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What's in a Face? Portrait Shift Hints At China's Next Step

For this May Day, Beijing hangs picture of a man who ruled pre-communist China.

In a ritual held every May Day since the 1949 communist revolution, red flags have been draped around Tiananmen Square - the pantheon of Chinese politics.

A huge image of Chairman Mao Zedong above the arched Gate of Heavenly Peace stands sentinel over the vast square. But some of the painted icons that once looked down on the workers-day festivities have slowly disappeared.

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Portraits of Stalin and Lenin were not put up after China's ties with Moscow cooled in the 1960s. Those of 19th-century philosophers Marx and Engel departed in 1989 when the world's most populous nation shifted in a new direction.

"Since the Army's march on Tiananmen [in 1989], the party has searched for new role models and new ideals outside the communist system to regain the allegiance of the people," says a university lecturer in Beijing, who did not want to be named.

Lately, in a sign of a new future, a portrait of Sun Yat-sen has replaced the communist giants. A reformist who ruled after the last emperor and before the founding of the Communist Party, Sun is hailed as the founder of modern China on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, because he ruled before the civil war that split the nation between Taiwan and the Communist-ruled mainland.

"Placing Sun in Tiananmen Square for May 1 is an appeal to nationalism and unity for Chinese everywhere, regardless of political outlook," the lecturer says.

"It could be part of the party's drive to replace communist ideology with a more neutral authoritarianism based on traditional Chinese values and national pride," he adds.

Chinese and American scholars agree that the recent deaths of revolutionary leaders Deng Xiaoping and Peng Zhen could help a younger generation of rulers navigate China into the next century by jettisoning some of the hard-line principles of the past. Like Deng, Peng held no official posts when he died several days ago, but was still considered part of a small group of Communist elites who held immense power in the wings of China's political stage.

Both were founding members of the party, rose through the ranks of the Red Army during the revolution, and backed a military solution to the student-led protests for democracy in 1989.

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The exit of Peng, described as "China's last Stalinist" in the Hong Kong press, is "likely to move China in the direction of a post-Tiananmen future," says Anne Thurston, a China scholar based in Washington. "Sun Yat-sen may eventually replace Mao's portrait above the Gate of Heavenly Peace, but it's nearly impossible to predict the contours of 21st-century China," adds Ms. Thurston, co-author of "The Private Life of Chairman Mao."

"The Chinese leadership needs new guiding values besides nationalism, but I don't think Beijing really knows where it's going," she says.

China has to come to terms with its past, she adds, before it can map out its future.

"Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution destroyed traditional China, but in its place created only class hatred, violence, and disillusionment," says a former democracy activist who asked not to be identified.

Who are the heroes now?

"Although the reform era of the 1980s led people once more to dream that a savior could arise from the party, the June 4, 1989 attack on Tiananmen killed those illusions for most," he adds. "Few Chinese youths look to Tiananmen any more for heroes." Instead, "pop stars, rich entrepreneurs, even the gangsters in films and pulp fiction have become heroes or antiheroes for nearly an entire generation of Chinese."

The quest for new guiding figures and principles during China's rapid and sometimes chaotic social changes, some say, has burgeoned among the nation's 800 million peasants. There has been a rise of cult figures who promise riches, longevity, or some sort of salvation in some areas of the countryside.

And in one of the most curious twists of Chinese history, Mao, who spent much of his life attacking superstitious thinking, is being transformed into a folk deity, says Thurston.

"China has a long history of elevating great military leaders into supernatural heroes, and Mao is becoming an angry god that has to be appeased with alms," she says. "In Mao's hometown, villagers have built a great imperial tomb for Mao and light incense before his statue."

Even among better-educated, urban residents, interest in religion is gaining ground, say Chinese scholars, and that in turn has the party leadership worried.

"The government is trying to put out the 'bush fires' of cult leaders and their followers wherever they break out, along with waging a low-profile crackdown on established religions," says a social science researcher here.

Party's 'mandate of heaven'

For thousands of years, China's emperors were leaders of not only the temporal world, but also spiritual life, and they were believed to be mediums between the heavens and the Earth.

"The party has lost the 'mandate of heaven,' and is experimenting with using nationalism, Confucianism, and the promise of prosperity to regain its moral authority," he says.

But it appears nationalism alone will not fill the void created by the disintegration of communist beliefs.

"Of course, all Chinese will unite to oppose any threats to the country's sovereignty over Taiwan or Tibet, but that is not the same as active support for the party," the lecturer says.

"The party's renewed respect for Sun Yat-sen is admirable," he says. "But merely changing symbols at Tiananmen Square will not reignite the idealism that filled most Chinese during the founding of the People's Republic or during the [pro-democracy protests] in 1989."

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