It was the start of one of the most traumatic periods of Chinese history. Exactly 50 years ago, on May 16 of 1966, the Cultural Revolution unleashed a decade of unprecedented tyranny, anarchism and violence in the country. On this 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution however, China prefers to cover it all with a blanket of silence.
On 16 May 1966, Communist leader Mao Zedong began a campaign, formally known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, to eliminate his rivals. He called on the Chinese youth to ‘purge’ society of capitalists, non-believers and anyone who questioned the preeminence of his own ideology.
The youth and working class, the Red Guards as they were called, were given a free hand to destroy the so called enemies of Chinese culture.
Thousands were branded counter-revolutionaries: intellectuals, former landowners, officials, former merchants, rich peasants, and were put to death, often publicly. Scores were victimized and exiled. Millions were uprooted from their homes and forced to work in the countryside.
Total anarchy prevailed. Children denounced their parents and students turned against their teachers. About 1.5 million people died and 36 million more suffered from some or other form of political persecution.
A personality cult had grown around Mao with people worshipping him and his writings, and becoming willing slaves of his. They would cheer hysterically at his sight, wave their little Red booklets and shout ‘Long live Chairman Mao’ till they lost their voices.
Such was Mao’s influence that he even had followers abroad, among them, Jean Paul Sartre, Naomi Chomsky, and Michael Foucault, who found his writings admirable and influential. Mao’s death in 1976 officially put an end to this decade long era of violence and madness.
Deng Xiaoping became the country’s leader, and pulled his country out of the economic mess it had fallen into. Forty years of economic development followed plus a gradual slipping back into orthodox Marxism.
Even today, there are some who glorify the ideals of Mao and continue to idolize him. There are more than 200 Red Army schools in China whose students wear uniforms similar to the revolutionaries. They are taught to revere Mao. In his Home Village of Shaoshan, Mao Zedong still gets the treatment of a hero.
However, it is surprising that the anniversary of the start of such a turbulent time in history did not merit any kind of attention in China. Not one of the 5 major newspapers even so much as mentioned the Cultural Revolution. Only newspapers in Hongkong which enjoy greater freedom than the mainland, made some reference to it.
An opinion piece published in the South China Morning Post said, “Fifty years on, and the party has failed to bring any kind of justice to address the traumatic event.”
“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?” it added.
But the Cultural Revolution is still a taboo subject and the government prefers to keep mum about it. It literally hides its head in the sand. It is a pity that at the very centre of its capital city Mao still lies in state, and issues raised by the Cultural Revolution have not been tackled. There has been no public accountability of the cruelty that people unleashed against each other, no debate on how, why and what went wrong. China rather wants its people to just forget that it all happened.
The only official acknowledgement was a 1981 Communist Party directive saying the decade represented ‘the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the country, and the people’ and that ‘serious mistakes’ were made during that period.
Any official analysis of the period would after all only undermine the legitimacy of the Communist Party. Also there would be uncomfortable comparisons with the power, the titles and personality cult surrounding the present President Xi Jinping. Since 2012, after coming to power, Xi has clamped down on free speech, so called dissenters and corrupt officials.
Xi’s Central Document No 9 circulated among senior cadres, has seven taboo subjects which must not be discussed in public. These include universal values, press freedom, civil society, citizens’ rights, etc.
Living in a materialistic society, young Chinese have no idea of what actually happened during the revolution and tend to romanticize it. School books offer students only a minimal account of the events.
However, writers have now begun writing about their experiences of that time. Those who were victimized and those who perpetrated the crimes are both equally haunted by horrific memories of that past. They hope that breaking the collective silence that still surrounds the period will bring a kind of healing catharsis as well as ensure nothing like it happens again.
In his book The Cowshed: Memories Of The Chinese Cultural Revolution, published in 1988 in China, Peking University professor Ji Xianlin confessed to having persecuted others and admitted to feelings of guilt and shame even though he was later forced to face persecution. “We all took turns persecuting each other,” he wrote.
In 2013, Beijing-based lawyer Zhang Hongbing, went public with his having denounced his mother and having sent her to death, by execution. But much more is needed.
Some comments on China’s Twitter-like Weibo on the occasion were:
The sin of the Cultural Revolution was that “it inspired as far as possible the evil in human nature, severed our national culture, destroyed our moral beliefs”, said one deleted comment on the site.
“What? It’s unbelievable is that there still remain doubts in our understanding of such a grave catastrophe, that its pernicious influence has failed to be eliminated, and that the culprits have yet to be investigated,” the commentator added.
Another censored commentator had written: “Without thoroughly revisiting the Cultural Revolution, there will be people who want to bring it back.”
They will. But more and more people are discussing the issue openly, on social media, public platforms and amongst themselves.
It is vital that China’s present leaders take an active role and encourage open debate, public accountability and rethinking of the revolution so that they can learn valuable lessons from the past and not repeat its mistakes.