Fifty years ago today, the Chinese Communist Party started the country down a path to the Cultural Revolution, which it said would bring about a more just society, but in practice led to complete social and economic disaster.
This seemingly momentous anniversary was all but ignored and met with virtual silence from China’s state-run media.
On May 16, 1966, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong began the campaign by purging several top party officials and announcing his agenda that ostensibly sought to return power to the working class that had been usurped by the bourgeois.
What followed wasn’t the communist utopia Mao had planned, but a brutal period of violence, food shortage and economic hardship that led to the persecution and death of millions of people.
Now it seems as if the Chinese government would rather forget the Cultural Revolution entirely. There were no official events being held Monday and no newspapers on mainland China made mention of the anniversary.
Instead, the front pages of China’s largest papers featured stories regarding Donald Trump and Boris Johnson comparing the EU to Hitler’s Third Reich, the Chinese government’s anger over a recent Pentagon report, and a story about attempts by police to locate missing children.
Roderick MacFarquhar, a Cultural Revolution expert at Harvard University, told The Guardian, China’s current president, Xi Jinping, is looking to avoid any “uncomfortable facts” about the revolution.
“The really uncomfortable fact which Xi Jinping in particular cannot really stomach is Mao’s role [in the Cultural Revolution]. Mao actually gloried in the chaos. He loved the idea of civil war. … The last thing Xi Jinping wants to do is raise anything to do with the Cultural Revolution because it inevitably affects Mao’s reputation,” MacFarquhar told the British newspaper.
Mao recruited Chinese youths to join his Red Guard paramilitary group and encouraged them to attack the Four Olds of Chinese society: Customs, culture, habits and ideas.
These gangs of students publicly humiliated and tortured teachers and other school officials and even turned in their own parents for expressing counterrevolutionary ideas. Thousands of people were beaten to death, and even more driven to suicide.
It wasn’t until 10 years later, when Mao died, that the violence and hardship began to turn around, but it took another five years, until 1981, that China’s government officially acknowledged that Mao’s policies “led to domestic turmoil and brought catastrophe to the Party, the state and the whole people.”
Mao’s legacy is still a polarizing subject in China.
Despite the disastrous economic and social effects of his policies, Mao’s ideas have seen a resurgence in recent years, particularly among the old and poor members of society who hold a certain nostalgia for the time when the state provided for them and society was more equal – glossing over the death and destruction.
"Either it's because people have forgotten the Cultural Revolution or are increasingly dissatisfied with social conditions, but since the mid-1990s these kinds of ideas have been gaining currency," Xu Youyu, a former Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher, told The Associated Press.
Risk of repeating
The only media reports about the Cultural Revolution in China came out of Hong Kong, which is a semiautonomous region in China with greater economic and speech freedoms than the mainland.
The South China Morning Post published an opinion piece by senior writer Cary Huang last week calling on the nation to remember its past, or risk repeating it.
“While many Western universities run courses and research programmes on the Cultural Revolution, Beijing has banned public discussion and academic study of the topic, fearing that revisiting the dark period and reflecting on the past would lead to a reassessment of the party’s role in modern China,” Cary wrote.
Cary said the political fallout from the Cultural Revolution continues to affect Chinese politics, and questioned whether the party can have a proper vision moving with the system built by Mao still blocking efforts to “embrace modernity.”
“If the party fears disclosing the truth about its own past and refuses to learn from it, how can it have a clear vision of the right direction for the future?” he said.