China’s President Xi Jinping on Thursday strongly defended the legacy of former leader Mao Zedong as the country marked his 120th anniversary amid increasing calls from some Chinese scholars for a more transparent debate about his failings, which are still glossed over in official accounts and school textbooks.

Mr. Xi described Mao as “a great figure who changed the face of the nation and led the Chinese people to a new destiny”, calling for “a correct historical view.”

“Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings,” he said in a speech at a symposium held at the Great Hall of the People, or Parliament building, to mark the anniversary.

“We cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great; neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes,” he said.

Mr. Xi’s account of Mao’s positives and negatives will likely come under criticism from Chinese historians and scholars who have increasingly pushed for a more open debate about Mao’s legacy.

“The government tries to cover Mao’s crimes,” noted economist and liberal intellectual Mao Yushi (no relation to Mao Zedong) told The Hindu in an interview.

“In textbooks, there is nothing about Mao’s crimes. It never talks about the three years’ great famine, how many people died. The young generation does not know the past history. The history they study is fabricated history, so it gets people’s ideas very confused”, he said.

The Global Times, a tabloid published by the People’s Daily, on Thursday hit out at China’s “liberals” for “belittling Mao’s role in Chinese history”.

“They are trying to ignite political conflicts in China by totally repudiating Mao,” an editorial said. “We can tell most of these detractors have ulterior motives to tarnish Mao’s image and legacy to impede China's rejuvenation”.

According to independent Chinese studies, more than 30 million people perished in the famine that followed Mao’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward” campaign of 1958. Tens of millions were also persecuted during the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-76), as Mao’s Red Guards rampaged across China as he consolidated his power and eliminated his rivals.

Among those who faced persecution then was Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, who later emerged as an influential liberal leader and supporter of economic reforms.

As a member of the increasingly influential group of “princelings” – or second Red generation leaders as they are known in China – Mr. Xi has been careful to defend Mao’s legacy, seeing it as an issue tied to the Communist Party’s own legitimacy.

On Thursday, he elaborately described Mao’s contributions in “revolution, anti-imperial and anti-feudal struggles, and building a Socialist society.”

As to Mao’s failures, Mr. Xi only said: “Comrade Mao Zedong’s mistakes in his later years have their subjective factors and personal responsibility, and complicated social and historical reasons both at home and abroad also played their part. They should be viewed and analysed comprehensively, historically and dialectically”.

“We should not simply attribute the success in historical favourable circumstances to individuals, nor should we blame individuals for setbacks in adverse situation,” he said. “We cannot use today’s conditions and level of development and understanding to judge our predecessors, nor can we expect the predecessors to have done things that only the successors can do”.

For the party, the idea of Mao remains a central platform in its official propaganda, even though, in reality, the CPC has discarded Maoism as it pushed forward economic reforms. Leaders routinely invoke Mao in their campaigns to address public anxieties over rampant corruption in the party and widening inequality.

Mr. Xi on Thursday said the CPC was still implementing some of Mao’s ideas, such as “mass line” campaigns to bring the party closer to the masses, and to “seriously treat illnesses which harm the nature and purity of the Party and rip out any malignant tumours on the healthy bodies of the CPC.”

More In: World | International | News