This month marks an ominous anniversary. On 16 May 1966, Mao Zedong unleashed the Cultural Revolution. For 10 long years, China was consumed by a political and social chaos, the complexity and brutality of which continues to astound historians today. How could such a thing happen? The entire country was caught by surprise.
At the start of that period, many members of the Chinese Communist party woke up one day to find they had been purged: overnight they had become “power-holders taking the capitalist road”. After suffering every kind of psychological and physical abuse, some chose to take their own lives. In the small town in south China where I grew up, some hanged themselves or swallowed insecticide, while others threw themselves down wells: wells in south China have narrow mouths, and if you dive into one headfirst, there is no way you will come out alive.Yu Hua, “‘Human impulses run riot’: China’s shocking pace of change” in The Guardian, 6 Sept 2018 (retrieved 15 May 2019)
At the time, Mao believed that the communist revolution required reinvigoration. Ideology was slack. The enemies of communism were multiplying.
Our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and transform education, literature, and art and all other parts of the superstructure that do not correspond to the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.The Sixteen Points: Guidelines for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Communist Party Directive (1966),
Now, historians believe that Mao had a more personal consideration. The so-called enemies of the state were his own opponents. What was being billed as a mass movement was nothing more than a power struggle. The Cultural Revolution was
an attempt by the elderly dictator, whose authority had been badly hit by the calamitous Great Famine of the 1950s, to reassert control over the party by obliterating enemies, real or imagined.Tom Phillips, “The Cultural Revolution: all you need to know about China’s political convulsion” in The Guardian, 11 May 2016 (retrieved 13 May 2019).
Personal scores were settled. A separatist movement in Inner Mongolia was brutally quashed. 500,000 to 2 million Chinese died. The Cultural Revolution did not officially end until Mao’s death on 9 September 1976.
In the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the Party made some attempts to punish those responsible for the worst violence and to rehabilitate victims of unjust persecution. The authorities laid the blame at the feet of the Gang of Four: a group led by Mao’s widow Jiang Qing. She was sentenced to death in 1981.
By then, the government had had enough of the Cultural Revolution. While the popular image of the Cultural Revolution is that of Red Guards run amok, the bulk of the deaths took place in the last years of the Cultural Revolution as the army moved in to regain control.
The Chinese government could not afford to be implicated in these killings. Certainly not when students in the late 1980s began to agitate for democratic reforms. Their protests would end in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989.
You won’t hear much talk of the Cultural Revolution in China today. The National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square has one photo to commemorate the 10 year long bloodbath. It shows Red Guards waving at Mao Zedong.
There is only 1 museum (out of 4,150) that focuses on the Cultural Revolution. Only academics with the government-affiliated Chinese Social Sciences Academy have access to its archives. Today, the general public has little notion of what happened from 1966 to 1976 and the government has no incentive to remind them. In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution
the government’s only official acknowledgement of it came on the following day, 17 May, when identical editorials in the party mouthpieces the People’s Daily and the Global Times ran under the headline ’50th Anniversary – Remembrance Should Not Be Extreme’.Barclay Bram, “At the Jianchuan Chongqing” in London Review of Books, Vol. 40 No. 2, 25 Jan 2018
A Rising Tide
Insofar as the Cultural Revolution was meant to stave off capitalism, Mao failed. That upheaval led directly to the economic reforms of the 1980s and a new social contract.
The government promises a good life to anyone who works hard, even the children of peasants. In exchange, they stay out of politics, look away when protesters climb onto rooftops to denounce the forced demolition of their homes and accept the propaganda posters plastered across the city.Amy Qin and Javier C. Hernández, “Controlling the people: Opportunity and fear” in The New York Times, International edition, 27 Nov 2018
Since 1980, the Chinese government has lifted 800 million Chinese out of poverty. The boom has created a class of uber-rich Chinese and a nation of materialists. Novelist Yu Hua sees today’s Chinese protesters as fighting to protect their own property, rather than transform their society.
The academic Minxin Pei describes the social pact as “Chinese nationalism [that] binds the people with the state, not to each other.” The peasant Gong Wanping puts it even more bluntly: “I don’t care about the leaders and the leaders don’t care about me.”
As China heads into an economic downturn, the question arises: how solid is that social pact? The ebbing tide now reveals gaping cracks: inequality between rich and poor or urban versus rural. The chronic lack of health care or a pension system for an increasingly greying Chinese society. If the Chinese can no longer count on the prospect of prosperity, how safe can the government be?
Study the Great Nation
Stability and political control are the lessons China’s political leaders have gleaned from the Cultural Revolution. They believe that loss of political control will lead to chaos. They want to avoid chaos at all costs.
These days, the government labels Xinjiang, rather than Inner Mongolia, as a hotbed of rebels. The place may be different but the tactics are the same. Witness the mass incarceration, ethnic profiling, and the rise of a police state. Facial technology and other forms of digital surveillance reach deep into the lives of the Chinese inside Xinjiang or elsewhere.
Nowadays, you don’t need a little red book like the Red Guard did during the Cultural Revolution. You can use an app. Study the Great Nation has over 100 million registered users. You earn points by following the news on Xi Jinping, brushing up on your socialist theory, or writing a self-criticism.
Critics say that Mr. Xi is intruding into the private lives of Chinese citizens in a way the party has typically avoided since the Mao era. The app makes the party’s messages difficult to ignore, awarding points only when an article has been read completely and a video has been watched for at least three minutes.Javier C. Hernández, “Using app, Chinese declare their loyalty to Xi” in The New York Times, International edition, 9 Apr 2019
We should be studying the great nation but perhaps for other reasons than Xi Jinping would like. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We should recognize the signs of an aging leader afraid to lose control.