HONG KONG–May 16 marked the 50th anniversary of the devastating Cultural Revolution.
China watchers were surprised that the leadership was downplaying this decade-long political turmoil which left over a million dead.
People’s Daily, China’s propaganda mouthpiece, wrapped up the decade-long episode in a 1,400-word commentary. The editorial, published on May 17, described the Cultural Revolution as a “complete mistake in theory and practice” and warned that such mistakes should not be repeated.
The article appeared on the fourth page rather than the front page of the paper in line with the Party leadership’s desire not to attract “unnecessary attention.”
For the past couple of months, the propaganda departments had been telling media not to publish comments on the subject, with the exception of the People’s Daily piece mentioned above. Feature stories on the topic from media like the outspoken Beijing-based liberal magazine Yanhuangchunqiu were removed at the last minute.
The Cultural Revolution spanned from 1966 to 1976, and its victims ranged from then President Liu Shaoqi to billions from grassroots.
Before the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong was politically side-lined as his failed economic and social campaign, “the Great Leap Forward,” caused a famine that killed millions.
On May 16, 1966, Mao issued a circular, calling for “continuing the (1949) Revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat,” raising the curtain for unrests. Through Cultural Revolution, he eventually succeeded in replacing all his foes like Liu Shaoqi and overwhelmingly dictated China until his death in 1976.
Cultural Revolution also marks a dark age for China when students thrashed their teachers, children condemned parents, schools and universities closed and precious ancient relics were ruined.
The absence of any high-profile memorial ceremony for the 5oth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution served as a strong political message from the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
As many critics pointed out, the ostensibly concluding editorial of People’s Daily does not mean that China or its people have come to terms with their traumatic past.
CCP under Deng Xiaoping made a verdict in 1981 confining Mao’s role in initiating the cataclysm. The verdict mainly blamed Mao’s wife Jiang Qing as well her three protégés. Yet both leftists and rightists were not entirely happy with this discourse. Staunch Mao supporters still applaud the movement, holding that Deng is a “betrayer of the socialist ideals” and his marketing reform ushered in the “much devilish capitalism” to China.
Liberals, on the other side of the political spectrum, demand a total denouncement of the commotion to ensure such mistake do not happen again.
Perhaps President Xi Jinping had foreseen this embarrassing row. In early 2013, soon after becoming party chief and days before he became the President, Xi delivered a keynote internal speech at the party school saying the first three decades of the People’s Republic of China under Mao should not be used to “negate” its next three decades under Deng and vice versa.
Xi’s remark, “not to negate Mao era,” is ironic in many ways. His father Xi Zhongxun was purged during the Cultural Revolution. Xi, who was 13 years old then, was held in a juvenile “re-education center” and “sent down” to a rural area for a decade-long of hardship living.
Half a century afterwards, it is Xi himself who shoulders the responsibility of defending Mao or at least part of Mao’s legacy.
Xi’s approaches as a ruler are reminiscent of the Mao era. The arrests of liberals, crackdown on media, stress on ideological control and revival of personality cult are all fraught with Maoist color.
Despite this, some scholars say Xi is selective in his imitation of Mao-style rule and people should not be too much worried about a chaotic future. They say Xi is, in reality, reluctant to resort to the bottom-up mobilization in his power-play with his enemies. One reason for this is that a mob fury can easily spin out of control.
It is believed that the incumbent Chinese leadership has good reason to keep the wrangle under the radar. After all, Xi is inheriting a regime which has been ruled by Mao for about three decades.
A pervasive notion among the ruling elites has it that “attacking the Cultural Revolution, unleashed by Mao, would eventually undermine the legitimacy of the Republic.”
The government has no choice but to muzzle harsh critics of the “ten-year catastrophe,” an official reference to the political tremor.
However, some experts disagree with the above assertion.
Li Changping, a scholar with Hebei University and a liberal, wrote in his microblog that “Cultural Revolution shall happen again, for many times…”
According to him, without meaningful soul-searching and political reform to prevent abuse of power and safeguard stability during the transition of power, the specter of Cultural Revolution is still haunting China after all these years.
Fong Tak Ho is a long-time Hong Kong journalist who has worked for the Hong Kong Standard, the South China Morning Post, Ming Pao, Asia Times Online and other publications.
(Copyright 2016 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)