May 12, 2007 / 4:23 PM / 10 years ago

Vandal damages China's iconic Mao portrait

<p>Workers clean the picture of Chairman Mao at the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing May 12, 2007. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause</p>

BEIJING (Reuters) - A vandal damaged the giant portrait of China’s late Chairman Mao Zedong that hangs over the Forbidden City on Saturday, prompting police to clear the area and adjacent Tiananmen Square, witnesses said.

Most of the picture was intact, but workers could be seen in a crane cleaning the lower left area of the huge portrait, which appeared damaged by soot after the vandal hurled a burning object at it. Police were swarming the area.

Traffic could pass by, but Tiananmen, the symbolic heart of Communist China, was temporarily cleared of the visitors that normally crowd the square on weekends and the tourist-clogged entrance to the Forbidden City was emptied.

Police later let visitors back onto the square, which remained under tight security.

Police detained Gu Haiou, a 35-year-old unemployed man from Urumqi, capital of the far-northwestern region of Xinjiang, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The damaged portrait would be replaced on Saturday night, the report said, adding armed guards were in the area and the Forbidden City was still closed to visitors. The portrait is periodically replaced with an identical copy.

Calls to the Beijing city government and the local police about the incident went unanswered.

Tiananmen is considered especially sensitive since it was the site of 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations that were crushed by the military. The area usually swarms with plainclothes security who quickly stamp out any signs of dissent.

China’s leadership brooks no challenges to its authority, and damaging Mao’s portrait could lead to a stiff punishment.

Chinese journalist Yu Dongyue was jailed for more than 16 years for hurling eggshells filled with red paint at the Mao portrait at the height of the 1989 demonstrations. He was mentally ill by the time he was released in February 2006.

Despite leading the country in a series of violent political movements that saw millions purged or killed and left the economy moribund, Mao is still revered by many in China and is seen as a symbol of its strength and unity.

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