Steve Chapman
CHANGSHA, China -- On an island in the Xiang River stands a massive bust of the late Chinese ruler Mao Zedong as a young man, his long hair blowing gracefully in an imaginary wind. Good thing for him he's a safe distance from the Expo Central China. If he could see it, he would be tearing his hair out.

As leader of the communist revolution of 1949, Mao was dedicated to class struggle and the elimination of property. He created a totalitarian society in which everyone wore the same clothes, chanted the same slogans and -- as far as anyone knew -- thought the same revolutionary thoughts.

Mao's "new man" was barely recognizable as human. Purported to be selfless, tireless, austere and indifferent to pleasure, he lived for the revolution alone. Skeptics mocked these subjects as "blue ants," for their drab, uniform dress and unquestioning obedience.

But that way of life is extinct and apparently unmourned, as the expo confirms. It's a sprawling complex brightly decorated in corporate logos. Arriving visitors are greeted by rock singer Pink's pugnacious warning: "I'm not here for your entertainment/You don't really want to mess with me tonight."

The risque music emanates from an outdoor exhibit featuring young women in off-the-shoulder gowns alongside the Gucci edition Fiat 500. Gucci? Fiat? This is communism, 21st-century style, and it seems as relevant to Mao as it does to the pharaohs.

_Inside, an audience in a glittering ballroom hears one speaker after another hold forth on how China in general and these six provinces in particular can attract foreign investment. Vice Premier Wang Qishan, a member of the Communist Party's Politburo, unabashedly sings the praises of "market reforms."

The adjoining exhibition hall is a carnival of booths, products and hired staffers brandishing glossy brochures. Under Mao's leadership, slogans ran along the lines of "Communism is heaven and people's commune is the bridge." Here, I spy a Wal-Mart display with the pitch: "Save money. Live better." Farther along is a Starbucks, which at one time would have been reviled as a criminally decadent luxury.

The spectacle is not limited to the trade fair. Wal-Mart has 370 stores in China, and Starbucks has more than 570. Mao's masses thronged the streets on bicycles. Today's Chinese sit in late-model cars in endless traffic jams.

All this began some three decades ago, when the People's Republic gave up trying to forcibly redesign human nature in favor of making the best of it. So thorough is the outward transformation that it's often hard to remember -- or quite believe -- that this is an officially communist country.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

©Creators Syndicate