Chairman's last stand

21:41, Jan 27 2014
Tiananmen Square
CONTROVERSIAL SQUARE: Tourists visit the Tiananmen Square.

It's 8am at Tiananmen Square and as usual there is a pall of pollution hanging over Beijing, like a menacing cloud in a Michael Leunig cartoon. There are masses of people here, even this early in the day.

They come to see the sunrise flag-raising ceremony, the adjacent Forbidden City where emperors once lived, and to view the stark Soviet-like buildings that ring one of the world's biggest and most controversial squares.

They also come to see a dead man dressed in a grey Sun Yat-Sen-style tunic suit. Sometimes the pilgrims queue for two hours and more than a kilometre to glimpse him. It is perhaps one of the world's longest tourist queues.

Chairman Mao Zedong's embalmed body lies in a 20,000-square-metre mausoleum in the square.

The building is surrounded by boyish paramilitary guards in green shirts with red lapels who stand stiffly and wave me away when I try to photograph them.

The Mao Zedong Mausoleum is a grandiose structure, put together by thousands of labourers using various materials including Mount Everest rock and Sichuan granite as unshakeable as Mao's self-belief in his brutish doctrines.


The mausoleum was finished in 1977, a year after Mao's death from a heart attack, and is flanked by statues depicting revolution and toiling peasants.

The line of people waiting to lay flowers at his statue and to see the dictator, nicknamed The Great Helmsman, wraps around the mausoleum. It is orderly, unusual for China where queue jumping is commonplace, and quiet.

Why such a memorial exists to honour a communist revolutionary leader who starved, tortured and executed his people is the subject of debate.

University of Melbourne academic Dr Gao Jia says many visitors are Chinese from remote areas. "Many go to Beijing to try McDonald's, KFC and see Mao, probably because he is free. The younger generation in Beijing and the urban dwellers don't really care about the building or the body inside," says Beijing-born Dr Gao.

"I think a majority of people don't like Mao but he is still the person representing the ruling party. The queue has to be put into context; the population of China is so big."

The Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Chanel stores at nearby shopping malls might cause Mao some concern - if he could rise from his crystal coffin. But Tiananmen Square itself still resonates. In 1989 the square was the scene of a six-week protest for democracy and political reform that ended when the Chinese People's Liberation Army used strong-arm tactics to disperse protestors.

The iconic image of the confrontation is of a tank halted by a man carrying two white plastic shopping bags. The official Chinese figure is that 241 died but the Chinese Red Cross reports 2600 protesters were killed.

A student at the square tells me many Chinese are still unaware of the protest. Dr Gao confirms that most Chinese do not know of it. "But these days you can criticise whatever you want wherever you are, except in one place - Tiananmen Square," he says.

"You can't shout out slogans or hold up a banner there, but everywhere else, from a university classroom to a community party meeting, you are free to criticise."

The writer travelled courtesy of Helen Wong's Tours.


GETTING THERE Fly to Hong Kong and then to Beijing (3hrs 10mins). See

STAYING THERE The Marriott Beijing City Wall is close to key attractions such as Tiananmen Square and the city's silk market - a must-do bargaining and shopping experience. See

TOURING THERE Helen Wong's Tours has a five-day tour by car of Beijing, with driver and guide. Prices from about $830 a person, including hotel, breakfast, lunch, a Peking duck dinner, kung-fu show and airport transfers.