Accessibility links

China Ignores 40th Anniversary of Mao's Cultural Revolution


This week marks 40 years since Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong launched a 10-year movement known as the "Cultural Revolution." The movement was meant to do away with most elements of China's past and push the country to a new, purer socialist, egalitarian state. The result for China was devastating, as historical and cultural artifacts were destroyed. Millions of people suffered persecution - sometimes from their own neighbors, colleagues and friends. Many Chinese view the period as a stain on their country's history and a time many would rather not remember.

Xue Mouhong, a former ambassador and professor of international relations, recalls vividly and with some sadness the day four decades ago, when he and his co-workers were hauled out of their offices during one of the Cultural Revolution's early campaigns against intellectuals. Xue, now 78 years old, says hecklers put a dunce hat on him and taunted his colleagues.

"They knelt down. I also knelt down, you know, with a big placard saying I am a rightist. In our unit most people were intellectuals. The man who suffered very much was our director. He was an old Communist. He was sent to the prison. After he was released, he soon died," he said.

The revolution's 40th anniversary this week passed largely without notice. There was no discussion of it in the mainstream state-run media.

Unlike the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and other incidents that are seen as stains on the Communist Party's record, the government does allow public discussion of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1981, five years after the movement ended, the party issued a verdict saying those 10 years had inflicted "the most severe setback" and "heaviest losses" suffered by the party and the people since the founding of Communist China.

Those who carried out the movement were Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, and three others, known as the Gang of Four, who together sought to consolidate power by purging their progressive rivals within the party. All four were publicly tried and convicted and have since died in obscurity.

Although the party's 1981 verdict blamed Mao Zedong for serious mistakes, it stopped short of thoroughly reexamining his role. Chinese politics professor David Zweig, at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says that reevaluating Mao's responsibility would be dangerous for the Communist party, even today.

"I think it would just hurt their legitimacy, the legitimacy of the party. The party still uses his photograph, his reputation. He's the man who established the regime in 1949, so I think they want to avoid further undermining the legitimacy of the Communist Party," said Zweig.

Nearly 30 years have passed since the movement ended and the attention of Chinese people has, by and large, long ago moved on to other things. There have been scattered calls for a reexamination of the events. But with roughly half of China's population born after the Cultural Revolution, those calls will grow even smaller.

Many young people say they know about the movement only from what their parents tell them.

A law student in his 20's at Peking University, a scene of many of the incidents of the Cultural Revolution, has little to say about it.

"My feeling is that is something of the past. The government has made it fade away. It has gradually been forgotten by people," he commented.

The student's response is what party officials want to hear. David Zweig says stirring memories of the period can only hurt the party, especially at a time when social unrest is rising amid a widening gap between rich and poor.

"Mao in part launched the Cultural Revolution arguing that there was inequality between officials and citizens, that the officials had become a new social class," he added. "And, I think that's an accusation that would resonate today with a lot of people in China."

One of Mao's slogans at the time was that rebellion is justified - a message Zweig says the Chinese government today would not want to promote.

XS
SM
MD
LG