Beijing plays down 10 lost, chaotic years

UNDER THE RUG: Millions of lives were destroyed by the Cultural Revolution, but the lack of open debate means the catastrophe has not yet passed, one dissident says


Tue, May 16, 2006 - Page 4

No speeches or commentaries by China's leaders have marked the 40th anniversary of what many see as one of the most shameful periods of the country's history since 1949, when the Communist Party seized power under Mao Zedong (毛澤東).

Many people who reached working age during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution refer to it as the "10 lost years."

The lack of calls to learn from the mistakes of what the party officially calls the "10 years of national chaos" is perhaps surprising.

"The officials do not permit open discussion, the victims do not want to remember and the persecutors are not willing to repent," veteran dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) wrote in an essay published this month on the overseas-based Web site Observe China.

"It can even be said that 30 years after the Cultural Revolution has ended, the national self-examination about this `catastrophe' has still not yet begun today," said Liu, a journalist and literary critic who has spent a total of four and half years in prison since taking part in the 1989 pro-democracy protests.

The roots of the movement are often seen in the extremism of the disastrous "Great Leap Forward" in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when up to 30 million people are thought to have died of starvation.

The Cultural Revolution intensified through criticism of cultural activities during 1965. It culminated in Mao issuing the May 16 Circular in 1966 to "completely denounce the capitalist representatives in the academic, educational, journalist, artist and publication circles."

The May 16 Circular also ordered party members to denounce and purge "representatives of the bourgeoisie" who had "sneaked into the party, the government, the army and all spheres of culture."

It warned of "people like Kruschev" inside the party. China and the Soviet Union had split in the early 1960s and Mao, who apparently feared a Soviet invasion, accused Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev of socialist "revisionism."

In August 1966, Mao issued an order for Red Guards to receive free travel for the purpose of "great revolutionary networking" across China.

He appeared at the first mass rally of perhaps 1 million Red Guards, most of them wearing Mao badges and waving copies of his Little Red Book in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on Aug. 18, 1966.

As the quasi-religious personality cult grew, Mao attended eight rallies with some 11 million students and Red Guards in Beijing in late 1966, according to party records.

Social turmoil and economic regression increased as a movement of "red terror" divided the nation, the party, communities and families.

Armed turf wars erupted between rival Red Guard factions. There were public beatings of "reactionary" teachers as schools and universities suspended lessons for some four years. Many people were thrown into prison on trumped-up charges.

Intellectuals were branded the "stinking ninth," making them the lowest of nine categories of "class enemies" that also included landlords and capitalists.

Urban youths and disgraced intellectuals were sent off to the countryside to "learn from the peasants" through manual labor.

Millions of Chinese people had to rebuild lives broken by the "10 lost years," but there is still no official account of how many people died in prison or failed to return from rural exile.

Many people still blame the "Gang of Four," led by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing (江青), for the chaos.

Yet the party's official history says Mao himself "confused right and wrong" and "created conspiratorial opportunities" for Jiang and the other "careerists."

"The `cultural revolution' was launched and led by Mao Zedong and, therefore, he was mainly responsible for the overall `left' mistake which lasted for so long," the party says.

It now sees Mao in his later years as a tragic "great revolutionary" who, in pursuit of a "pure, perfect socialist society," became "tied to an abstract conception which was divorced from reality."

Mao died in September 1976, eight months after popular premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來). This allowed the arrest of the Gang of Four, though many of their supporters remained in powerful positions.

By late 1978, veteran revolutionary Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), who was twice purged during the Cultural Revolution, was able to begin transforming China's closed, planned economy. The party examined its role in the turmoil and wrote the official history.

Some of those who experienced it have tried to portray the Cultural Revolution in novels, journals, films and other works of art.

But Liu argues that the lack of comprehensive, open public accounting and debate means "the catastrophe has not yet passed."

"The children of the senior cadres who enjoyed the greatest fame during the Cultural Revolution are now the principal beneficiaries of the lame reform today," Liu said. "They will not mention their own barbaric acts of assaulting, vandalizing, looting, running kangaroo courts, and so on."