Cultural Revolution nightmare still disturbs Chinese democracy dream



The nightmare of the Cultural Revolution continues to disturb the dream of Chinese democracy, The Economist notes:

The violence of the Cultural Revolution, and the many officials it claimed as victims, may explain why China’s liberalisation of the economy has not gone hand-in-hand with greater democracy. To Westerners, the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989 may have seemed a million miles from the Red Guards who had assembled there more than two decades earlier screaming Maoist slogans. But to China’s leaders, there has always been a connection: that the Cultural Revolution was a kind of “big democracy” (as Mao called it) in which ordinary people were given the power to topple officials they hated. 

Fifty years on from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which unleashed a decade of violence across the country and caused more than 1m deaths, China has reminded citizens it was a “total mistake”, The FT observes:

During Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution, which he saw as a path towards absolute power, as many as 36m people were persecuted and up to 1.5m were killed. At its vanguard were millions of young “red guards” who attacked the country’s institutions, including the party, and worshipped Mao as his personality cult took root.

“The Cultural Revolution has always sat uneasily in Chinese popular memory, partly because there has never really been a credible historical assessment of this bizarre period,” says Kerry Brown, a Chinese studies professor at King’s College, London. “The issue is that of accountability . . . It is deemed best just to paper over the cracks and pretend everything is forgotten. The tactic now is amnesia.”

Many social-media postings about the anniversary appeared unscathed by censorship, The Wall Street Journal adds:

One such post was penned Monday by Tsinghua University sociologist Sun Liping, who described Mao’s last political movement as an example of “idealism put tragically into practice.”

“The most important motive for Mao to unleash the Cultural Revolution was his idealism in trying to remake society,” Mr. Sun wrote. “Idealism gave him the power of mobilizing the masses and evolved into a cruel struggle with disastrous outcomes.”

Today’s China is nowhere near the point of another Cultural Revolution, and the 50th anniversary of the start of that traumatic era will go unmarked in official circles, the Journal’s Andrew Browne writes.

Chinese leaders “are frightened of the Cultural Revolution,” says the historian Frank Dikötter, author of The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976.  “They think that’s what might happen if you give ordinary people a say.”

As Mr Dikötter describes, even during the Cultural Revolution there were signs that commitment to it was sometimes only skin deep:

As general literacy declined, he notes, “opportunities to read forbidden literature paradoxically increased”. Red Guards quietly pocketed the sensitive works they confiscated; a “thriving black market” in such material sprang up. An illicit, hand-copied, book, “The Heart of a Maiden”, describing a student’s sexual encounters, “may well have been one of the most studied texts after the Chairman’s ‘Little Red Book’,” Mr Dikötter says.

Yu Jie, a Chinese writer and political activist based in the US, says the impacts of the Cultural Revolution are still being felt today. “The Cultural Revolution destroyed people’s fundamental trust in society and people’s kindness,” he says. “The challenge is how to rebuild civil society. It destroyed people’s value systems.”

There are huge differences between Mr Xi’s rule and the Cultural Revolutionary period, of course. Mr Xi has no truck with Maoist ideas about permanent revolution, The Economist notes:

Through his anti-corruption campaign, he is attacking his enemies in the party, but his attacks come from above, not (as in the Cultural Revolution) from below. He is even rumored to be trying to dampen his mini-personality cult. But as Andrew Nathan of Columbia University [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy] points out, even distant parallels are worrying. Mr Xi is blowing on the embers of the conflagration that consumed China 50 years ago.

Xi has revived Mao’s themes to achieve the opposite of perpetual revolution: tempering the steel of the party machine, not wrecking it, notes analyst Nick Frisch. The CCP is no longer a revolutionary party, but a ruling one. Xi hopes to harness the party-state’s red heritage to make the bureaucracy more efficient, accountable, and service-oriented—responsive enough to avoid popular discontent, but not to the point where the people might actually govern themselves through open elections. (The party elite’s monopoly on power is non-negotiable), he writes for Foreign Affairs:

In this sense, Xi’s new tone, and his revival of Maoist concepts like the “mass line,” is simply an evolution of the CCP’s post-Mao pragmatism: a new chapter in “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” an intentionally vague phrase meant to accommodate China’s signature blend of Marxists, Maoists, and markets. Xi uses some Maoist themes, but has not revived notions of “class struggle”; he is targeting high-ranking comrades for treachery, but not unleashing out-of-control youth groups to enact his purges.

Like Mao, “Xi is building a personality cult for himself,” argues Qiao Mu at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “If one refutes the Cultural Revolution, one must refute personality cults and that impacts Xi’s own power, status and prestige.”

“If you sing for democracy and freedom at an evening party, it gets shut down,” he adds. “But everybody knows [red song concerts] are politically correct.”

Following the upheaval and “[r]iding a supply of workers so numerous, so eager, and (by international standards) so underpaid and underprotected, the Chinese economy boomed and the Communist Party took credit,” notes Perry Link, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside.

Now, as the boom is receding, the Party is looking for another way to stay on top and seems to be exploring the possibility that chauvinistic nationalism might be that way, he writes for The Diplomat:

For cues on how to do it, Xi Jinping has been looking in part back to Mao and the Cultural Revolution: concentrate power in a single person; grow a personality cult; try to identify the Communist Party and its new great leader with a show of pride to the world.  How this will end is hard to say.

Two major conferences on the Cultural Revolution will be held in June of this year in Massachusetts and California. Scholars from China will attend, but will be understandably regretful that they cannot meet in China. Imagine, for a moment, what American historians might feel if they had to go to Paris or Sao Paulo for a retrospective on Nixon and Watergate, or on the U.S. Civil War.

Thomas Plankers, a German psychologist, argues in “Landscapes of the Chinese Soul” that, in the few countries where people have come to terms with dark periods in their history, historians and public intellectuals have played vital roles in overcoming the reluctance of politicians and ordinary people to talk openly. That process has not happened in China, The Economist notes:

One reason for the silence is private reticence. But another is Mao’s unique position. Whereas in the former Soviet Union, the chief perpetrator of terror, Joseph Stalin, had not been the founder of the Communist state (that was Vladimir Lenin), in China, Mao was both. At the end of his life, he described his two proudest achievements as the founding of Communist China and the launching of the Cultural Revolution. It is impossible to separate one from the other. “Discrediting Comrade Mao Zedong”, said Deng Xiaoping in 1981, “would mean discrediting our party and state.”

Memory of the Cultural Revolution is on the brink of extinction, notes China Digital Times:

On May 16, the 50th anniversary of the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television aired a vox populi segment interviewing many student-aged Chinese on their impressions of Mao’s infamously disastrous campaign—one that has largely been flushed down China’s memory hole.

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