I remember the moment perfectly. Aged nine, I sat in the basement of a rambling colonial house on the south side of Hong Kong Island, secretly watching cartoons on my neighbour's television. It was the afternoon of September 9, 1976. The screen went black and a picture of Mao Zedong appeared. 'Chinese leader Mao Zedong has died,' the announcer said. My brother and I raced home, five doors down, to tell our parents. This, we thought, they must know - even if it meant admitting we'd been watching the banned box. The next day, my mother, who was born in Nazi Germany and has a keen sense of history, took me to the old Bank of China building on Queen's Road. There, a long queue of men in dark trousers and white short-sleeved shirts looped through the building's foyer, where a huge black-and-white portrait of Mao hung at the back. They bowed low as they passed in front of it. We skipped the queue and went to the nearby Hong Kong Book Centre, where my mother bought me a book of his poems. She wrote the date inside. I still have it. Thirty years ago on Saturday, China's cultish former leader, whose presence could move crowds to frenzy, died in Beijing, aged 82. In late July, his daughters Li Min and Li Na, as well as other relatives held a low-key remembrance ceremony in the Chongqing room of the Great Hall of the People. Otherwise, the death of the man who shaped China more than any other will pass virtually unmarked on the mainland. Privately, some hate Mao for wrecking their lives with political campaigns; others, less affected, venerate him as a nationalist leader. Emotions aside, Mao is identified so closely with the Communist Party that to attack him is to attack the party, officials fear. If public debate were allowed on the mainland, it could be explosive. The authorities prefer to keep the lid on. Ask any American aged 50 or over, 'Where were you when you heard that John F. Kennedy was shot?' and chances are the moment is etched on their memory. At the kitchen sink. Driving the car. Prosaic recollections of a shattering moment. Ask a Russian aged 60 or more where they were when Joseph Stalin died, and the second will be undimmed by the passing of 50 years. On the tram. Cooking dinner. Walking with my father. The shock. We asked five prominent Chinese to share their memories of the day Mao died. Nie Yuanzi, former revolutionary It's hard to believe the quiet, 86-year-old woman living on the 10th floor of a nondescript apartment building in north Beijing once struck fear into the hearts of many. Yet Nie Yuanzi did exactly that. Nie, who lived in the revolutionary base of Yan'an in Shaanxi province in the 1940s, was a member of staff at Peking University in the summer of 1966, the year the Cultural Revolution began. By signing her name at the top of a dazibao, or big character poster, attacking university leaders for being bourgeois, Nie is credited with sparking a violent phase of the movement. Back then, says her friend and helper Liu Shujun, 'I didn't like Nie because her voice sounds like [Mao's fourth wife] Jiang Qing's and we hated Jiang very much.' Nie made revolution with the best of them for two years but fell out with Mao in 1968 and was jailed until his death. After the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping jailed her for 17 years - Deng blamed Nie personally for the persecution of his son Deng Pufang, who was paralysed after falling out of a window at the university. Her three children have disowned her. Today Nie is penniless, her apartment a gift from Beijing mayor Wang Qishan. After a recent visit, Nie calls to say we left behind 'four paper clips and one ball-point pen. Shall I send them over?' 'I was undergoing re-education through labour in 1976 when I heard Mao died. I was under the custody of the 8341 corps, a propaganda and worker's unit. I had just finished my breakfast of congee and pickles and was getting ready to go out the door when the news came on the radio. At the time I was a cleaner at the Peking University Instruments Factory. The route from my home to the factory was clearly marked and no one along it was allowed to talk to me. My reactions were that, on the one hand, Mao has done many good things for the people. But in the 10 years of turmoil many people had been persecuted to death. With the death of Mao, I thought the movement, the turmoil, could end. I didn't cry. After such a lot of rights and wrongs, bitterness and sweetness, I seldom cried. 'I met Mao lots of times, first in Yan'an and then more often during the Cultural Revolution. He was a deep thinker and very charismatic, very charming. The first time was on August 15, 1945, in Yan'an, the day Japan signed the surrender letter. He gave a speech warning that Jiang Jieshi [Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader] would try to steal the fruits of our victory and we should be alert to continue the struggle against Jiang. People were saying that Jiang had flown troops to northeastern China to occupy it after the Japanese withdrew. We didn't have any airplanes so we tried to beat them there by walking thousands of kilometres. That speech was made in a hall in Yan'an and everyone carried in a small bench to sit on and listen. I sat at the front and could see Mao clearly. 