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The Cultural Revolution will not be revived

Reading Time: 6 mins

In Brief

This month marks 50 years since the official beginning of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. On 16 May 1966, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party issued an internal circular denouncing ‘revisionists’ in the Party leadership.


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Prepared by Chairman Mao Zedong, the circular was a warning to Party cadres not to challenge his leadership.

The ‘Cultural Revolution’ that followed was a 10-year period of civil disorder, social upheaval and violence. Mao sanctioned chaotic mass political campaigns that implemented his belief in ‘permanent revolution’ against perceived ‘class enemies’. The infamous Red Guard militias terrorised urban centres. ‘Counterrevolutionaries’ were eliminated across the country. Millions of Chinese were killed or maimed, and hundreds of millions suffered persecution or deprivation.

The Party does not commemorate the Cultural Revolution. While it is neither ‘treated as a state secret’ nor ‘officially forgotten’ — the Party tolerates personal memoirs and public confessions that reflect poorly on the time — free inquiry and archival research regarding the Cultural Revolution are stifled. This situation is more tolerant than the Party’s attitude to other sensitive periods in its history.

Yet a typical argument in international media commentaries on the Cultural Revolution’s 50th anniversary is that the Party must openly reckon with its past in order to ‘learn from its mistakes’. Otherwise, the ‘disaster might be repeated in the future’, new generations may remain susceptible to another deadly mass movement and there could be ‘another Cultural Revolution’.

But if anybody has learnt from the Cultural Revolution, it is the Party. While authoritarian one-party states are susceptible to political abuse, it was a powerful individual — Mao — who instigated the Cultural Revolution. Mao leveraged his overwhelming popular support to eviscerate the Party establishment and restore his absolute authority. Three-quarters of central leaders were purged.

Mao is why the Party avoids memorialising the Cultural Revolution. He remains central to the Party’s claim to historical legitimacy because he spearheaded the Chinese Revolution that established the People’s Republic in 1949. The Party’s constitution canonises ‘Mao Zedong Thought’. The Cultural Revolution is problematic because it marks a time when the Party’s own revolutionary hero proudly turned against it.

Consequently, the Party has strained to ensure that nothing like the Cultural Revolution ever happens again. Following Mao’s death in 1976, the Party ended the Cultural Revolution, arrested Mao’s allies, put the Gang of Four on public trial, permitted criticism of Mao’s policies, and offered apologies and compensation to many victims.

In 1981 the Central Committee — the highest Party organ and China’s ultimate ruling body — adopted the ‘History Resolution’. It denounced the Cultural Revolution as the most severe setback suffered by the Party, the country and the people while mostly excusing Mao’s role in the tragedy. Masterminded by new leader Deng Xiaoping, the History Resolution broke with Maoism without extinguishing the legitimacy of Mao or the Party he once controlled.

The Cultural Revolution taught the Party, and its leaders, fundamental lessons about what the Party would need to do to survive: stay in control; limit popular empowerment; institutionalise political structures; dominate societal discourse; focus the country on economic development; and let the people pursue material wealth. Perhaps the Party’s ultimate affirmation of this didactic philosophy of control came on 4 June 1989 with the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The Party continues to reinforce this philosophy everyday through its official media.

This ruling philosophy, and the logic of modern Party rule, is very different from that expressed by Mao in the Cultural Revolution, when Maoist mantras like ‘bombard the headquarters’ (paoda silingbu), ‘to rebel is justified’ (zaofan youli), and ‘revolution is not a crime’ (geming wuzui) swept through China. Hence the Party closely monitors China’s small coterie of ‘new-left’ Mao revivalists who, dissatisfied with the inequalities of capitalism, advocate for a return to the social egalitarianism of the Maoist era.

Major international publications have recently taken to comparing current Party General-Secretary Xi Jinping to Mao, warning of a ‘cult of personality’ and likening Xi’s increasingly repressive policies to those of the Cultural Revolution. This is misguided. Although Xi, similar to Mao, is a strongman who is centralising power, enforcing loyalty and personalising propaganda, Mao was fixated on violent class struggle while Xi is committed to control.

Xi’s rejection of Cultural Revolution politics can also be seen in his conscious interpretations of Party history. On 17 May, official Party newspaper The People’s Daily published an editorial entitled ‘Using history as a mirror to better advance’, which reaffirmed the History Resolution and stressed that ‘errors like the Cultural Revolution will never be allowed to happen again’. Xi himself called the Cultural Revolution a ‘catastrophe’ (haojie) for the Party in a recently published speech.

