At 4pm on 9 September 1976, Chinese state radio announced that Chairman Mao Zedong had passed away shortly after midnight. The 16-hour delay likely had something to do with the uncertainty the Communist Party (CPC) feared the news might precipitate: theNew York Times reported that ‘[t]he announcement included an appeal to the people to uphold the unity of the party that he had headed’.

Mao had been one of the few constants since the CPC came to power in 1949 but, in the last years of his life and in failing health, he’d neglected to draw up a viable succession plan. Zhou Enlai, his closest comrade and fellow Great March veteran, had passed away in January that same year. Liu Shaoqi, long the third most powerful man in China, was purged during the Cultural Revolution, labelled a ‘capitalist-roader’ and, after years of mistreatment and medical neglect, left to rot in Kaifeng, a remote city in Henan province – he died in 1969. Following Liu’s purging, Lin Biao, one of the first and most significant cultivators of the Mao cult, was rewarded for his work during the Cultural Revolution and designated the Great Helmsman’s successor. But in 1971, Lin died when his plane crashed over Mongolia. The official Chinese narrative is that Lin was fleeing to the Soviet Union after his plans to assassinate Mao and lead a coup were exposed. This is almost certainly false, but what did happen and why will likely never be known.

Mao’s death, in other words, came at a time of considerable instability within the top ranks of the CPC. Huo Guofeng had taken over the premiership after Zhou’s death and was Mao’s most obvious successor, but his place within the party was hardly assured. Deng Xiaoping – who went on to lead China’s economic transition – eventually outmanoeuvred him and became the nation’s paramount leader a few years later.

This uncertainty within the CPC in the immediate aftermath of Mao’s death lay bare the extent to which the party had become an appendage to one man’s rule.

For many westerners who travel to China today, the continued idolisation of Mao can seem, well, strange. His portrait still hangs over Tiananmen, watching over himself, where he lies in state in a mausoleum built in the centre of the square. I’ve seen grown men – old enough to have lived through the Great Leap Forward and the ensuing famine – sobbing upon seeing the waxen revolutionary lying in his glass tomb.

There seem more likely national heroes, particularly given the great suffering experienced during Mao’s rule. Sun Yat-sen, for example, is known as the ‘Father of the Nation’ for the role he played in overthrowing the Qing dynasty. And, more recently, China’s rise has largely been achieved off the back of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms: China, today, unquestionably represents a force far closer to Deng’s than Mao’s vision. So why then does Mao’s cult of personality persist?

The answer is twofold and has to do with China’s conception of itself and its place in the world, both now and in the future. There is a fundamental difference in the way the West and China think about the changing global order. Whereas the West sees the emergence of an Asian superpower as something unprecedented and potentially destabilising, China views its rise as a return to the natural order of things – to a time when it is, once again, the world’s leading economic, technological and intellectual power.

The only reason China sees itself as having ever been displaced from its rightful position was because of foreign intervention and imperialism, which forced a series of ‘unequal treaties’ upon the nation and ushered in a period commonly referred to as ‘the century of humiliation’. Broadly speaking, the First Opium War (1839–1842), in which the Qing dynasty attempted to block British demands to allow the importation of Indian-grown opium, marks the beginning of this period. This led to the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing, which resulted in the imposition of reparations, the loss of Hong Kong and the creation of four treaty ports in which the British enjoyed special concessions. But things began to change more significantly with the Second Opium War (1857–1860), which culminated in British and French troops looting and burning the Summer Palace in Beijing (an act of destruction that was carried out on the orders of the son of another of history’s great vandals – Lord Elgin). The resulting Treaty of Tianjin and the Beijing Conventions established a host of new treaty ports in which western citizens were granted extra-territoriality, the right to foreign military bases was conceded, missionaries were permitted to operate freely in the country, the importation of opium was legalised, more reparations were imposed and foreign legations were established in Beijing. China was once again humiliated when easily defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894). With the resulting Treaty of Shimonoseki, which imposed further reparations on the beleaguered Qing, the illusion of Chinese superiority had, by then, been all but obliterated.

The humiliation continued into the twentieth century, culminating in the Japanese invasion in the early stages of what would come to be known as the Second World War. At the time, Mao’s Communists was fighting a civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. Shortly after the Japanese invasion in 1937 they agreed to cease attacking one other, formed an uneasy alliance and committed to focussing their efforts on defeating the foreign invader. Following Japan’s surrender after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the civil war resumed and, when the Communists won and assumed power, the historical record was doctored and they took sole credit for expelling the Japanese (a narrative that’s still taught in schools today). The ‘century’ was finally brought to a close when, on 1 October 1949, Mao stood atop Beijing’s Gate of Heavenly Peace and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Today, this ‘century’ underlies much of China’s nationalist rhetoric, the subtext of which is that Mao was responsible for bringing an end to the age of imperialism. It’s for this reason, above all else, that he continues to hold an unrivalled position within modern Chinese history.

The other reasons for Mao’s continued prominence has to do with the CPC’s legitimacy. President Xi Jinping, in uncharacteristic frankness, articulated as much at the party’s 18thNational Congress in 2012: ‘Just imagine,’ he said, ‘how our party could be tenable if we abandoned [the spirit] of Comrade Mao Zedong. Our socialistic system … the whole country would fall into chaos.’

The CPC’s concern about party unity in the immediate aftermath of Mao’s death is illustrative in understanding why their rule would become untenable if the Great Helmsman’s legacy and place in China’s historical narrative were trashed. The CPC’s top cadres were worried that the party’s legitimacy derived from Mao’s personality cult, rather than any ideological commitment to socialism. Thus, in the early days following Mao’s death, the CPC – weary that an divergence from the Maoist status quo could provide a pretext for instability – continued to venerate Mao and talk about realising their socialist vision.

When Deng began to introduce economic reforms in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the CPC continued to talk about socialism with Chinese characteristics while it implemented free market reforms. This was not without significant political risk, since it all but undercut one of the sources – a commitment to socialism, that is – from which the CPC derived its legitimacy. In this changing environment, Mao’s cult of personality became more important to the party than ever. At a time when it was most problematic, it had never been more essential for the CPC to position itself as the rightful heir to Mao’s party (as opposed to the party of Mao Zedong Thought) and his revolution.

In a nation where popular democracy is shunned, establishing where exactly the government derives its political legitimacy from can be a complex and highly theoretical (and untested) exercise. Mao’s cult of personality is just one of many strands that the CPC uses to justify its rule: whether it’s essential to their hold on power – would they come unstuck if a more historically accurate conception of Mao was dominant in the culture? – can only be speculated at. But, unwilling to test such a proposition and risk the consequences, the CPC goes on venerating the Great Helmsman forty years after his death.