Changes in portraits yield a telling story

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 October, 2009, 12:00am

Displaying and carrying huge portraits of the great and the noble has long been an integral tradition of the elaborate celebrations of National Day holidays in communist countries.

The mainland has been no exception, but changes in the faces on the portraits provide a telling story of ideological transformation over the past 60 years.

For National Day celebrations since the beginning of the 1950s, the authorities usually installed the portraits of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on the east side of Tiananmen Square and those of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin on the west side - with the portrait of Sun Yat-sen in the middle of the square, directly facing that of Mao Zedong , permanently hanging on the rostrum.

The message was simple and clear: the Communist Party owed its lineage and ideology to Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, to Mao for the founding of the People's Republic of China, and to Sun not only for his leadership in ending the feudal dynasties but also as a symbol of reunification with Taiwan, since Sun founded the Kuomintang.

But in April 1989, the mainland's leadership decided against using the portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin for future National Day celebrations, noting that most other countries displayed images of only their own national heroes. Only the portrait of Sun is now brought out for special days.

Of course, there is more to the move than that. It was then that communist countries started to fall like dominoes in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was on the brink of falling apart. The mainland, too, was about to undergo one of its most tumultuous tragedies, in Tiananmen Square.

Another unspoken reason is that by that time, the mainland had strayed far from the ideology set by those four greats. To justify the reforms and opening up, the mainland leadership began to talk about 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' and to preach that the mainland was in the primary stage of socialism, a phase it would inhabit for many years to come. Translated, it meant the mainland would have no choice but to go through the inevitable period of cutthroat capitalism before advancing to socialism.

Ten years later, when China staged its grand celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the People 's Republic, many mainlanders were surprised to find that floats bore huge portraits of the first-generation Mao, the second-generation Deng Xiaoping and the third-generation Jiang Zemin - the president at that time.

Following the tradition, it came as no surprise on Thursday that the portrait of President Hu Jintao had been added to the parade for the National Day celebrations.

But many mainlanders cannot help wondering if this marks a step backwards, as it reminds them of the chaotic times when Mao's portraits were everywhere, a sign of a feverish personality cult. Since mainland leaders are looking towards the future, they should also reflect on the mistakes of the past.

At the grand reception party on the eve of National Day, Premier Wen Jiabao spoke on behalf of the leadership and promised that China would stand tall in the world as a rich, strong, democratic, civilised and harmonious modern socialist country by 2049, when it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

To achieve that lofty goal, the mainland must learn from the past and set out a clear path. To build up a democratic and harmonious country calls for allowing mainlanders to enjoy more freedoms, be they religious, individual or political.

For one, Beijing must allow people to enjoy more religious freedom at a time when the communist ideology is bankrupt and most mainlanders worship nothing but money. To fill the vacuum, the leadership is wasting no chance to whip up nationalism and patriotism, but this can carry dangerous side effects. Mainstream religions can help promote harmony better than anything else.

There is no better slogan for stirring up nationalism and patriotism than Mao's 1949 exclamation: 'The Chinese people have now stood up.'

But since then the collective rights of the nation have prevailed over individual rights, and this has led to such disastrous consequences as the Cultural Revolution and the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Only in 2004 did China amend its constitution to include formal guarantees of human rights and private property.

Protecting and promoting individual rights is essential to ensure China stays on the right path to achieve its goals. As the headline of the October 1 editorial of the Southern Weekend, one of the mainland's most influential newspapers, put it succinctly, 'Let every Chinese stand up also.'

The mainland leadership must also muster wisdom and courage to carry out political reforms, as this is the most effective way to fight corruption, a main source of mounting social discontent.

The patriotic epic The Founding of a Republic is drawing millions of mainlanders into the cinemas for its vivid story-telling about how the People's Republic was established. But what strikes many is what Chiang Kai-shek said on the eve of the collapse of Kuomintang rule: 'Corruption is already to the bone. To fight means the demise of the party and not to fight means the demise of the country.'