LUOYANG, China – Zhao Shunli's transformation takes place several times a week in a simple bedroom filled with Mao Zedong memorabilia, its concrete walls lined with posters portraying the founder of the communist state. Once his army jacket buttons up and his white gloves snap on, Zhao the garbage picker becomes Zhao the People's Liberation Army veteran.
Known as a fixture in a public square in the ancient city of Luoyang, Zhao has made it his personal mission to proudly sing the praises of the Great Helmsman, as Mao is widely called.
As the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution unfolds this week, many Chinese recall Mao's political movement that claimed at least a million lives through violent persecution and suicide. Countless more lives were ruined in a decade that tore apart Chinese families, workplaces and society.
But armed with his scratchy loudspeaker, Zhao will carry on his almost-daily song-and-dance routine in Luoyang's main plaza, extolling the visionary who he says fought for humble men before dying in 1976, leaving China in the hands of corrupt leaders and "capitalist traitors" who led the country astray.
"The test of time over the past 30 years has shown that reform and opening up has been a mistake," says the sprightly 63-year-old, referring to the relatively liberal policies enacted after 1976 that are credited with transforming an impoverished, battered nation into the world's second-largest economy. "It hasn't brought the country, or the people, or the factories or the companies any development," Zhao says.
Although China's Communist Party is credited with lifting millions out of poverty, vast numbers of Mao's modern-day followers — mostly the disgruntled, poor and elderly in the country's hinterlands — say they haven't seen any of the benefits, only worsening inequality.
"Injustice led me to believe that by propagating our hero, his thinking and positive energy, we can push our country to make a sweeping turn back toward real socialism, a real pro-worker society," said Zhao, who defends the Cultural Revolution as necessary to keep China on the communist path.
Zhao's life reached its zenith when he joined the army at 17, he says. He left military service five years later and was not assigned a job in a state company because his peasant status prevented him registering as an urban resident.
Zhao bounced from farming to making clothes in the city to other manual labor, never managing to escape poverty. In the early 1980s, the woman he had hoped to marry left him. She later moved in with a wealthy village cadre 20 years her senior, others told him.
"In that reform-era atmosphere, I was someone without money," he says. "I was a veteran, but money opened a girl's eyes. Our values weren't the same."
Today he lives alone in a tiny room sublet to him at a discount by a generous friend. He survives by collecting garbage and food thrown out by hotpot restaurants.
The plaza, where he draws dozens of viewers a day by belting out Mao-era "red songs" with only the humming and finger-snapping of like-minded friends as accompaniment, has lent him purpose for the first time since his military days.
Before heading out one recent morning, Zhao checked on a pot steaming with nearly rotten tofu and chicken feet. Hanging on the wall was a plastic bag full of dried mushrooms he had scavenged. One or two books on Maoist thought and a small golden Mao statuette sat on a dresser. A few pieces of clothing hung from a wire strung between two walls.
Bitterness softened into pride as he took out two carefully folded cotton uniforms from a plastic bag and explained the accessories. He usually dons white gloves and a leather holster. A field towel goes around the water canteen. There are two options for headwear: a vintage combat helmet and a cloth billed hat that he puffs up just the right way with the help of a rearview mirror taken off a truck.
He balances a 1-meter (3-foot)-high loudspeaker, amplifier and cordless mic system precariously on his electric motorcycle, salutes and opens his building's large metal gate to head to the plaza.