'But when he came to power he made lots of mistakes. Sure, you can say he was inexperienced in building a country. But in one movement after another, many people died. Millions died from famine in the Great Leap Forward and 20 million more died in the Cultural Revolution, with another 10 million attacked during the movement. Yet others were responsible too. They flattered him. Some who are alive now haven't admitted a word about their past. Others, like [former president] Liu Shaoqi, [party leader] Deng Xiaoping, [former premier] Zhou Enlai, [top-ranking officials] Ye Jianying, Chen Yi and Bo Yibo, they all [admitted nothing]. You can't blame it all on those little Red Guards. They knew nothing and were encouraged to shout, beat others and all that. 'Mao was good in some ways. It was very chaotic during the Cultural Revolution but there were no thieves. There were no traffic problems. No police in the street. Why do some people still miss the past? Because there are some good things about the past. Today, no one is clean. There is a great income gap and state-owned properties were sold privately to those who have connections with officials.' Li Datong, writer Newspaper editor Li Datong, 54, shot to prominence in January after being removed from his job at the Beijing Youth Daily for publishing an article that accused mainland history books of bias. Li, the son of an aide to former liberal premier Hu Yaobang, now spends his time at home reading and writing. For being a liberal, his father's legs were broken by leftist political enemies during the Cultural Revolution. Li joined the Red Guards in Beijing in the summer of 1966, but quickly lost interest. Two years later he left the uproar of Beijing for the Inner Mongolian grasslands. For 10 years he herded sheep, the only Han Chinese in a community of Mongolians near Abagaqi. 'I remember the day Mao died very clearly. I led our local militia and we were gathering for training when a Mongolian woman threw open the door of a yurt and shouted: 'Mao zhuxi nasabarra!' That's Mongolian for 'Chairman Mao is dead'. Everyone rushed into the yurt to listen to the announcement. The announcer's voice was extremely solemn and deep and he used the Four Greats in announcing Mao's death. That's Mao the Great Teacher, Great Leader, Great Commander and the fourth ... I've forgotten the fourth. The yurt was crammed with Mongolians, soldiers and herdsmen. Some of the women cried for an hour or two. The Mongolians are religious people and when they had to swap their pictures of Buddha for Mao, for them Mao became a religious icon. I didn't cry. I had long ago lost faith in Mao. Finally, he was dead. My only thought was - what will happen now? We were all afraid of civil war. 'Mao died too late. He made a mess of things. Starting with the anti-rightist movement in 1957, he pushed China to the edge of the abyss. Those 20 years from 1956 to 1976, China didn't move forward an inch. A lot of things went backwards. Who was really the Gang of Four? Mao. Who was responsible for the anti-rightist movement? Mao. In the three-year famine of the Great Leap Forward, 38 million people died. Who killed them? Mao. You can't say this openly here today but everyone knows. This year is the 30th anniversary. I think that it might be possible to debate Mao openly by his 40th. It's too slow.' Zhang Xiaobo and Song Qiang, publishers Ten years ago, Zhang Xiaobo and Song Qiang, both 42, co-authored a book called China Can Say No. The nationalistic tract urged China to stand up for itself in the face of international pressure from the United States, which was perceived as trying to contain China. The book criticised democratic heroes such as exiled journalist Liu Binyan and astrophysicist Fang Lizhi by name, and urged Chinese to stand tall. Today, Zhang and Song run a publishing company called Republic Books, located in an apartment in Beijing's northern Asian Games area. Zhang appears stern; Song seems shy. A large, black-and-white banner reminds employees: 'There are never any excuses; finish your work on time.' Both men come from poor families. Zhang's were farmers; Song's, workers. Two years old when the Cultural Revolution began, both men were 'little Red Guards' by the end. Zhang Xiaobo 'I'm from Banjing in Jiangsu province, a town famous for its cakes and bakeries. I remember I was walking on the street with some school friends eating a cake when the open-air PA system announced Mao's death. It was a sunny day, no rain and no clouds. I might have been playing hooky, as we did that a lot back then - people had to labour and there weren't many classes. I was only 12 but I remember it very clearly because Mao was a god in the hearts of all the people throughout the country. When we heard he died, we were so shocked. We had been educated to believe Mao was a god, someone no one can profane and who would never die. Adults may have been prepared, because of his old age, but we weren't and we just collapsed. 'The Cultural Revolution sometimes left us baffled. Our parents told us to respect our teachers, but we were supposed to denounce and beat them. Good men in our eyes were labelled bad. And then why were we hungry, years after liberation? Even today, I order more than I can eat. 'If you hadn't asked me about Mao's death, I would have forgotten it. But I hate there being barriers to open speech, on the Cultural Revolution or other subjects. Take Jung Chang's biography [Mao: The Unknown Story], for example. There are many mistakes in the book. But it doesn't matter. Truth and lies weave together. Through discussion and research we can reach the truth, the real Mao. In the liberals' minds, Mao has no merits. To Mao's supporters, Mao made no mistakes. 