China Enters Next Millennium

Fifty years ago, Mao Tse-tung declared China a communist state.
To the Western world, this seemed like a hostile course of action, instigated by an unfriendly leader. But throughout China inhabitants still cherish the legacy of a man they called the "Great Helmsman."

And as CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Barry Petersen reports, the world's most populous country may be headed for an uncertain and perhaps dangerous future.

In the remote heart of China, Lou Da Shan and his assistant are on the road again. Around these parts, he's known as Mr. Movie.

In the early days after Mao Tse-tung came to power 50 years ago, people like him criss-crossed China, showing peasants propaganda films celebrating the glories of communism.

Mr. Movie doesnÂ't require a theater, as he brings his own screen. And while he sets up his projector and threads the film, local kids excitedly transform the village square into a Cinema Paradiso.

"We used to show many films about Mao and his wife," Shan says proudly. But this particular eveningÂ's feature is no propaganda film. ItÂ's about a rich entrepreneur who used to drive an army tank.

Welcome to the "new China."

But Mao isn't relegated to any communist dustbin of history - no one is tearing this communist leader's statue down. Instead, they spruced up for a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of communism.

"He changed the face of China for the 20th century and perhaps for the centuries to come," says former U.S. Ambassador to China James Sasser, who says Mao is the countryÂ's founding father.

"Mao was the first Chinese leader to effectively put China on the road to modernization," Sasser says.

Celebrating 50 Years
of the People's Republic of China
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Mao seized a feudal country run by warlords and destitute after years of civil war. He reigned supreme until his death in 1976 and changed China in brutal ways.

He tried to speed industrialization by having peasants melt every piece of iron from pots to farm implements. It was his "Great Leap Forward," and it triggered a famine that killed an estimated 30 million people.

He launched the Cultural Revolution, turning children on their parents, sending millions into the countryside. Only after his death did the next generation of leaders begin shedding hard-line communism for freewheeling capitalism without, of course, surrendering any political control.

So do the Chinese hate him? Not in the least. Every day they flock to his birthplace in Shao-shawn to remember the Great Helmsman.

"I think he is very great.Â…He had founded new China," declares one student. "Made a very great effort for all the Chinese people."

To see where Mao's proletariat revolution went, look across the rice paddy and see the Mao restaurant. Tang Ruiren turned a lucky photo opportunity with Mao 40 years ago into a capitalist coup.

Without Mao, Ruiren tells the lunch crowd in an impromptu speech, "I wouldn't be as famous as I am now." Nor, it turns out, would she be as rich. She has this Mao restaurant and now there are 16 more across China. For her, Mao means making money.

Over a dish of braised pork, a specialty of the house since it was a Mao favorite, she offered a bit of logic as artful as her cooking.

"I'm sure Mao would like this new China," she insists of the man who banned private ownership. Mao had a saying: Conditions change, so policies must change.

But no matter what the rest of the world thinks, in Mao's birthplace, he is the local hero who made good. In fact, this ultimate communist has been transformed into something of a capitalist cottage industry. And with every bust or trinket, they sell the same story: China would not be what it is today if it were not for Mao Tse-tung.

For a few dollars, anyone can take a bit of Mao home, said by locals to bring luck. But Mao is more than just a few trinkets to some people.

The chairman's nephew, Mao An-Ping, remains a true believer and a card-carrying member of the Communist Party his uncle established: "Without the party, we wouldn't be where we are today.Â…The party will take us into the future," he says.

China has probably seen more change since the days that Mao came to power than any other time in its recent history. What held the country together was the all-powerful Communist Party. But there is no guarantee the party, or its power, will last another 50 years.

Communism has failed in other countries, and the prospect of it failing China worries former Ambassador Sasser.

"In the event theirs is a failed state, you would have mass migration, a mass exodus of this 1.3 billion Chinese literally all over, to all points in the world," Sasser explains.

"China is a nuclear power. And we would not want to have warlords, once again, emerging in China as they did in the 1920s and 1930s, and in this instance having access to nuclear weapons," he says.

For now, the Chinese are focused on growing their economy. Traditional dragons open modern shopping centers. And if China stays on this path, the country that emerges may look surprisingly familiar.

"In many ways, China reminds me of what I've read about America at the beginning of this century when the United States was just becoming a world power, and the United States and the people of our country were starting to flex their muscles around," Sasser continues.

"Well, the Chinese are starting to feel that way now as they approach the year 2000," he says.

Mao changed a whole country. But the voices of the new Chinese dream speak of money, not Mao. And for the Great Helmsman, that may be the cruelest fate of all: to be remembered, but in the new China, to no longer matter.