Beijing Sixty seconds face to face with Mao Zedong

Frédéric Lemaître, correspondent of Le Monde in Beijing, finally had the rare experience of “seeing” the remains of Mao Zedong.

The Mao Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square (photo)

In his “Letter from Beijing” published in the 30th edition of Le Monde, Lemaître describes how he finally got in after “passing five hurdles”. In this centennial year of the Communist Party, the author says, it was necessary to visit the Mao Memorial Hall in order to fit in with the commemorative atmosphere around it.

The author writes that people knew there was a “grand gathering” and that Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party, was going to give a speech, but where? When, however, remains a secret. I think it will be in Beijing, on July 1, the day the Communist Party was founded, and we know there will be many performances, exhibitions and films. We also know that there will be many performances, exhibitions and movies, and that old members who have been members of the Party for more than 50 years and have “honourably completed the tasks of the Party” will receive a “July 1st medal”. Among the 91.9 million members of the CPC, there are about 7.1 million such people. It is also known that there will be no parade of the three armies on Party Day.

The author goes on to tell his experience of entering the memorial hall, into a mausoleum of Mao, who led China from 1949 until his death on September 9, 1976, and who himself still wants to be cremated, does not come naturally, especially to a foreign journalist.

Since September 1, 2020, all visitors have to register online in advance to set a Time to visit, and the memorial hall is only open in the morning. A subway ride straight to Tiananmen Square just a dozen meters from the Memorial Hall was no problem for traffic, but not easy in this square of 440,000 square meters where you can’t even see the shadow of a chair.

As soon as the reporter and his assistant exited the subway, they were met by a police officer who blocked them and asked; “What do you do?” The first check was made, and then they went along the underground passage away from the mausoleum to the plaza at the east end, where there is a checkpoint, and all visitors must now enter through that end.

They had just revealed their heads from the underground passage when two policemen surrounded them, one on each side, escorting at the perfect angle. Once again, ID cards were checked. One of the policemen said he knew they were registered, but that foreign journalists had to have a permit. But the policeman was “nice”: “In principle, I should take you to the office dedicated to journalists. Today, I have no other work, so I will accompany you to the Memorial Hall, but on condition that you promise not to work in Tiananmen Square”, no photos, no interviews. He had a camera fixed on his clothes and all our conversations were recorded.

The police took us to the front of the line, behind which there were already 30 or so Chinese waiting to punch their tickets in line, again checked, searched, X-ray scanned backpacks, and in between, the talkative policeman spoke up again, having earned a master’s degree in English in the UK before the Summer Olympics in Beijing, having also been to France and speaking some French, and asked the reporter: “Do you see Mbappe in Barcelona played, scored three goals in a row, superb”.

The reporter, who had been waiting for thirty minutes, nodded impatiently, but the French fan was still excited and asked the reporter “who is the coach of the French team”, and the reporter hesitated: “Deschamps, isn’t it?” The policeman said cheerfully: “No, Deschamps has retired, you are really not interested in soccer.”

The journalist and his assistant finally entered the memorial hall with a police “escort”, once again checking ID cards and taking temperatures, and the staff warned: “No talking, no stopping, no taking pictures inside”.

Before visiting Mao’s body, all visitors came to a marble statue of “the great helmsman sitting on a sofa”, where the last foreign leaders took pictures with Mao, Castro came in 1995, his brother Raul also came, and the last was Venezuelan President Maduro, in 2018.

Xi Jinping has visited twice since he became president, once on Dec. 26, 2013, the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth, and once on Sept. 30, 2019, the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding.

There were few visitors to the memorial, but police urged them to move quickly and finally enter the “Holy of Saints,” guarded by several soldiers and men in long black coats, where Mao, covered with a Communist Party flag, lies in a crystal coffin with his head facing north toward the Forbidden City where his own portrait hangs. Mao’s face was orange in color and his expression amazingly serene. It was a far cry from the state his doctors described him as being in before he died. Of course, it was impossible to walk up to it and see it, not even at a slow pace. The whole visit took less than a minute.