genuinely upset when the Great Helmsman died. "At that time, I still loved him," she says.

Most Chinese people over 35 can remember how and where they heard that Mao was dead, just as Americans recall the assassination of John F Kennedy. Within weeks, the Gang of Four had been arrested, and the wheels set in motion to propel forward Deng Xiaoping, whose economic reforms have since transformed the country.

How then did China mark yesterday's 20th anniversary of Mao's death? Officially, it seems, and with restraint. His face stared from the front pages of newspapers, and state publishers issued three new volumes of his poems and letters.

In Wuhan city, central China, an exhibition featured 100 items from the life and times of Chairman Mao, from his table-tennis bat to a much- repaired night shirt. In Peking's Concert Hall, there were performances of revolutionary songs, such as "Striding Forward on the Socialist Road". And in Tiananmen Square, the visitors trooped through the Mao Zedong Mausoleum as usual, staring sceptically at his waxy remains.

It is a tricky day for the authorities. Mao's Great Leap Forward, which killed 30 million people in the late Fifties, and the Cultural Revolution are still off-limits for historical analysis, aside from the official verdict on Mao as having been 70 per cent correct, 30 per cent mistaken.

Nor is it admitted that Mr Deng's economic successes have been based on the sort of common-sense policies which Mao rejected. Such notions are sacrilege, for the modern imperial lineage, from Mao to Mr Deng and now to President Jiang Zemin, remains the backbone of the party's - and of Mr Jiang's - claim to legitimacy.

Ms Chen takes a more down-to-earth view of the past 20 years. Asked about improvements, she says: "Now you do not have to buy things with [ration] coupons - like food, clothes and oil. There is a better variety of goods, and housing has also improved.

"There is more freedom of speech - we can condemn the Communist Party in private."

No one wants to turn back the clock, but greater freedom means more complaints about social ills. Ms Chen's views are typical for her generation. "There are a lot of bad things now - corruption, crime, prostitution, gambling," she says. "Twenty years ago, these things had been eliminated; now they come back. When I go out, I worry about the house being robbed, and what may happen to me on the street ... In the past, people were short of money, now they are short of virtue.

"And there is a privileged class now of [corrupt] officials. Twenty years ago, if you complained, there was some justice, there was somewhere to complain ... Before, people trusted the party. Now everybody curses them, and nobody respects the senior leaders."

Her husband, 60, was equally forthright. Nowadays, the government was like "a dead pig" which was "not afraid of scalding water", by which he meant that it was impervious to complaints from ordinary people. China's leaders are well aware of popular dissatisfaction, and are trying to appease it. This year's "yanda" (Strike Hard) anti-crime crack-down, for instance, has been extended indefinitely.

Meanwhile, social values - or rather Mr Jiang's much-vaunted "spiritual civilisation" - will be the theme of this month's annual Communist Party plenum. Just the sort of rallying call Mao would have applauded.