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The Lingering Ghost of the Cultural Revolution

By Peter Zhang

In “1984,” George Orwell cautioned us, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” Orwell further pointed out: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Perhaps, no entity better practices Orwell’s dictum than the Chinese communist party (CCP). If you live in China long enough, chances are you will likely witness the CCP revising its own history periodically, depending on its leaders’ political needs or perhaps mood swings.

Starting this spring semester, a newly revised textbook has been adopted. Chinese eighth graders are now taught a new narrative about the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (also known as the Cultural Revolution) that Chairman Mao Zedong launched and energized between 1966 and 1976—markedly different content from what the eighth graders studied in the previous year.

The horrific and massive human suffering and death as a result of Mao’s reign of terror and lawlessness during the Cultural Revolution have been well documented as public record these days.

In 1981, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the CCP adopted the “Resolution on Certain Historical Issues of the Party Since the Founding of the P.R.C.,” which, for the first time, denounced Mao’s role in the Cultural Revolution, describing the Cultural Revolution as being “disastrous” and “civil turmoil.” Until now, all leaders who came after Deng have been following this established party line as laid out in this “Resolution.”

There are three major revisions with this new textbook. In the previous edition, there was a five-page section called “10-Year Cultural Revolution,” but the new edition removed this section and combined the Cultural Revolution descriptions with another section while reducing the combined section to three pages only. Apparently, the current CCP leadership has made a deliberate effort to minimize the impact of the 10-year Cultural Revolution.

The old edition states, “In the 1960s, Mao Zedong mistakenly believed that the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party was engaging in revisionism, and that the Party and the country faced the danger of capitalist restoration. In order to prevent the restoration of capitalism, he decided to initiate the ‘Great Cultural Revolution.’”

The new edition, however, has removed the word “mistakenly,” attempting to justify Mao’s motive to initiate the Cultural Revolution. It states, “In the mid-1960s Mao Zedong believed that the Party and the country faced the danger of capitalist restoration. Therefore, emphasizing the idea of ‘using class struggle as a principle,’ he wanted to prevent the restoration of capitalism by initiating the ‘Great Cultural Revolution.’ By the summer of 1966 the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ had been fully launched.”

The new edition also adds the statement, “World history always moves forward with ups and downs,” thereby, making light of the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution as part of the natural evolution of history.

What is, then, the purpose of these textbook revisions and why now? Many CCP members, including current top CCP leader Xi Jinping, are actually among the victims and survivors of the Cultural Revolution.

In 2013, Xi, however, made some unusual remarks, “Mao is a great figure who changed the face of the nation and led the Chinese people to a new destiny … The banner of Mao Zedong Thought could not be lost and losing it means a negation to the Party’s glorious history. The principle of holding high the banner of Mao Zedong Thought should not be wavered at any time and we will hold high the banner to advance forever.”

Many China watchers suspect that by reframing Mao’s role in the Cultural Revolution, Xi is attempting to achieve Mao’s paramount status himself, especially in light of his recent move to end the presidential term limit, which has paved the way to allow Xi to stay in power for life.

Transfixed on Maoist Thought

In a New York Times article, Song Yongyi, an expert on the Cultural Revolution at Cal State University in Los Angeles, used Bo Xilai, a CCP princeling, as an example to illuminate why the CCP elite is deeply attached to the doctrines as well as the legacy of the Cultural Revolution.

Bo, now behind bars as Xi’s political rival, was once an avid promoter of the “Red Songs” from the era of the Cultural Revolution and a rising CCP star, who was seen a few years ago as a successor or even replacement for Xi among those who wanted a change in leadership.

In a conversation with Fang Ning, head of the Politics Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Bo disclosed that his family was supposed to resent Mao immensely for being harshly purged during the Cultural Revolution, but upon further reckoning, Bo claimed that Mao’s leadership style was still the best way to save China. In other words, promoting Maoism could actually help Bo achieve his own political ambitions, according to Song’s analysis.

The majority of the Chinese leaders at all levels of the government, Xi and Bo included, belong to the so-called Cultural Revolution generation, also known as the “lost generation.”

They have gone through perhaps a yet more bitter experience than what George Orwell once envisioned in 1984, and their worldviews were mostly shaped since childhood by Mao’s little red book, “Quotations From Chairman Mao Zedong.” Despite present-day economic reform and globalization, their minds and souls have been deeply ingrained with Maoist doctrines, which they continue to hold relevant in this digital era.

This appears to be true with many of the Cultural Revolution generation. It would be a daunting task to think outside the box, especially in a closed society. As Carl Jung once noted, “The wine of youth does not always clear with advancing years; sometimes it grows turbid.”

In 1989, when thousands of college students rallied for democracy on Tiananmen Square, few might have noticed that these students often drew inspiration and fellowship by singing “L’Internationale,” the best-known communist anthem from the 19th century socialist movement, because that was one of the few songs they all knew by heart back then, growing up in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution.

Living in a closed society, these young people were not able to create any new song for political reform, nor was it possible at that time for them to be aware of Western protest songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Haunting the Populace

Major disparities appear between people living in communist societies and democracies, in terms of language usage, mentality, way of life, and culture. The contrast comes into sharp focus when comparing people who lived in East and West Germany, or those who are living now in North and South Korea, or those who live in mainland China and territories outside mainland China, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao.

Since 1949 or after the CCP overtook mainland China, those who live outside the communist rule such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao, have been spared the communist brainwashing process as well as various political campaigns.

As a result, these Chinese people, often labeled as “overseas Chinese” by the mainland Chinese, continue to use traditional Chinese characters and uphold 5,000-year-old Chinese traditions while an almost opposite path has been taken in mainland China over the past 69 years. Unlike open societies where multiple versions of textbooks are available, in China there is only one version of textbooks and the CCP controls the content.

These latest textbook revisions, however, did not come out without sparking some emotional debates from almost all sectors of society in China, as the Cultural Revolution remains a tormenting memory for many millions of Chinese people who lived through it, and they fear the second coming of the calamity.

Once again, we witness that online critical posts by Chinese netizens have been quickly “harmonized” or deleted by the cyber cops. One tweeted, “We always protest Japanese textbooks for whitewashing the crimes during WWII in China, but the Party doctors our own history shamelessly to deceive our future generation.”

By embracing the ghost of the Cultural Revolution, the CCP rulers are continuing to haunt the populace with the past nightmare. They seem to have forgotten the stern warning from their guru, Karl Marx, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

As noted by Song Yongyi in the New York Times article, “If one wants to know whether the Cultural Revolution has truly ended, just find out if Mao’s portrait on Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) has been taken down or not.”

Peter Zhang contributed this article which was first published on EET. Peter researches on political economy in China and East Asia. He is a graduate of Beijing International Studies University, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and of Harvard Kennedy School as a Mason fellow.


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