Fifty years ago on May 16 the Cultural Revolution began. Don’t expect this event to be given much attention in China itself, though. The reality is that despite Mao Zedong’s continuing iconic status, his successors in China’s ruling elite don’t know quite how to deal with his legacy.
It’s not hard to see why. During the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1961, which was intended to modernise China’s economy through industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture, tens of millions died, mainly as a consequence of famine.
Mao was eventually criticised for his role in this entirely avoidable catastrophe. It was this threat to his legacy that led him to unleash the Cultural Revolution.
Both of these profoundly important historical episodes are studiously ignored in China today. The rather imposing national museum in Beijing, for example, contains absolutely no reference to the Cultural Revolution, despite the fact that it also led directly or indirectly to the deaths of another million or so.
What is most striking about this period in retrospect, however, is not the current collective amnesia on the part of the governing elites in the Communist Party of China, but the fact that it completely overturned social values that had endured in China for thousands of years.
True, dynasties had collapsed before. But not even the Boxer or Taiping rebellions in the 19th century had inflicted such upheaval, and certainly not on such a scale.
One of the distinctive features of the Cultural Revolution, depicted in graphic detail by Ji Xianlin in The Cowshed, was the role played by the young Red Guards, who were the stormtroopers of Mao’s counter-revolution. Confucian-style respect for learning, the elderly or the traditional social hierarchy were overthrown as part of a convulsive bottom up social movement that delighted in humiliating and torturing perceived class enemies.
Ji details the horrors that were inflicted on him and many of his colleagues at Peking University by his former students, suddenly elevated and empowered by Mao’s megalomania. Public beatings and humiliation became a frequent part of the punishments inflicted on possible “capitalist roaders” and class traitors.
Many of the young people who played such a prominent and spiteful part in these ritualised “struggle sessions” would become victims of the revolution themsleves. Some were sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasantry. Others became the victims of factional warfare within the red Guards themselves.
Only now are some of these stories being told, despite the profound impact it had on both the young and the old during this period.
The leadership of the CCP still finds this period acutely difficult to deal with. Despite some acknowledgement that Mao may have made errors, his portrait still dominates Tiananmen Square. Current president Xi Jinping has embraced some aspects of his legacy.
Worryingly, Xi has also concentrated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao. Xi has also begun to revive some elements of Maoist ideology in order to legitimise the CCP’s continuing political dominance – which lacks any other sort in authoritarian China.
Yet a collective failure to acknowledge or confront the realities of the Cultural Revolution means that important historical lessons go unlearned by subsequent generations. A fundamental lack of political maturity, combined with an absence of real self-criticism or internal debate, are reasons why totalitarian regimes have always been so brittle and at risk of a “Ceaușescu moment”.
It is this potential for social upheaval, to which China is historically especially prone, that helps to explain why the current administration goes to such extraordinary lengths to control social media and internal political discussion. The broadcasts of outlets like the BBC will likely be interrupted if they run stories on the Cultural Revolution today.
None of this means the CCP’s dominance is likely to disappear anytime soon, though. On the contrary, the CCP has become a pivotal vehicle for career advancement and the cultivation of vital political and business connections.
Ironically enough, the capitalist roaders have ultimately triumphed in China and are now frequently prominent and wealthy members of the CCP itself. Mao must be revolving in his mausoleum.
It is this paradox that lies at the heart of the CCP’s current difficulties about how to deal with Mao and his legacy. A more pluralistic and open society – like Germany, for example – might recognise and understand that awful things can happen, learn the lessons, and then move on. No such debate is possible in China without raising very difficult questions about what exactly the CCP is actually for, and why it should remain in unelected power.
The next time I apply for a visa to visit China I may be reminded of the pervasive and rather paranoid reach of China’s security services. Perhaps we will see some “spontaneous” expressions of outrage in response to this post.
And yet any society that needs to exercise that degree of social control to maintain its preferred collective identity and official historical narrative looks anything but secure.