Written by Scott Pacey.

After death, historic figures maintain their political presence through statues, and continue to cast their gaze over new social and political landscapes. Sometimes they outstay their welcome, as demonstrated by the fate of numerous Lenin and Stalin statues across Eastern Europe. The biographies of statues, quite apart from the figures they represent, can therefore tell us much about the changing values and histories of the places that raised them. This includes statues that have been taken down or moved. We might think of the Statue of Liberty-inspired ‘Goddess of Democracy’ that students in Tiananmen constructed in 1989, which was destroyed as soldiers moved into the square. And in 2011, a statue of Confucius appeared by Tiananmen; shortly afterwards, it was moved to a more secluded location. The fate of these statues signifies how contentious the ideas they embodied were, at those points in time, and in those particular places.

With Taiwan in an extended run-up to Saturday’s presidential election, and China’s president, Xi Jinping, carving out a niche for himself as “the most powerful Chinese ruler certainly since Deng, and possibly since Mao”, statues have continued to rise and fall. It pays to listen to their voices for what they can tell us about evolving socio-political realities.

Last week, news spread of a giant, gold-coloured statue of Mao Zedong that had been erected in Henan province. According to reports, this had been planned and paid for by local business-people. Shortly afterwards, new reports emerged of the statue being dismantled, with local officials explaining that it lacked proper approval. While some commentators online reacted to the effigy’s construction by praising Mao—“Mao Zedong thought will forever shine forth rays of brilliance,” wrote one—there was also criticism. One netizen, remarking on its cost (3 million RMB), asked “why not help the mountain areas, or all of those children who can’t afford to study. This is extravagance and waste—a real shame.”

Despite the criticism, one might think a publicly-funded statue of Mao would be welcomed by the government. In 2013, another Mao statue—far smaller, but also golden—appeared in Shenzhen in time for the 120th anniversary of his birth. (It is not known who paid for this statue, but it was reportedly worth about 100 million RMB.) Lest devotion to the helmsman be taken too far, that year, Xi Jinping reminded people that “revolutionary leaders are not gods.” Nevertheless, the Party is now concerned about a rise in Mao-worship, according to the Global Times, with images of the former chairman appearing in temples.

Yet for the government, which is presently cracking down on corruption and trying to promote regional equality, Henan’s highly visible golden statue may have veered too close to deification. At a time when Xi is developing his own personal narrative and vision, additional points of political focus might be distracting. And with its immense cost, and the pressure on cadres to be frugal, the appearance of a golden statue celebrating a Party figure was likely to prove controversial. But the statue’s removal also tells us about the right way to interpret and remember Mao. That is: he should not be deified; but he does have a proper place in China’s political, state-controlled pantheon.

Taiwan also has sites devoted to the giants of its political history. But these are also places for debate. Before the DPP lost power in the 2008 presidential election, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall was renamed the Democracy Memorial Hall. For supporters, this was a symbolic break from Taiwan’s authoritarian past under the KMT, although it was changed back when they returned to power. Later, some found the Hall still painted a hagiographic portrait of Chiang—a discussion that is indicative of the island’s ongoing debates over history. The statue of Chiang, itself, is still in place. And in Taoyuan we find the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park, which began collecting old statues of Chiang in 2000—the year of the DPP’s electoral victory. The park is a site for distancing Taiwan’s authoritarian past from its present; in their new location, the statues become objects of reflection, rather than political power (video).

Taiwan’s statues themselves have also been sites of contention. Recent years have seen acts of vandalism or defacement directed against statues of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang. For example, in 2014, a statue of Sun was toppled over by activists wanting to commemorate victims of 228. A film also appeared about high-school students plotting to steal a statue of Sun. Meanwhile, students campaigned to have statues of Chiang removed from campuses. There have been other incidents, too: eggs have been thrown, and graffiti has been painted. This points to a difference in how leaders are dealt with after their incarnation into bronze, stone or gold. In Henan and Beijing (and Tiananmen), the government stepped in to have the statues removed.

We thus might distinguish between the acts of pulling—and pushing—statues down. In the PRC, the government toppled Henan’s Mao statue from above, making a political statement as it did so. Recent statue incidents in Taiwan resulted from civil movements or dialogues with government. Therefore, even as the hands of Taiwan’s political statues hold bronze walking-sticks, or rest on armchairs, they point to discussions about values, identity and history. As loci for debate they remain—even as they actually change location. And in China, with memory and the immortality bestowed by the internet, a ‘disappeared’ statue might remain present through its absence, speaking volumes about the context in which it came and went.

Scott Pacey is Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute.