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Mao's photographer remembers Great Helmsman

Photographer Huo Bo in her home in Beijing. Huo Bo was Chaiman Mao Zedong's personal photographer, documenting his rise to power before and during the founding of the People's Republic of China. 2009

Sean Gallagher Photography

Standing less than two metres from Mao Zedong as he stood on the rostrum overlooking Tiananmen Square, proclaiming that a new People's Republic had come to this ancient land, Hou Bo didn't have time to contemplate the moment. She just tried to hold her ground and take as many photographs as she could.

Ms. Hou went through all eight rolls of film that she brought with her that day, but the only shot that mattered on Oct. 1, 1949, was the frame of Mao singing out his historic words to a bank of silver microphones. Taken with her German-made Rolleiflex camera, it was a photograph seen around the world, and it helped launch one of the most pervasive personality cults in history.

"When Chairman Mao came to the tower and a woman's voice announced that he was on his way, the square suddenly became a boiling pot. There were 300,000 people screaming, 'May Chairman Mao live 10,000 years,'" Ms. Hou, now a frail but cheerful 85-year-old grandmother, recalled in an interview this week.

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Mao died in 1976, but the myth of the man lives on. He is viewed by many as one of history's worst murderers - Western historians estimate that 60 million or more may have died during the famine caused by his failed Great Leap Forward and the violence he unleashed during the Cultural Revolution.

But Mao's portrait still hangs on Tiananmen Square over the reviewing stands from which President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will watch soldiers, tanks and dancers during Thursday's massive anniversary parade.

Mao's embalmed corpse lies in state at the other end of the square, where tourists line up most mornings for the chance to file through the mausoleum and glimpse the man still revered by many as the Great Helmsman.

While modern China's defenders highlight how much the country has changed since the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, it hasn't evolved enough for Mao's successors to remove the sign exhorting "Long live invincible Mao Zedong thought!" from the outer gate of the leadership's Zhongnanhai compound in the centre of the Beijing.

China may have embraced market economic reforms three decades ago, but it's still Mao's ageless face on all the money that changes hands.

Ms. Hou ran away at 14 to join the Communists and spent much of her adult life as Mao's personal photographer. Had she done the same work in another country or another time, Ms. Hou might be famous or reviled or both. She snapped intimate photos of a very human Mao playing with children, and later looking fit at age 73 swimming in the mighty Yangtze River, and makes no apologies for the role she played in propagating the myth.

Even though she, with her impeccable Communist credentials, was arrested during the Cultural Revolution and sent to a labour camp, apparently because some of her photos of the chairman were judged to be less than flattering, she has nothing bad to say about the dictator in whose company she spent so much time. She is less fond, however, of his last wife, Jiang Qing, who was arrested after Mao's death and blamed, along with a cohort of political allies known as the Gang of Four, for many of the worst excesses of his rule.

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"I felt during the Cultural Revolution that Chairman Mao's physical condition was bad. The Gang of Four's mistakes couldn't be blamed on him," Ms. Hou said, repeating almost word-for-word the Communist Party's official line on the Cultural Revolution.

While Ms. Hou has long since hung up her camera, the myth of Mao is carried on by legions more true believers. Among them is his grandson, Mao Xinyu, a rotund 39-year-old who has been rapidly promoted through the ranks of the People's Liberation Army, successor to the Red Army that his grandfather led to victory over the Kuomintang, driving the Nationalists into lingering exile on the island of Taiwan.

Already a leading member of the Communist Party Youth League, General Mao - one of four grandchildren and Mao's only surviving male heir - is expected some time next year to become the country's youngest major general. His task, he says, is to uphold his grandfather's legacy and Mao Zedong thought.

Unlike many Chinese, who openly wonder what the chairman would have thought of the modern People's Republic, which has become an increasingly materialistic society since his death, General Mao believes his grandfather would smile down on today's China.

"I feel that [Chairman Mao]must be feeling happy in heaven. The long-lasting state he established is showing prosperity in industry, agriculture and national defence. The people are living so happily, which is also what the founding chairman would like to see," General Mao wrote on his personal blog.

The Founding of a Republic , a government-backed movie that was released Sept. 17 and is on pace to dislodge Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as the country's all-time box office champion, pushes the same idea. Mao is portrayed in the film as a hero who even in the first days after the Communist victory, was contemplating the need to allow some capitalism to exist in the People's Republic.

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Ms. Hou is less certain. She and her husband have spent their retirement in an apartment on the edge of Beijing's highly Westernized Sanlitun district, an area packed with Western clothing chains as well as salacious nightclubs and massage parlours.

"Old people like me, we like the traditional ways and the traditional things in our land," she said carefully, after repeating the Party mantra that today's China was living under "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

What would Mao think of the three-storey shopping complex down the street from her apartment, with its jam-packed Starbucks and McDonalds branches inside?

"I don't dare say," she replied with a giggle.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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