Out of China: The season of Santa and Mao plc

PEKING - Two old men are vying for attention here this week. One has a beard, pops up in most department stores and is immortalised by a larger than life model outside the state-owned Friendship Store. The other has a prominent facial mole and stares out from lighters, thermometers, watches and other household goods. The question is, who really matters more next weekend: Santa Claus or Mao Tse-tung?

While Santa may tackle Peking's soot- clogged chimney flues early on Christmas morning, the good Chairman Mao lays claim to Boxing Day. This year marks the centenary of his birth, an event which Communist Party cadres in Peking consider should be taken very seriously.

So seriously, in fact, that by coincidence or otherwise, China's killjoy State Education Commission has forbidden universities, colleges and departments from celebrating Christmas. Other Western festivals on the blacklist are St Valentine's Day and April Fools' Day. The official Guangming Daily recently said this was 'in order to create a relatively stable cultural tradition on the campuses of higher education and to promote our country's excellent national culture'.

In practice, despite the national culture of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse-tung thought, both birthdays are falling victim to China's rampant commercialism and new-found frenzy for making money. Christmas cards, mostly with seasonal greetings rather than Christian sentiments, are arriving at the Independent's office daily - one featuring a panda plodding lugubriously across a snowfield. Upwardly mobile Peking twenty-somethings exchange cards and see 25 December as an excuse for a party. The department stores, like their Western counterparts, are using Santa Claus to fuel the already over-heating retail boom. Meanwhile, your correspondent is presently locked in tough negotiations for a black market turkey.

Some Christians might deplore the inevitable reality that Peking's Christmas is about profiteering rather than preaching. But they can take solace in the fact that the centenary of the Great Helmsman is treated in much the same way. Despite the Chairman's dim view of private enterprise, Mao plc is a thriving concern. Just about any trinket that can carry a Mao face, does. And then there are the Mao restaurants (his many favourite dishes), the Mao compact discs (his favourite speeches), the Mao concerts (his favourite songs), the Mao paintings (his favourite poses) . . .

Asked about Mao's birthday, however, one 60-year-old Peking resident remained unmoved. Why had this event failed to inspire him?

'They haven't given us a public holiday,' he complained. The Great Day falls on a Sunday this year, not only the Christian, but also China's, day of rest (though there is no problem with seven-day opening here).

Yet Mao's legacy has not been utterly corrupted. For Christmas is also the time of year when the Chairman's concept of the 'iron rice bowl' - cradle to grave social security - reasserts itself with a vengeance for foreign employers in Peking. Even the faceless Chinese Communist Party believes that this should be the season of goodwill - and annual bonuses.

There, in the small print of the take-it-or-leave-it employment contracts that all foreign organisations are obliged to sign, one finds such festive items as the 'decent-suit allowance' due each December, and the performance-insensitive 'year-end bonus' - to be paid in cash, preferably hard currency. At least this goes some way to compensating local staff for the fact that, notwithstanding China's lurch towards free-market economics, the state has been pocketing most of the money we all pay for local employees.

Between the shopkeepers and the guardians of the socialist flame, there are a few Chinese people celebrating the birth of Christ - in a manner sanctioned by the state. On Friday night, midnight mass will be held in state-authorised churches; but the many priests and religious people who remain in prison have nothing to celebrate. Independent religious belief is on the rise, and so is the determination of the Public Security Bureau to stamp it out.