Mao Zedong, when he was near loss of life within the mid-Seventies, informed these round him that he regarded his two biggest achievements as establishing a unified nation in 1949, and launching the Cultural Revolution in 1966. This big motion continued until Mao’s loss of life in 1976. His want, he stated, was that each few years it will recur.
Others didn’t share his optimistic evaluation of this occasion. Over the previous 4 many years, the Cultural Revolution has figured like a nightmarish bogeyman, lurking within the collective Chinese language unconsciousness. Within the period of Jiang Zemin within the late Nineteen Nineties, individuals fearful in China about what they noticed as growing indicators of egotism and character cult and the instability this may result in.
And, when the fiftieth anniversary of the formal launch of the Cultural Revolution occurred in Might 2016, the official newspaper, the Individuals’s Each day, issued curt editorials condemning the interval as one among chaos and extremism.
The Chinese language president, Xi Jinping, has seldom referred publicly to the period – and by no means positively. This isn’t shocking. He was caught up within the political turmoil of the time, being labeled as being a part of a “unhealthy class”, one of many loathed city elite who wanted to be despatched to the countryside from 1969 to offer him actual revolutionary expertise.
That is bolstered by the very dim views of the Cultural Revolution expressed in the newest official articulation, the Transient Historical past of the Social gathering, which got here out with Xi’s approval early in 2021 simply earlier than the Chinese language Communist Social gathering celebrated its a centesimal anniversary. In it, the interval was recognised as one the place the nation skilled its worst challenges and the social gathering entered a interval of division and disaster.
This doesn’t stray removed from the earliest condemnations issued in 1981 by the authorities, which curtly dismissed the interval as one the place big errors had been made, however stated little past that.
But right now, Xi’s ever extra expansive and impressive ruling model – in addition to creeping insurance policies inserting “Xi Jinping Thought” into training and guarding towards the perceived corruption of “movie star tradition” – has led to new comparisons with the Cultural Revolution. Is China now within the throes of a brand new iteration of the motion Mao wished to be perpetual?
‘Rectification and cleaning’
Earlier than embracing this concept, you need to keep in mind that the Cultural Revolution was one among a collection of “cleaning” and rectification campaigns, going again to earlier than the social gathering was even in energy. The late historian Gao Hua, in his e book How the Purple Solar Rose, described in big element the social gathering’s purges and ideological enforcement of the agreed line within the early Forties, lengthy earlier than the Communists even glimpsed energy.
Campaigns to self-discipline social gathering members – and different social forces, and attempt to implement an ordinary view in a society as advanced as China’s continued by means of the Fifties. In that sense, the 1966 revolution was a part of a continuum.
It is very important recognise the issues that could possibly be seen as distinctive concerning the Cultural Revolution. It occurred in a China which, from 1966 to 1971, was internationally as remoted because it has ever been in its fashionable historical past. The Communist authorities had just one ambassador in put up in 1966 and was not then represented on the United Nations.
When it comes to economics and commerce, the nation was an impoverished, largely rural nation. Nor did it have something besides probably the most primary communication know-how. The Purple Guard scholar militants and different gamers within the Sixties waged their wars with stencilled pamphlets and information sheets. It’s fascinating to surprise what would have occurred had social media and the web been accessible.
China: one other nation
China right now is a distinct place: extra networked, wealthier, much more globalised and overwhelmingly extra city. The 2021 census confirmed that greater than 60% of the inhabitants now lives in cities, in comparison with 15% at first of the Cultural Revolution. And the know-how that Xi Jinping has entry to as a ruler is totally incomparable to that Mao’s propagandists deployed.
Which means whereas Xi’s autocracy and authoritarianism have way more technological capability, it additionally takes place in a extra advanced social and financial context. The “Transient Historical past” issued in 2021 referred to above did argue that Mao’s intentions from 1966 had been predominantly cultural, to revolutionise and modernise what was overwhelmingly, to make use of the language of the historical past, a “culturally backward” nation.
The difficulty right now is just not backwardness. It’s that China is now socially, and culturally, extra various. The social gathering’s messaging has to compete with a myriad of distractions from enterprise, arts and way of life developments which might have been unimaginable of their materials privileges in 1966.
Xi’s motivation and Mao’s are additionally completely different. Mao was implementing a particular imaginative and prescient of modernisation, stunning a rustic that he considered as moribund, enslaved by custom, poor and backward. For Xi, the social gathering has to seek out methods as by no means earlier than to talk and be related to a society typically distracted past creativeness.
Pointedly, concurrently campaigns in colleges to show social gathering pondering and historical past began, so too did a clampdown on youngsters sitting for hours taking part in on-line video games. The Cultural Revolution was partly to create new mannequin activist residents who put politics above every part else. As we speak, the need is to have individuals who can contribute to the financial mission of the social gathering state because it tries to be an awesome robust nation.
These are very completely different goals. It’s essential to maintain sight of the truth that if in China historical past repeated itself so neatly, we might have all been in a position to predict occasions there much better than we have now. That alone ought to counsel warning on these simply claiming the nation goes right into a second Cultural Revolution, regardless of some floor similarities.
Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese language Politics; Director, Lau China Institute, King’s Faculty London
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