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CHINA. Hangzhou. A young couple sit next to the famous West Lake. 2009 (Sean Gallagher Photography)
CHINA. Hangzhou. A young couple sit next to the famous West Lake. 2009 (Sean Gallagher Photography)


Mao's revolution at 60: He wouldn't recognize it Add to ...

This Thursday, as tanks and missiles roll through Tiananmen Square in Beijing and fireworks explode overhead to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, a retired factory worker will gather with her children and grandchildren in this historic city on China's booming east coast, and sigh a little - regret mixed with relief - at what those six decades have brought them.

Ms. Wu, the factory worker, was a 13-year-old girl listening to the radio with her schoolmates when Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic on Oct. 1, 1949. She and the others cheered at the time, because it meant the long war between the Communists and the Kuomintang was finally over.

She soon got caught up in the fervour of those early days of the revolution, sporting a red scarf and leading a youth group as landlords were evicted from their plots. A decade later, she wound up on the other side of that political divide when her husband - a professor at Beijing University - was denounced as a "rightist" and sent to the countryside for three years of re-education-through-labour.

"I was left to raise four children by myself," Ms. Wu, 73, says matter-of-factly. More than three decades on, she won't let her full name be used, still trained to be worried that just telling her story could land her in trouble. "It's not good to publicize some things."

The carefully orchestrated pageantry of this week will portray the Communist Party as having made this country of 1.3 billion into an economic and military superpower over the past 60 years. There's truth in that, but the story of the past six decades is also one of a strikingly resilient people who endured one of history's cruellest regimes for the first 30 years of Communist rule, then sprinted forward as soon as their shackles were loosened.

This forgetting will have terrible results. It will make us weak to prevent the same things from happening again Dissident Chinese lawyer Zhuang Daohe

How China grew from a backwards country of 540 million people in 1949 to the rapidly modernizing, third-largest economy in the world is a story that - for all the recent success - pitted a paranoid and murderous regime against its own people for long periods. Much of that history was written on the shores of West Lake, the graceful heart of this little-known city. It was here that Mao worked on the constitution of his People's Republic and conjured up the purges of the Cultural Revolution. Former U.S. president Richard Nixon visited West Lake during his breakthrough visit to China in 1972.

But it's a past that remains largely buried and unaddressed, forgotten by all sides in the name of letting the country carry on its current upward trajectory.

Ms. Wu's husband's name was eventually rehabilitated in 1978, but the damage was done. "He was affected physically. He was very healthy before," Ms. Wu says, her voice drifting off. Her husband never fully recovered, and he died a decade ago.

Like many Chinese, times got better for the family after Mao died and was succeeded by the diminutive Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Deng irrevocably changed the direction of the country by opening it to the outside world and embracing the market economy. The silk factory where Ms. Wu worked in this scenic coastal town got busier, and wages gradually rose. She retired with a pension, and she and her husband had enough money to put all four of their children through university.

"In the beginning, we were short of money and couldn't even send the children to kindergarten," she said, pride seeping into her voice as she neared the end of her tale. "Now they have several apartments each. Except for my son who moved to America."

When the Red Army arrived in Hangzhou in early 1949, it entered a war-battered and predominantly agricultural city of 1.2 million people, situated around West Lake, a vast and placid body of water ringed by parklands and pagodas. In the new government's first five-year economic plan for the country - there have been 11 - it was decreed that Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, should be a "Geneva of the East."

In a time of disastrous economic moves, the decision to spare Hangzhou the heavy industry that fouls the air of so many Chinese cities was a stroke of good fortune. Mao came to love the tranquillity of the place, and stayed here at the State Guesthouse on the shore of West Lake in 1953 as he went over his draft constitution for the People's Republic. In all, the chairman made more than 40 visits to the city, and Hangzhou is dotted with monuments to him.

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