While mere mortals make do with clothes, Buddha must be clad in gold, according to a Chinese saying.

Visitors to the Shaoshan Mao family restaurant in Beijing could hardly miss the life-size bust of Mao Zedong sprayed with gold paint on an altar adorned with artificial flowers facing the front door.Twenty years after his death, the Great Helmsman, who in 1958 launched the catastrophic Great Leap Forward campaign that starved 28 million people to death in a man-made famine, is still revered by millions in China as god or demigod.

"I believe in Mao Tse-tung. Many of us bow (before the statue) every day," Li Jun, manager of the Mao restaurant, said in an in-ter-view.

Until a recent ban by Beijing authorities to curb superstition, the restaurant would cook Mao's favorite dishes every day and offer them as sacrificial food before the statue, flanked by candles and littered with small change offerings.

Despite unleashing the 1966-76 ultraleftist Cultural Revolution that plunged China into turmoil, Mao is still respectfully referred to by millions in China simply as "chairman" of the Communist Party.

Mao fever subsided in the first few years after his death on Sept. 9, 1976, but has revived in recent years.

Pictures of Mao still are thought by many to ward off evil spirits. They hang from the rear view mirrors of many vehicles as an amulet against accidents and adorn the walls of many homes.

Farmers in Jingbian county in the northern province of Shaanxi spent 100,000 yuan ($12,000) of their own money to build a temple to Mao. The average income of Jingbian county residents was 650 yuan ($78) each in 1995.

A huge portrait of Mao gazes over Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, where Mao declared the founding of the republic on Oct. 1, 1949. Long lines are a frequent sight outside the mausoleum, where Mao's embalmed body lies in a crystal coffin.

An average of 1 million people flock to Shaoshan village in the central Chinese province of Hunan each year for a glimpse of the place where he was born.

"Personally, I'm a worshipper of Mao Zedong," said Chen Zhenxing, a historian at a private think-tank.

"I think he's a leader of the people, speaks for the people and does things for the people," Chen told Reuters.

To many, Mao symbolizes a golden age of Chinese communism, a period of idealism and crime-free streets in the years after Mao's ragtag Red Army defeated Chiang Kai-shek's corrupt Nationalists and swept to power in 1949.

Mao presided over three decades of social chaos and ruled with a combination of personality cult and political terror.

During the Cultural Revolution, schools were closed and radical Red Guards went on a rampage, destroying temples, Buddhist statues and works of arts, and trashing anything that smacked of tradition.

Thousands of people were hounded to death in rounds of "class struggle" that Mao said would cleanse China of "rightists" and "counterrevolutionaries."

"The ordinary Chinese think Mao Tse-tung committed a lot of mistakes, especially during the Cultural Revolution when he brought China to the brink of collapse," said Xu Youyu, of the philosophy institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"But with the gap between the rich and the poor widening in recent years, the people are seeking social justice . . . and Mao stood for justice," Xu said.

The official assessment of Mao is that he committed "mistakes" in his later life but that these are outweighed by his "contributions" in leading the revolution to success.