Thousands of Chinese people are swarming the hometown of late leader Mao Zedong to commemorate Friday’s 40th anniversary of his death amid tight security.
Hundreds of security officers roamed the main square in the city of Shaoshan, Hunan province, ready to root out any sign of troublemakers.
The biggest anniversary commemoration of Mao’s death in the past decade started with a small gathering of only four dozen people in front of a huge bronze statue of the late leader in the square late on Thursday night.
At 10 minutes past midnight on Friday, the time Mao reportedly died, the quiet of the night was broken by long wails of grief from mourners and the music of revolutionary songs blasting through a loud speaker.
The group took turns to kneel before and kowtow to the statue.
Some people laid wreaths, others put down sacrificial offerings such as liquor and cigarettes and performed a traditional Chinese rite.
By 8am on Friday morning, the square was filled with hundreds of people paying tribute to the former Great Helmsman.
The front of the base of Mao’s statue was covered with dozens of wreaths. Flags of Mao’s portraits and banners of revolutionary slogans fluttered in the wind. Revolutionary songs and chants of “long live chairman Mao” sounded across the square.
The owner of a noodle shop next to the square said she had never seen such a large crowd on the anniversary of Mao’s death during the 10 years she had run her business.
“On September 9 last year it was all quiet, with few people here. They usually come on his birthday and around Lunar New Year,” she said.
Hundreds of veterans of the Sino-Vietnamese War, fought briefly along the border in early 1979, had gathered from across the country, showing up in military uniforms and marching into the square in tight formation.
Mao impersonators also walked around the square, dressed in Mao suits with their hair combed back, attracting flocks of people who eagerly asked to be photographed beside them.
Even Buddhist monks and nuns came to bow before the former Communist leader, despite the atheist nature of the Communist Party.
Many elderly people who came to commemorate Mao who had lived through his era expressed their yearning for the past, despite the tough living conditions and political turbulence.
Under Mao’s rule, tens of millions of lives vanished during the three-year Great Famine; millions more intellectuals and critics were prosecuted and tortured during the Cultural Revolution.
But some Mao believers said they remember those times differently.
“Your impressions on the Cultural Revolution are very different from ours,” said Gao Fei, 53, a veteran from Guangzhou, who was born three years after the decade-long political turmoil kicked off.
“For us, although people were poor and material conditions were lacking at the time, people’s spiritual conditions were good.
“Back then, we all had a certain degree of faith … Now it is a complete mess. People have nothing to believe in, but money,” he said.
Chen Fangjiao, 71, from rural Zhejiang, was choked with tears as she knelt in front of Mao’s statue.
“My family was extremely poor in the past, my six siblings and I used to beg on the streets,” she said.
“After Chairman Mao came into power, he confiscated the lands from landlords and gave them to us: that was how my family survived.
“My father had urged me on his deathbed that I should never forget Chairman Mao. That’s why I came,” she said.