President Xi Jinping paid his respects to Chairman Mao Zedong’s embalmed body on Monday in a rare gesture ahead of China’s celebration of 70 years of communist rule.

Xi and other top officials visited Mao’s mausoleum – located in the heart of Beijing in Tiananmen Square – and bowed three times to the late leader’s statue, reported Xinhua News Agency.

He also paid respects to the remains of Mao, whose embalmed body is kept in a glass display at the memorial hall.

The last time a leader bowed to the statue of the “Great Helmsman” was six years ago, when Xi commemorated what would have been Mao’s 120th birthday.

The move to honour the founder of the People’s Republic of China comes as the mainland readies itself for a day of tightly-choreographed festivities, including a massive military parade and the release of 70,000 doves.

The anniversary is meant to showcase China’s extraordinary rise from the ravages of war and famine to a modern, powerful nation state whose economic and military muscle is viewed by many with increasing concern.

But the celebration comes in a very bad year for the president.

The US-China trade spat threatens to pummel the global economy, while African swine fever has sent the price of pork – the country’s staple – soaring.

The months of unrest and pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong also threaten to upstage Tuesday’s celebrations.

On Monday morning, Xi and other Communist Party leaders also attended a wreath-laying ceremony to honour national heroes on Tiananmen Square.

A choir of children in crisp white shirts and red scarves sang before Xi approached the Monument to the People’s Heroes – a tall obelisk in the middle of the square – where baskets of flowers decorated with red banners were placed.

“A promising nation must have heroes, and a country with future prospects must have pioneers,” said state-run CCTV in a broadcast of the ceremony, quoting Xi. (AFP)