Scars left by China's Cultural Revolution remain 50 years later: Patrick Brown

Times have changed since China's Cultural Revolution began five decades ago this week, but many scars it left are still unhealed and the political system that created Mao Zedong is still in place, Patrick Brown writes.

Communist Party has no wish to draw attention to its historical blunders

There will be no official commemoration of Mao Zedong’s declaration on May 16, 1966, that the Communist Party in China had been infiltrated by 'revisionists' who were plotting to install a 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.' (AFP/Getty Images)

Seeking to liven up a recent speech, China's President Xi Jinping reached for an example of ruthless scheming and abuse of power.

With more than 20 centuries of colourful Chinese history, legend and literature to draw on, there is no shortage of candidates.

Chairman Mao Zedong, who launched the decade of misrule known as the Cultural Revolution 50 years ago this week would have been an obvious choice, but a little too close to home, perhaps.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned of 'conspirators' and 'cliques' who are attempting to undermine the Communist Party. (Petr David Josek/Associated Press)

Xi picked Frank Underwood, the fictional president of the United States on Netflix.

"We must make it clear that this is not a House of Cards power struggle," he said.

He was speaking about his campaign against corruption, which has punished tens of thousands of people, including former members of the politburo, top officials, high-ranking military officers and senior executives of state-owned enterprises.

The subject was corruption, but many heard echoes of the vicious political infighting of the past.

He warned of "conspirators," "careerists," "cabals" and "cliques" who are attempting to undermine the Communist Party.

No wish to look back

Coupled with a somewhat syrupy cult of personality that has flooded official media with cute cartoons and pop songs singing the praises of "Uncle Xi" and his wife "Mama Peng," this kind of rhetoric has led to some suggestions that Xi Jinping is channelling Mao Zedong.

The reason that Xi Jinping prefers to point the finger at an imaginary American villain as the kind of guy who would indulge in irresponsible power struggles is that the party has no wish to draw attention to its historical blunders.

There will be no official commemoration of Mao's declaration on May 16, 1966, that the party had been infiltrated by "revisionists" who were plotting to install a "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie."

Red Guards, high school and university students, waving copies of Chairman Mao Zedong's Little Red Book, parade in June 1966 in Beijing's streets at the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. (Jean Vincent/AFP/Getty Images)

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, unveiled in the weeks that followed, was supposed to "clear away the evil habits of the old society" by "bombarding the centre" with an all-out attack on the Four Olds — old ideas, habits, customs and culture. 

Students became Red Guards, millions attended huge mass rallies and the country descended into violence and destruction, with countless hysterical purges.

Large numbers of people were killed. Torture and mob pressure led to many suicides. After two years of widespread anarchy, the students were suddenly packed off to the countryside in 1968 and there were even more casualties as the army "restored order" and the purges became more systematic.

Estimates of the number of deaths in a tumultuous catastrophe that lasted until Mao's death in 1976 range from 500,000 to two million and beyond.

Concert mystery

Given the party's abhorrence of public discussion of its worst failings, it's a mystery why a gala concert featuring the Cultural Revolution's greatest musical hits performed in front of a backdrop of twin portraits of Mao and Xi was held in the Great Hall of the People two weeks before this sensitive anniversary.

China's internet censors are working overtime trying to stamp out a war of words that has erupted between those who look nostalgically back on the Maoist years as a golden age and those who see the Cultural Revolution as the country's darkest hour.

Young girls walk past portraits of the former Chinese leader Mao Zedong that were painted on a wall in 1968 during the Cultural Revolution in an area about to be demolished in Shanghai in September 2006. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Amidst a flurry of denials and recriminations, the motives for the concert and who authorized it remain unclear. Some argue it was intended to boost Xi's prestige, others that it was a ploy to discredit him.

The notion that China might be headed for a reprise of the Cultural Revolution is absurd.

Xi has indeed abandoned the collective leadership style of his recent predecessors, accumulating more power than any leader since Mao Zedong and his successor Deng Xiaoping enjoyed one-man rule.

But Xi is a very different leader from Mao.

Mao painted with wild brushstrokes, unleashing unpredictable and uncontrollable mass movements. Xi is a disciplinarian whose instinct is to control everything.

The danger is not that he will take China backwards into a new Cultural Revolution. It is that he will take it forward under one-man rule.

Like a holy writ

China's official verdict on the Cultural Revolution, published in 1981, says that "chief responsibility for the grave 'Left' error of the Cultural Revolution, an error comprehensive in magnitude and protracted in duration, does indeed lie with Comrade Mao Zedong."

It goes on to conclude, though, that the error in Mao's thinking "must be distinguished from 'Mao Zedong Thought.' "

"Mao Zedong Thought" is enshrined in the constitution of the Communist Party as "a guide to action." It has the status of holy writ.

That's because the revolution led by Mao is still the foundation of the legitimacy of the Communist Party and its current leader.

Mao's face adorns the national currency. A giant portrait of Mao gazes across Tiananmen Square — China's political heart — at the mausoleum containing his embalmed corpse.

A Chinese man smokes near the Gate of Heavenly Peace where Mao Zedong's picture overlooks Tiananmen Square in Beijing on May 16, 2006. (Elizabeth Dalziel/Associated Press)

But the throngs of people in the square, where once a million Red Guards waved their little red books, are waving iPhones manufactured in China and taking selfies.

Times have changed, but many of the scars left by the Cultural Revolution remain unhealed and the political system that created Mao is still in place.

Jeremy Brown, a professor of history at Simon Fraser University who studies the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of ordinary people rather than the power struggles of the political elite, sees the breakdown of social trust, which is a perpetual subject of discussion in China today, as one of those scars. 

The problem of trust

"People in China talk a lot about how people don't trust each other and strangers don't help each other," he says.

"These things are, I think, an outcome of the Cultural Revolution when you could be accused of being an enemy by anybody, by your neighbour, by a friend or even by a family member."

Trust is a problem at the top, too. One of the successes of the Communist Party in the past 20 years has been the application of a system of collective leadership with fixed terms of office and an orderly succession at the top, with the specific aim of preventing a return to the disasters that one-man rule brought about under Mao.

There's still friction between powerful figures and factions, but there has been something of a gentleman's agreement to make this system work.

President Xi's second and final term concludes in 2022. It is odd, some are starting to say, that there is still no sign of any successor being groomed for office, as he was for years before he took over.

House of Cards, the Netflix original series starring Kevin Spacey as the manipulative Frank Underwood, is so popular among Communist Party insiders that Xi Jinping can use it as a punch line. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Associated Press)

Xi has not shown any sign of hankering for an extension to his term, nor has he shown a sign of preparing for a handover.

The accumulation of so much political, economic and military power in one pair of hands means that, if he decides to rule on, it will be difficult to stop him. 

There's a reason why pirated copies of House of Cards are so popular among Communist Party insiders that Xi Jinping can use it as a punch line in a speech, certain that the reference will be clearly understood. 


Patrick Brown

Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts