The Buzz

China's Greatest Fear: Is Another Cultural Revolution Possible?

This month marks 50 years since the official beginning of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. On 16 May 1966, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party issued an internal circular denouncing ‘revisionists’ in the Party leadership. Prepared by Chairman Mao Zedong, the circular was a warning to Party cadres not to challenge his leadership.

The ‘Cultural Revolution’ that followed was a 10-year period of civil disorder, social upheaval and violence. Mao sanctioned chaotic mass political campaigns that implemented his belief in ‘permanent revolution’ against perceived ‘class enemies’. The infamous Red Guard militias terrorized urban centers. ‘Counterrevolutionaries’ were eliminated across the country. Millions of Chinese were killed or maimed, and hundreds of millions suffered persecution or deprivation.

The Party does not commemorate the Cultural Revolution. While it is neither ‘treated as a state secret’ nor ‘officially forgotten’ — the Party tolerates personal memoirs and public confessions that reflect poorly on the time — free inquiry and archival research regarding the Cultural Revolution are stifled. This situation is more tolerant than the Party’s attitude to other sensitive periods in its history.

Yet a typical argument in international media commentaries on the Cultural Revolution’s 50th anniversary is that the Party must openly reckon with its past in order to ‘learn from its mistakes’. Otherwise, the ‘disaster might be repeated in the future’, new generations may remain susceptible to another deadly mass movement and there could be ‘another Cultural Revolution’.

But if anybody has learnt from the Cultural Revolution, it is the Party. While authoritarian one-party states are susceptible to political abuse, it was a powerful individual — Mao — who instigated the Cultural Revolution. Mao leveraged his overwhelming popular support to eviscerate the Party establishment and restore his absolute authority. Three-quarters of central leaders were purged.

Mao is why the Party avoids memorializing the Cultural Revolution. He remains central to the Party’s claim to historical legitimacy because he spearheaded the Chinese Revolution that established the People’s Republic in 1949. The Party’s constitution canonizes ‘Mao Zedong Thought’. The Cultural Revolution is problematic because it marks a time when the Party’s own revolutionary hero proudly turned against it.

Consequently, the Party has strained to ensure that nothing like the Cultural Revolution ever happens again. Following Mao’s death in 1976, the Party ended the Cultural Revolution, arrested Mao’s allies, put the Gang of Four on public trial, permitted criticism of Mao’s policies, and offered apologies and compensation to many victims.