Photographer: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

China Silence on Mao’s ’Catastrophe’ Role Fuels Revival Fear

  • People Daily reaffirms vow for no Cultural Revolution repeat
  • Xi has sought to coalesce power with return to Mao tactics

China’s Communist Party has a deep appreciation for its anniversaries. The 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution is one they’d rather not talk about.

Monday marked five decades since Mao Zedong launched China into one of its most chaotic and destructive periods, a campaign to remake society that pitted children against parents and turned friends to foes. While the party officially considers the 1966-76 movement "10 years of catastrophe," reflections on its extremes and why it happened remain censored from public discussion.

Chinese red guards during the cultural revolution in 1966.

Photographer: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

In a rare commentary published Tuesday, the party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper called the Cultural Revolution a "complete mistake in theory and practice" that won’t repeat. The 1,400-word piece reaffirmed past rulings on the movement without expanding on Mao’s role or the political foundation that allowed the movement to spin out of control.

The statement comes amid growing nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution and the re-emergence of some tactics associated with it. President Xi Jinping, whose revolutionary father was purged by Mao, has overseen a renewed anti-Western nationalism, increased the use of public confessions and crafted a budding personality cult.

‘Never Settled’

“The issue of the Culture Revolution has never been settled,” said Zhang Qianfan, a professor of law and public affairs at Peking University, who compared the period to a frozen tumor that could spread if allowed to thaw. “Without fully accounting for that tragic episode, the country can never come to terms with its past and will always live in lingering uncertainty: would the similar tragedy come back again, in some other forms?”

On May 8, a group of Mao supporters in Shaanxi, Xi’s home province, organized a symposium to mark the start of the campaign, raising a banner that read, “Long Live the Great Proletariat Culture Revolution.”

Girl Band

A week earlier, the Great Hall of People, a venue usually reserved for senior leaders’ activities, hosted a concert by an all-girl band paying tribute to both Mao and Xi, opening with the movement’s signature song, "Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman." The venue was decorated with red banners with slogans like: "People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all their running dogs."

Meanwhile, the run-up to the Monday anniversary passed with virtually no critical comment in the state-controlled media. A progressive political magazine, Yanhuang Chunqiu, canceled plans for a special Cultural Revolution issue this month under pressure from propaganda authorities, according to one editor at the publication. The magazine had last month pressed its luck by publishing six pieces by prominent authors on the subject in violation of an edict from propaganda authorities to limit mentions of the Mao era to one article per issue, the editor said.

Invoking Mao

Since Xi came to power, he and the party have walked a fine line in invoking certain aspects of Maoism, including centralizing power, promoting the leader as a hero of the masses and enforcing ideological controls in art and literature. Amid a sweeping anti-graft campaign that exposed corruption at high levels, Xi has pressed for a return to the ideological focus of Communism, while party officials have sought to elevate him as the party’s "core" leader.

In February, when Beijing-based property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang questioned Xi’s demand for the media’s absolute loyalty to the party, he was attacked in state media as an anti-party, capitalist traitor and a bourgeois liberal, language that reminded many of the insults hurled by mobs during the Cultural Revolution.

The events raise concerns about whether China might turn away from "opening" policy launched under Deng Xiaoping more than 35 years ago and continue building greater rule of law and a modern economic society. By some estimates the Cultural Revolution left more than 1 million people dead and many more traumatized as students beat teachers, children denounced parents, schools shut and thousands of ancient monuments and cultural relics were destroyed. Xi himself was "sent down" to the countryside during the period, like millions of young people, to learn from peasants.

No Repeat

Ren Zhiqiang

Photographer: ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

"We will not repeat and will absolutely not allow a repeat of mistake like ‘Cultural Revolution,’" the People’s Daily said Tuesday, urging the party to "tightly gather" around Xi to complete China’s rise.

Unlike most announcements intended to have a big impact such as the May 16 Circular that fired Mao’s first shot in the Cultural Revolution 50 years ago, the commentary was published on the newspaper’s fourth page, not its first. The piece hewed closely to the party’s official 1981 verdict on the movement, as well as Xi’s own statements on it, that the first three decades of the People’s Republic of China shouldn’t be used to "negate" its next three decades, and vice versa.

"The commentary reminds us of the fragility of the legitimacy of the PRC," said Joseph Fewsmith, a political science professor at Boston University who studies China’s elite politics. "Xi Jinping has been trying hard to say the Maoist period was, overall, good, but the Cultural Revolution should nevertheless be ’totally negated.’ It is difficult to make that case."

‘Residual Impact’

The movement was used by Mao to reassert his authority over real and perceived rivals such as Deng after the failed economic policies of the Great Leap Forward and didn’t end until Mao’s death in September 1976. The party’s 1981 ruling, which was released under Deng, concluded that, while Mao made mistake in initiating the Cultural Revolution, it was "exploited" by a "Gang of Four" radicals led by his wife, Jiang Qing, who were later convicted for their roles.

The lack of official or public discussion about the period could facilitate a twisted historical outlook without a thorough repudiation of Mao, according to Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian whose father was persecuted in the Cultural Revolution after being a vice minister. A widening wealth gap, inequality and corruption are providing some ground for neo-Maoist ideas, especially among disadvantaged people who feel left out by economic reforms, he said.

“The residual impact still poisons the country,” Zhang Lifan said. “Especially some of its key ingredients, such as randomness and capriciousness in the use of power and political violence in crushing opposition.”

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