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Chinese Leaders Carefully Cultivate Image of Mao on His Centennial

WANG YING does not think he looks much like Mao Zedong.

But some Communist Party officials, military leaders, and key movie producers who discovered Mr. Wang in a small theater troupe, say he does. And that has made the 37-year-old actor hot property during the nostalgic, politically charged birth centenary of Communist China's founding father.

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During the run-up to the Dec. 26 anniversary, Wang, who in person only vaguely resembles the late Great Helmsman, has made ``The Fall Armed Uprising,'' ``Mao at Jinguang Mountain,'' and other Mao blockbusters that are standard fare this year in the propagandistic Chinese cinema.

In the last few years, there have been no fewer than 20 movies and television series depicting the Chinese leader, who has remained a controversial cult figure since his death in 1976.

Wang's family suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution, and many fled abroad. But that does not bother Wang, who says he has no qualms about depicting Mao. ``I didn't have much respect for him at the beginning .... But my respect and admiration for Mao grew .... I have a cherished memory of Mao from the point of view of an actor,'' Wang says cautiously.

Confronting a powerful wave of Mao nostalgia, authorities are carefully nurturing the politically correct image of Mao: He made ``serious mistakes'' but still ``led the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people in overthrowing the rule of imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism in China,'' said a recent commentary in the People's Daily.

Analysts say the ruling Communists, who are jettisoning Marxism for market-style reforms, are struggling to show continuity since the founding of the Party and are glossing over contradictions between Maoism and economic realities in China.

Supporters of Deng Xiaoping, worry that hard-line Party officials are trying to overturn economic reforms and to encourage nostalgia for the past among Chinese uneasy about the chaotic transition to a capitalist-oriented economy.

``The Chinese people are deeply worried that what happened in the Soviet Union will happen in China. Against this background, people have come to cherish the memory of Mao Zedong,'' said an essay in a conservative magazine.

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Still, the Communist Party can brook no alternative views. Last week, the Chinese government protested against the screening of a BBC documentary in Britain. The program, based on revelations by Mao's former physician and other former officials, crossed Communist propriety by depicting Mao as a sex-crazed aficionado of young women. The Foreign Ministry reacted angrily and said the BBC would be held responsible for the broadcast. However, no details of what that retribution might be were revealed. The documentary comes at a touchy time when China and Britain are bitterly divided over the political future of Hong Kong.

``He is seen as the father of the People's Republic and the unifier of the country,'' said Sidney Rittenberg, an American who spent 35 years in China and was both befriended and imprisoned by Mao. ``He is also seen as a great tyrant and destroyer.''

But for many in China, Mao is also seen as a commercial jackpot. In the hype preceding the anniversary, the late leader has inspired new songs and memorabilia.

In Shaoshan, the once-neglected village of Mao's birth, residents have raised a 3.5 ton bronze statue and renovated his home as a tourist site. Hundreds visit daily.

When Wang, the actor, was first chosen to play the young Mao, he was given two weeks to prepare himself. ``I had to take a short cut so I [was] sent to Shaoshan, talked to the old people who knew him ...,'' the actor recalls. Since then, Wang has gone far, in part through the patronage of military officials who like the nostalgia of the actor's films.

The Mao bonanza has drawn a lot of look-alike acting competition. Gu Yue, the actor who has most frequently played Mao on film, is charging more than $1,000 for an appearance and has started speaking and walking like Mao off-screen Chinese news reports say. ``He doesn't have a real understanding of Mao,'' sniffs Wang, who earns more than $600 per film. ``In acting, the actor has to think and to be Mao. But in real life, it is wrong to expect others to treat him like Mao.''

Wang says his dream is to learn English and portray the late Chinese leader in director Oliver Stone's proposed epic on Mao, which, not surprisingly, has been rejected for shooting in China by Beijing's leadership.

And even as the centenary year comes to an end, Wang still thinks he has a long career ahead of him. ``Mao was a great man. I think I will have a lot of chances to portray him in the future.''

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