'In the future, when we look back on today, we will feel it wasn't a good time. We can't say what we like. We can't do what we like. With Mao, we trod the road of faith. After Mao, we tread the road of doubt. The road of doubt is better than the road of faith, but doubting has twisted human relations. We don't believe each other. There is no honesty.' Song Qiang 'We were about to go to military training but were told to gather on the playground after one of the teachers said something to our schoolmaster. Girls cried and boys wanted to, but we felt embarrassed crying. A classmate was eating an ice lolly and we criticised him, saying, 'How can you eat that ice lolly at a time like this?' Later that day I saw my father's eyes were red. He is a strong-willed man who seldom cries. 'The first question that popped into my mind was, 'What will happen now?' Who was going to take Mao's place? Wang Hongwen [member of the Gang of Four] or Hua Guofeng [Mao's designated successor]? We were politically mature for children. Then came the mourning ceremony. People cried but teenage boys like us felt embarrassed, although we still felt very sad. Like Zhang, Song, a Chongqing native, was confused by events of the time. 'We were a socialist country and we were the owners of the country. But there were still many beggars. There were slogans like 'Down with Deng Xiaoping' in Chongqing, 'Down with Li Xiannian' [who would later become president] in Wuhan and 'Down with Ye Jianying' in Guang-zhou. And I couldn't help wondering what was wrong with these leaders? What's wrong with the central government? Today, people say we followed Mao blindly and it was the lingering poison of feudality, but I don't think so. We respected him but didn't use that word. We said 'Long Live Mao'. In fact, we were educated to oppose feudalism. 'I would defend his position in history. He made many mistakes but he helped China complete its industrial revolution. There were social revolutions as well, such as the emancipation of women. We can't judge Mao by the standards of our era. We should judge him in the context of his time. You can't say, 'It was a bad time. We were the subjects of a feudal system and so on.' Some intellectuals are trying to deny Mao, demonise Mao. I can't support that.' Dai Qing, activist Dai Qing, China's best-known environmentalist and a former reporter who has written more than two dozen books, comes from a privileged family. After her father, Fu Daqing, a Communist intellectual, was killed by the Japanese in 1944, Dai was adopted by her father's friend Ye Jianying, who went on to become China's top marshal. In 1976, Ye toppled the Gang of Four. Dai, who used to work in a missile factory as an engineer, once venerated Mao, but began to turn against him during the Cultural Revolution. She was jailed after the 1989 democracy protests and today is fearless in calling for change. 'I don't remember the second I heard of his death. What I do remember clearly is that at the workplace I was in at the time, the Police First Research Institute, they set up a memorial hall and everyone had to go and bow and say goodbye. The institute employed over a thousand people and we formed this huge long line. In that long line, just one person was crying loudly. 'Boo hoo!' And we listened to that one person crying. Everyone looked at each other. Then we got to the big hall and held the memorial ceremony. Of course they said he was a great this and that, but what I remember very clearly is that usually when we had meetings I would knit and stuff, but at that meeting I was too embarrassed to knit, so I put my head on my arms and pretended to be crying. But actually I was asleep. 'The next thing after Mao died in September was the victory over the Gang of Four. The most important person in smashing the Gang of Four was Ye Jianying. We would watch him over dinner. We'd all be eating and we'd all be talking about how things were in Beijing, who had said what to whom. But Ye just sat there at the head of the table and didn't say a word. We talked on and on and he didn't say a word.A month later he got rid of them. 'When I was young I once wrote in my diary, 'What will happen if Mao should die? China would be finished! Could each of us young people donate a year of our life to make him live just one minute longer?' I really wrote that. But as I grew older I began to form my own opinions. Back then, I didn't know what I know about him today, but I already knew that, in fact, he was a Red Emperor who used Communist slogans as a cover. We were the People's Republic of China, but there was no republic. We were a kingdom. 'If we judge Mao by his personality or his skills, he was exceptional. He was a very good poet. He was a very good calligrapher. He was a very good actor who could give great speeches. These were all his personal traits. And if he'd been an ordinary person perhaps he'd have been rather lovable. But he was at the very top, and he wanted to be not just a Chinese genius; he wanted to lead the Third World, to be their great leader. He wanted to turn the world into an idealised place. China was too big to realise his dreams but the place where those dreams were realised was Cambodia, with Pol Pot. That was their experiment. It was totally Orwellian, like the book, 1984. Everyone was a tool. Everyone was an instrument. Mao wanted the world to be like that, but only succeeded in Cambodia. He tried to push China in that direction step by step, but it was impossible.'