Fifty years ago this month, former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) launched the Cultural Revolution — a decade of chaos, persecution and violence carried out in the name of ideology and in the interest of expanding Mao’s power. Yet, instead of reflecting on that episode’s destructive legacy, the Chinese government is limiting all discussion of it, while Chinese citizens, focused on the wealth brought by three decades of market-oriented reforms, have been content to go along.
However, at a time when Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is carrying out ruthless purges and creating his own cult of personality, burying the past is not without cost.
In August 1966, Mao published Bombard the Headquarters — My Big-Character Poster, a document aimed at enabling the purge of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) leading “capitalist roader”: then-Chinese President Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇). On the “poster,” Mao called for China’s young people to “pull the emperor off his horse” and start a grassroots rebellion.
They responded with alacrity. “Red Guard” student paramilitary groups cropped up across the nation to advance Mao’s will. Within 100 days, Mao had succeeded in purging swaths of the party leadership, including Liu and Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
However, it was not just Mao’s political adversaries who were under attack. That first August and September alone, the Red Guards killed more than 1,700 people, either through beatings or “forced suicide,” and banished about 100,000 Beijing residents after burning their homes and belongings. Educators were particularly vulnerable. Whenever the Red Guards arrived at elementary schools, middle schools, or universities, teachers and administrators were removed.
It did not take long for Mao to turn on the Red Guards, deciding that its members were the “underlings” of the capitalist roaders. After imposing military rule across China, Mao filled the Red Guard units with new proletarian rebels, often banishing the groups’ original members to far-flung villages for “re-education.”
For Xi, the events of the Cultural Revolution hit close to home. His father, Xi Zhongxun (習仲勳), a senior CCP official, was removed from power, imprisoned and ultimately sent to work in a factory making tractors, while his family was scattered across the countryside.
However, instead of recoiling from the ideology and organization that tore apart his family and nation, Xi has adopted the key tenets and tools of the Cultural Revolution as his own. Xi seems to have retained within him the belligerence of the Cultural Revolution-era’s young people.
Power is his lodestar and he appears to be willing to go to any length to secure it. In this effort, he has one key advantage: Mao’s legacy.
For decades, Mao promoted a form of class struggle in which people informed on one another, even their closest friends, neighbors and family members. With no safe haven at hand, everyone — even non-members — became a servant of the CCP. In this environment of fear, the state quietly and efficiently subsumed personal identity.
The savagery required to assert absolute power over the population is one lesson of the Cultural Revolution to which Xi seems indifferent. He is concerned only about the “absolute power” part. In his effort to obtain it, the survivors of the Cultural Revolution — people who know what it means to be intimidated into choosing politics over the personal — have become Xi’s most reliable political capital.
Xi knows that he can succeed only by reinforcing the party’s authority and his position as its leader. So he has presented the narrative that there is a grave threat to China from within — a threat posed by treacherous and corrupt leaders — and has declared party loyalty to be of paramount importance.
There are only two types of people: Those who support the CCP and those who do not. Just as Mao did in 1966, Xi believes that his power hinges on making all Chinese — government officials and ordinary citizens alike — loyal and obedient through any means possible. Power is founded on the repression of opponents, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) and tens of thousands of other jailed authors and academics.
However, Xi is not counting on fear alone to cement his rule. He is also attempting to win popular support with a new unifying ideology, based on the so-called “China dream,” a set of socialist values and goals that are supposed to bring about the “great renewal of the Chinese nation.”
This has been accompanied by a galvanizing form of nationalism that portrays the world, particularly the US, as seeking to keep China from assuming its rightful place atop the international order. He has nurtured a personality cult of a kind not seen since Mao.
Fifty years after the Cultural Revolution, its crimes and sins remain unexpurgated. On the contrary, it is being used to justify more political and social repression in China. However, despite Xi’s best efforts, his attempts to secure Mao-style authority are likely to end very differently for him, with his incompetent economic rule, political purges and repression gradually producing secret cadres that oppose him.
As economic failures increasingly explode into political unrest, the old Red Guards might once again reprise their central role in the Cultural Revolution, backed by a younger generation unaware of history.
This time, the “emperor” they pull off his horse will be Xi.
Ma Jian, born in China, is a London-based novelist.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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