Cultural Revolution? What
revolution? By Fong Tak Ho
HONG KONG - Forty years after the launch
of the Cultural Revolution by Mao Zedong, one
could be excused in China for missing the
anniversary of the start of the event that
launched the country into a decade of bloody
political and social turmoil.
Tuesday, all official Chinese media organs have
remained silent on the catastrophic period,
without even mentioning the phrase "Cultural
Revolution". Academics were reportedly banned from
participating in seminars held overseas to discuss
what happened four decades ago.
"Today in History" column on the website of the
state-run Xinhua News Agency, Xinhuanet.com, the
most important historic
event of that time was said
to be the release of a song that later became
China's national anthem.
A search of
Baidu.com, China's equivalent to Google.com, with
the keywords "Cultural Revolution" produces no
results beyond a remark saying the keyword has
"probably violated some law or regulation".
Before his death last October, Ba Jin, a
renowned Chinese writer, had proposed the setting
up of a Cultural Revolution museum to remind
future generations of this bitter piece of
history. The authorities turned a deaf ear.
Without doubt, the Cultural Revolution was
one of the defining events in modern China's
history, and deserves to be studied and discussed.
However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bars
any public activities to address the event,
apparently in fear of stirring up new ideological
controversies to threaten social stability.
The Cultural Revolution was in essence a
revolt by Chinese students and workers against
bureaucrats of the CCP, encouraged and supported
by Mao, the party's founder and "Great Leader".
The general view holds that Mao launched
the uprising in an effort to get rid of his
political enemies in the party so as to secure his
power and influence. Between 1966 and 1968, Mao
encouraged his young supporters, the Red Guards,
to take over power from state authorities and form
"revolutionary committees" to replace government
But soon Mao's supporters
split into factions and started fighting against
one another. In the chaos and violence that
ensued, millions were killed and millions more
injured or imprisoned.
The economy was on
the brink of collapse when the Cultural Revolution
ended after Mao's death in 1976. Two years later,
Deng Xiaoping launched economic reforms and an
After more than two
decades of market-oriented reform, China's
economic muscle has grown unprecedentedly strong,
which has enabled the current leaders to become
increasingly self-confident on the international
stage. However, they are still extremely cautious
and conservative when handling issues concerning
the Cultural Revolution.
Although the CCP,
led by Deng, passed a resolution in the late 1970s
to condemn the revolution as the "biggest mistake"
committed by Mao, the party does not want the
public to discuss this "mistake" of Mao openly.
Analysts attribute this to the overall
legacy of Mao, who led the CCP to win a civil war
and rise to rule mainland China in 1949.
Generations later, today's leaders still want to
safeguard this reputation of Mao, which in turn is
meant to safeguard the legitimacy of their rule.
As stated, the CCP made a posthumous
criticism of Mao for the Cultural Revolution. In
addition, dozens of then-Chinese leaders,
including Marshal Lin Biao, once Mao's designated
successor, who died in an air crash in 1971 trying
to flee the country, and Jiang Qing - Mao's widow
- were condemned for stirring up turmoil during
the revolution, making use of Mao's authority.
However, this official "verdict" has been
disputed by many for oversimplifying the enormous
complexity of the event. Especially, Mao should
bear a greater responsibility than others, critics
A step in the right direction would
be to declassify official documents relating to
the Cultural Revolution. The government has begun
to declassify diplomatic documents from the 1950s
and 1960s, which is progress. It is hoped that
this openness will be extended to other fields.
But a re-evaluation of Mao will be
difficult. President Hu Jintao is widely believed
to be an admirer of Mao. Almost immediately after
he came into power in 2002, he paid tribute to Mao
at Xibaipo, a village in Hebei province where Mao
based his headquarters from 1947-48 to win his
Diplomatically, too, the
protection of Mao's reputation is of pragmatic
concern: to keep on good terms with the North
Korean leadership in the hope of calming the
crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
regarded by the North Koreans as "a good brother
and very good friend", because he sent Chinese
troops in the early 1950s to help the North Korean
regime. Mao's son, Mao Anying, died during the
Korean War. North Korea's ruling Kim family has
always had very strong feelings about this.
After the bloody Tiananmen crackdown on
reformists on June 4, 1989, the Chinese leadership
reached a consensus to give "maintaining political
and social stability" top priority. This consensus
is still valid. Any re-evaluation of Mao will
inevitably spark a new round of ideological
controversies, which may lead to a split in the
leadership, with resultant political and social
Therefore, the Cultural
Revolution, like the Tiananmen repression, has
become an old wound that the Chinese leaders do
not want to reopen.
is Managing Editor of the Chinese edition of Asia