Control brings its own problems, but it also shows talk of Xi returning to the Maoist politics of the Cultural Revolution to be fanciful. Still, there is more that could be done to clarify this episode of Party history. Some observers advocate for a truth commission, others call for an official apology and those who suffered still seek justice. Public scrutiny of the facts, crimes and legacies of the Cultural Revolution would provide closure for its victims and would enrich the intellectual culture of Chinese society.

What the Cultural Revolution did was to teach the Party not to trust its own people. The lessons the Party learnt are not the lessons that many people would want learnt — liberal democracy does not figure in the Party’s vision of China’s future. So while the Cultural Revolution will not be revived, neither will extraneous requests force its history to be revised.

Neil Thomas is a Research Project Officer at the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research at The Australian National University.

5 responses to “The Cultural Revolution will not be revived”

  1. ‘What the Cultural Revolution did was to teach the Party not to trust its own people’.

    Funnily enough, its own people still trust the Party: According to a recent World Values Survey, 96.7 percent of Chinese expressed confidence in their government, compared to only 37.3 percent of Americans. Likewise, 83.5 percent of Chinese thought their country is run for all the people, rather than for a few big interest groups, whereas only 36.7 percent of Americans thought the same of their country. With this relatively higher trust, China’s government and enterprises are better able to enact and implement strict policies that promote saving and growth.        

    According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, “Nine in ten Chinese are happy with the direction of their country (85per cent), feel good about the current state of their economy (91per cent) and are optimistic about China’s economic future.”

    And most people who participated in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution would, I believe, consider it a success in that it saved the Revolution itself from destruction by corrupt and self-serving elites. It is the elites who are still whining about the CR, not the ‘people’.

    Finally, “millions” did not die in the CR. Over its ten year span, the CR killed fewer than (10 year) the French Revolution and did far more good.

    • The statement by the author that “‘What the Cultural Revolution did was to teach the Party not to trust its own people’”, does not seem to be a correct characterisation of the Party’s official line. The party’s official line on the key lessons from the Cultural Revolution has been to prevent excessive personal power and authoritarianism at the expense of collective leadership style, at all levels, particularly at the very top level of party leadership. It was Mao’s huge popularity with the people and with people’s trust through the revolutionary struggle against Guomingdang regime led by Jiang Jieshi and the establishment of the PRC that made it possible for Mao to launch the Cultural Revolution in the mid 1960s.
      However, personal power has the power of addiction, not just in China but also in the west (e.g. JH’s stay as the prime minister until he lost his seat and the changes to prime ministership in the past few years in Australia, as good examples), even though the Communism system have made it much easier to occur. The person, whoever is on the top, would like to continue that power.
      Having said that, China has developed and established a system of power transition at the party’s very top, as the past three transitions indicate. It will still be a long way to go for China to have a complete system where power transition is not just a matter for the elites but the people to have a true and more effective democratic voice in deciding who will be the leader or in the leadership team.
      No system is perfect and that is why we have see the Trump factor in the USA now and surprises many people have and have expressed worldwide.
      The above mentioned changes in the prime ministership in Australia, in conjunction with the difficulties for the government to carry out much needed reforms to further raise living standard and improve equality, also reflect some shortcomings in the west system.
      China is still searching for an effective and stable system of governance. How long it will take to have it is a question of interests by many.

  2. At least the Chinese government protects its industries compare to the American government against foreign companies. When the American economy was down, Congress tried to get American corporations to produce things in America; however, they refuse to do so compare to the Chinese government who crack down on any Chinese company who refuses to produce things in China when the Chinese economy was down.

    Historically speaking, the various Chinese governments have been concern about economic stability and jobs for its people since they know full well that instability leads to social and economic unrest.

    The American government failed to learn this lesson until the Great Depression of 1929 hit the country like a tsunami. Unfortunately, the Reagan Administration dismantle the economic safeguards that were established during the Great Depression to prevent such economic chaos from happening again.

  3. The Chinese, whether it is due to their long Confucius tradition, or due to the influence of Communism for the past more than six decades, may have a more holistic view or approach to history than the many people in the West would like them to have.
    I think Mandela’s approach to history after winning the South African presidency represented forgiveness and a good reconciliation approach to historic wrongs, not just as an individual but as a nation.
    The Chinese leadership from time to time have advocated an approach, that is, looking forward, or “向前看“ in Chinese. That approach and the Mandela approach have some similarity.
    A nation should learn from its history but should not be burdened by it.

  4. Most of the Politburo members who followed Mao suffered or their families suffered during the Cultural Revolution, which has been put firmly in the ‘wrong’ column of the ‘Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong’ official position. (come to think of it, there is a phd in that. research everything Mao ever did and apply a binary moral value to it, and see what you come up with)

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