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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Specter of the Cultural Revolution

June 2, 2012

The Specter of the Cultural Revolution (NY Times op-ed by Zhang LiJia 5/22/12)


A couple of months ago, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao warned that if China fails to make political reforms, the country runs a risk of repeating the Cultural Revolution.  While meant as a shot at Bo Xilai, the now-disgraced former Communist Party official at the center of a still-unfolding political scandal, Wen’s mention of the Cultural Revolution touched a nerve in China.


The Cultural Revolution began 46 years ago this month with Chairman Mao’s “May 16 Notification” and ended 10 years later with at least half a million people dead from torture, execution or suicide. This misguided movement tore apart China’s social fabric, touching all of us in one way or another.


A childhood friend of mine accidentally broke a porcelain statue of Chairman Mao. His mother was blamed, beaten and humiliated at public gatherings. She eventually went mad. My grandfather committed suicide at the height of the movement, terrified that his job as a grain dealer would make him a target of the roving bands of Red Guards who might persecute any merchant at any time because of a “capitalist” livelihood. My grandfather once said that he lived like a “bird startled by the mere twang of a bowstring.”


Such stories were all too common, yet we have not come to terms with their long-term effects. Until the Chinese leadership confronts the Cultural Revolution head-on, its ghosts will continue to haunt the nation.


In 1978, two years after the chaos ended, the Communist Party declared the Cultural Revolution a disaster and effectively banned any further public discussion. To this day, the movement’s excesses are glossed over in schools, and books on the period are subject to strict censorship. The topic is often blocked in Chinese on the Web. China has never had a full accounting of how and what went wrong.


Wen’s recent speech notwithstanding, top Communist Party officials usually avoid public discussion of the Cultural Revolution.   The word for revolution is ge ming — ge as in “reform” and ming meaning “life.” Thus a revolution is thought of as a life-changing transformation, and today’s leadership doesn’t want any talk of life-changing transformations, lest their tenuous hold on power become a target of change.


The Cultural Revolution is something the authorities would rather forget altogether. Yet we regular Chinese citizens can’t forget. Without confronting the most painful episode in modern Chinese history, how can we draw lessons from the past and prevent the tragedy from happening again?


We should remember it, reflect on it and answer the uncomfortable questions: How did the Cultural Revolution happen and why? Why did the majority of the Chinese people participate in the movement, often enthusiastically? Was it inevitable? And what did it say about the Chinese and its national psyche?  The renowned writer Feng Jicai risked his life by keeping records of harrowing stories from the era, which he published under the title “Ten Years of Madness.”


Together with other like-minded intellectuals, he has repeatedly lobbied the government to establish a museum to commemorate the Cultural Revolution, but all to no avail. At the newly renovated history museum near Tiananmen Square, such a major historical event is reduced to one line of text and one photo.


It goes without saying that Mao was primarily responsible. But in my view the leaders around him, as well as the dictatorial political system itself, also share the blame.  In a more democratic society citizens would not have blindly worshiped one man and allowed him to drag the whole nation into madness. The Cultural Revolution could not have happened in a democracy.


And that’s the point. China needs serious political reforms: more democracy, rule of law, transparency, checks on power and a decentralized power structure. Only measures such as these can push China forward into becoming a strong, modern nation — and to avoid repeating past catastrophes.


Wen was right: We need reform or we could end up too close to where we were 46 years ago. But the prime minister, who has only a few months left to his term, hasn’t elaborated upon what reforms he has in mind. In fact, he’s been talking of “reform” for years, and many other leaders also openly acknowledge that we need economic reform.


Implementing real reforms, not merely a tweak here and there, will demand courage. Will Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, the two men who will most likely take power in the autumn, be up to it? 

I doubt it. They are selected to lead the nation because they’ve proven not only their ability to govern but also their loyalty to the regime. Like all top party leaders, they understand how to place the party’s honor before the country’s interest. This next generation of leaders is unlikely to rock the boat — and that’s unfortunate.


Lijia Zhang is a Beijing-based writer and the author of “Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China.”

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