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    Greater China
     May 19, 2006
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.

Since 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.

On the "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 establishments.

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 open-door policy.

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 argue.

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 final victory.

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.

Mao was 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 instability.

Therefore, the Cultural Revolution, like the Tiananmen repression, has become an old wound that the Chinese leaders do not want to reopen.

Fong Tak-ho is Managing Editor of the Chinese edition of Asia Times Online.

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Forbidden images of the Cultural Revolution (Feb 14, '04)


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