Wed, May 18, 2016 - Page 8 News List

Xi, child of the Cultural Revolution

By Ma Jian 馬建

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.

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