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In Mao Zedong’s hometown, statue industry loses shine but faith in the ‘Great Helmsman’ remains

Su Jun can recall clearly the days he spent as a child in his family’s workshop in central China’s Hunan province, where his father mixed pungent resin and smooth, cool plaster into small likenesses of Mao Zedong.

Su, now 27, says his father Miaogong was one of the first people to get into the Mao statue business in Shaoshan, the birthplace of the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, who died 40 years ago on Friday.

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In the early 1990s, the family only had a small workshop with a few hired hands, he said. “The basement was for casting, the ground floor was for fixing the details, such as filling tiny holes in the figurines, and the third floor was used to make boxes to pack the figurines with. We lived on the second floor,” Su said.

Over the decades, competitors have sprung up but his family is still the biggest statue maker in town, employing more than 100 workers and recording 10 million yuan (HK$11.6 million) in sales a year.

But demand is showing signs of crumbling, amid the slowing economy and the Chinese leadership’s call for the Communist Party to purify itself of corruption and return to its austere roots.

At least three of the companies making Mao statues have gone bankrupt, while about a half dozen remain. Aside from Su’s Fengyuan Industrial Limited, most have watched their profits, which used to be millions of yuan a year, fall by more than half.

Mao has become interwoven with the identity of Shaoshan, a county-level city with a population of 120,000. In Mao Zedong Square, a copper statue of the man rises 10 metres into the air. It was unveiled in 1993 for the 100th birthday of the late leader, with then president Jiang Zemin travelling from Beijing to perform the honours.

Many residents worship Mao religiously, praying before the likenesses for long life, good health and fortune.

This, despite Mao having been named as responsible for the death of tens of millions of lives during the Great Famine, as well as the persecution and torture of millions of intellectuals and critics during the Cultural Revolution.

“People in Shaoshan all regard Chairman Mao as god. Whenever there is a couple getting married, they will stop by the Mao Zedong Square to worship his statue on their wedding day,” said Ou Xinhe, 43, who owns Wangda Art Craft Manufacturer, another statue maker.

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Outside the square, Mao’s figurines and statues are constantly in sight – on taxi dashboards, restaurant counters and hotel lobbies. Whenever a large statue is “invited” – as the locals call it – into a home, office or shop, a consecration ceremony is usually held, overseen by local feng shui masters or Taoist priests.

Although some factories in the coastal provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu also produce Mao statues, those made in Shaoshan are deemed to have more “spirituality” and can better fulfil people’s wishes, which makes them more popular among tourists. Some loyal Mao believers spare no effort in making pilgrimages to Shaoshan from afar just to “invite” a statue of Chairman Mao home.

Ou said she “thanked Chairman Mao” for giving her and her husband a new life. Fifteen years ago, the couple were working at a food factory and raising their own pigs to survive. Now, they own three cars, including a BMW X5, which they brought for more than 800,000 yuan last year.

They run a 2,000-square-metre workshop with more than 10 workers, selling mainly resin statues to tourists and dealers from across the country. Key markets are other “red” tourism destinations that celebrate China’s communist past, such as Yanan and Jinggangshan.

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But Ou said the government’s drive to root out corruption and embrace austerity, along with the worsening economy, was affecting business. The number of officials using public funds to buy statues to give away as gifts had dwindled, and tourists had become more cautious in their spending.

“A few years ago, we could have 2 million yuan in sales a year. Now it’s barely over 1 million,” she said.

Shen Zhongbiao, who makes the statues out of copper, has been in the industry for 21 years. He said the “golden period” was from 1997 to 2003, when the materials, models and sizes of the statues proliferated.

He was sales manager for Golden Sun, created in 1997 when Su Miaogong collaborated with two government departments and a collectively owned company. “In 1998, Golden Sun handed in 2 million yuan in tax, which was an enormous figure in a small town like Shaoshan,” said Shen. It had a monopoly on the alloy versions of the statues but the company dissolved four years later.

Shen has done alright through his own company, having made at least 4 million yuan in total profits by 2010. But that year saw several new companies enter the industry and they drove down prices by flood of supply.

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Business was “becoming worse year by year”, he said, adding he now earns about 50,000 yuan in net profit annually.

He opened a factory making cement products four years ago, but said he would stay in the statue business, even if profits dried up.

“I’m not doing it as a business, but as a cause. I’ve developed an attachment towards the industry over the years … and I have a deep feeling towards Chairman Mao,” he said.

He expected the number of manufacturers to dwindle further and predicted only one or two would survive.

Even Fengyuan’s Su is feeling the pain. In the old days during the busy season, dealers would queue up outside the warehouse starting at 8am to pick up their orders. But the lines were gone now, Su said, and sales have fallen by a third in the past two years.

To cope with a sharp drop in sales, Fengyuan diverted part of its business to make statues of Buddhas and folk deities two years ago in order to stay in business.

Still, he’s adamant that Mao will always be in demand. “Any copper craft in the market might become obsolete, but statues of Chairman Mao will absolutely never be outdated under the Communist Party’s rule,” he said.

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“Shaoshan is Chairman Mao’s hometown, Moreover, since Xi Dada came to power, he has spoken highly of Chairman Mao and advocated red culture and faith [in communism],” Su said, referring to President Xi Jinping by his nickname.

Authorities have already stepped up efforts to promote Shaoshan’s legacy, he said. He would try new ideas to draw tourists, allowing them to take part in the manufacturing stages themselves.

“I have pretty strong faith in this regard, I believe the market will become bigger and bigger,” he said.

“In fact, it is Chairman Mao that I have strong faith in. His influence is still very strong, no matter in China or all around the world.”

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