Mao Zedong, when he was near demise within the mid-Nineteen Seventies, advised these round him that he regarded his two best achievements as establishing a unified nation in 1949, and launching the Cultural Revolution in 1966. This large motion continued until Mao’s demise in 1976. His need, he stated, was that each few years it will recur.
Others didn’t share his constructive evaluation of this occasion. Over the previous 4 a long time, 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 Nineties, individuals frightened in China about what they noticed as growing indicators of egotism and persona cult and the instability this would possibly result in.
And, when the fiftieth anniversary of the formal launch of the Cultural Revolution occurred in Might 2016, the official newspaper, the Folks’s Every day, issued curt editorials condemning the interval as one in every of 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 categorized as being a part of a “dangerous class”, one of many loathed city elite who wanted to be despatched to the countryside from 1969 to present him actual revolutionary expertise.
That is strengthened by the very dim views of the Cultural Revolution expressed in the latest official articulation, the Temporary 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 one centesimal anniversary. In it, the interval was recognised as one the place the nation skilled its worst challenges and the celebration 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 large errors had been made, however stated little past that.
But in the present day, Xi’s ever extra expansive and bold ruling type – in addition to creeping insurance policies inserting “Xi Jinping Thought” into schooling and guarding in opposition to the perceived corruption of “celeb 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, it’s important to do not forget that the Cultural Revolution was one in every of a sequence of “cleaning” and rectification campaigns, going again to earlier than the celebration was even in energy. The late historian Gao Hua, in his guide How the Pink Solar Rose, described in large element the celebration’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 celebration members – and different social forces, and attempt to implement a typical view in a society as complicated as China’s continued by means of the Fifties. In that sense, the 1966 revolution was a part of a continuum.
Elekes Andor through flickr, CC BY-SA
You will need to recognise the issues that could possibly be seen as distinctive in regards to the Cultural Revolution. It occurred in a China which, from 1966 to 1971, was internationally as remoted because it has ever been in its trendy historical past. The Communist authorities had just one ambassador in put up in 1966 and was not then represented on the United Nations.
By way of economics and commerce, the nation was an impoverished, largely rural nation. Nor did it have something besides essentially the most foundation communication know-how. The Pink Guard pupil militants and different gamers within the Nineteen 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 obtainable.
China: one other nation
China in the present day is a distinct place: extra networked, wealthier, way 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 completely incomparable to that Mao’s propagandists deployed.
Which means that whereas Xi’s autocracy and authoritarianism has rather more technological capability, it additionally takes place in a extra complicated social and financial context. The “Temporary 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 in the present day shouldn’t be backwardness. It’s that China is now socially, and culturally, extra numerous. The celebration’s messaging has to compete with a myriad of distractions from enterprise, arts and life-style tendencies which might have been unimaginable of their materials privileges in 1966.
Xi’s motivation and Mao’s are additionally totally different. Mao was imposing a particular imaginative and prescient of modernisation, stunning a rustic that he considered as moribund, enslaved by custom, poor and backward. For Xi, the celebration 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 celebration 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 little thing else. Right now, the will is to have individuals who can contribute to the financial mission of the celebration state because it tries to be an awesome robust nation.
These are very totally different aims. It’s vital to maintain sight of the truth that if in China historical past repeated itself so neatly, we’d have all been in a position to predict occasions there much better than we’ve. 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 doesn’t work for, seek the advice of, personal shares in or obtain funding from any firm or organisation that may profit from this text, and has disclosed no related affiliations past their educational appointment.