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.
In 1981 the Central Committee — the highest Party organ and China’s ultimate ruling body — adopted the ‘History Resolution’. It denounced the Cultural Revolution as the most severe setback suffered by the Party, the country and the people while mostly excusing Mao’s role in the tragedy. Masterminded by new leader Deng Xiaoping, the History Resolution broke with Maoism without extinguishing the legitimacy of Mao or the Party he once controlled.
The Cultural Revolution taught the Party, and its leaders, fundamental lessons about what the Party would need to do to survive: stay in control; limit popular empowerment; institutionalize political structures; dominate societal discourse; focus the country on economic development; and let the people pursue material wealth. Perhaps the Party’s ultimate affirmation of this didactic philosophy of control came on 4 June 1989 with the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The Party continues to reinforce this philosophy everyday through its official media.
This ruling philosophy, and the logic of modern Party rule, is very different from that expressed by Mao in the Cultural Revolution, when Maoist mantras like ‘bombard the headquarters’ (paoda silingbu), ‘to rebel is justified’ (zaofan youli), and ‘revolution is not a crime’ (geming wuzui) swept through China. Hence the Party closely monitors China’s small coterie of ‘new-left’ Mao revivalists who, dissatisfied with the inequalities of capitalism, advocate for a return to the social egalitarianism of the Maoist era.
Major international publications have recently taken to comparing current Party General-Secretary Xi Jinping to Mao, warning of a ‘cult of personality’ and likening Xi’s increasingly repressive policies to those of the Cultural Revolution. This is misguided. Although Xi, similar to Mao, is a strongman who is centralizing power, enforcing loyalty and personalizing propaganda, Mao was fixated on violent class struggle while Xi is committed to control.
Xi’s rejection of Cultural Revolution politics can also be seen in his conscious interpretations of Party history. On 17 May, official Party newspaper The People’s Daily published an editorial entitled ‘Using history as a mirror to better advance’, which reaffirmed the History Resolution and stressed that ‘errors like the Cultural Revolution will never be allowed to happen again’. Xi himself called the Cultural Revolution a ‘catastrophe’ (haojie) for the Party in a recently published speech.
Control brings its own problems, but it also shows talk of Xi returning to the Maoist politics of the Cultural Revolution to be fanciful. Still, there is more that could be done to clarify this episode of Party history. Some observers advocate for a truth commission, others call for an official apology and those who suffered still seek justice. Public scrutiny of the facts, crimes and legacies of the Cultural Revolution would provide closure for its victims and would enrich the intellectual culture of Chinese society.
What the Cultural Revolution did was to teach the Party not to trust its own people. The lessons the Party learnt are not the lessons that many people would want learnt — liberal democracy does not figure in the Party’s vision of China’s future. So while the Cultural Revolution will not be revived, neither will extraneous requests force its history to be revised.
Neil Thomas is a Research Project Officer at the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research at The Australian National University.
This first appeared in East Asia Forum here.
Image: Flickr/Creative Commons.