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the china diaries

Shown in a file photo taken sometime between 1934 and 1936 at their base in the Shaanxi province, China are, from right, Mao Zedong, Chu Teh, Chou En-Laiand Qin Bangxia. During the Long March the Red Army trudged 12,500 kilometers of treacherous terrain seeking a safe haven to regather under the command of revolutionary leader Mao.

Seven decades ago, Mao Zedong and his Red Army were surrounded and on the verge of defeat at the hands of the nationalist Kuomintang. The Communists broke out into coastal Guangdong province and began what became known as the Long March, a strategic retreat that took them west into China's interior and then north until they reached the safety of their base in the city of Yan'an, in Shaanxi province.

The much-mythologized march allowed the Communists to regroup for Mao's eventual victory in the Chinese civil war, setting the stage for the birth of the People's Republic in 1949.

Six decades on, photographer John Lehmann and I are – very loosely – retracing the route, travelling by rail along the path the Red Army walked, stopping along the way to examine the challenges Mao's latest successor, Xi Jinping, will face in the decade ahead.

How will Mr. Xi deal with the demands for greater press and democratic freedoms in Guangdong, the province where his father helped establish the first capitalist "special economic zones" in the early 1980s? What can he propose to help China's interior and west deal with the growing economic divide between urban and rural populations, as well as the mounting demographic challenges?

Will Mr. Xi continue to pursue growth at all costs, as his predecessors did, or will he apply the brake in part to spare the country from further environmental ruin? And what about the restive ethnic minorities?

The journey ends at Yan'an, which also happens to be near the cave where Mr. Xi lived for seven years after his father was purged by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Despite Mao's murderous excesses, his photo still hangs over Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and appears on every denomination of China's currency. He is still the primary symbol of the Party and the state.

Will Mr. Xi, a man who personally suffered under Mao, be the Chinese leader to speak openly about his crimes? If he doesn't, can China move forward fast enough to meet the growing demands of its people?

Mark MacKinnon, the Globe and Mail's China correspondent, and staff photographer John Lehmann are exploring China at a defining moment in its modern history. Travelling mainly by rail, they will roughly follow the path taken nearly 80 years ago by Mao Zedong and his beleaguered Red Army in what became known as the Long March – the legendary trek that led to the establishment of the People's Republic – to look at the challenges facing Mao's latest successor, Xi Jinping.