The next day’s victims: a Chinese dissident being publicly humiliated during the Cultural Revolution © Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images/eyevine

The Chinese Communist Party is trying to rewrite history. It will fail

Mao’s Cultural Revolution left bloodstains that persisted throughout the 1970s, 1980s and beyond—regardless of what the ruling party says
January 25, 2023
Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution
Tania Branigan (RRP: £20)
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Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s
Julian Gewirtz (RRP: £28.95)
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There is an old Soviet joke about history. Under communism, it goes, the future is certain; it is the past that is unpredictable. The joke illuminates the truth that, if you believe the triumph of communism is historically inevitable, then the task of keeping history on the right track—confined to a narrative about the onward march of invariably correct decisions—never ceases.

But history is a slippery creature. It can find surprising hiding places while it waits for its opportunity. As Julian Gewirtz explores in Never Turn Back, which tells the story of the political arguments that raged in China in the 1980s, that same country is today defined by a debate that had been erased; and, as Tania Branigan demonstrates in Red Memory, her penetrating study of the buried stories of the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, history censored in the public realm retreats to private spaces, often to emerge years later and take its revenge. Given that some 36 million people were persecuted in the Cultural Revolution and some two million were murdered, even suppressed stories have consequences.

History is so important to China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, that he has criminalised divergent historical perspectives—labelling them “historical nihilism”. To deviate is to attack the party: Xi has warned that historical nihilism is “an existential threat [to the Communist party] on a par with western democracy”.

Xi has also commanded a major rewrite of the historical record, only the third time this has been done, to reinforce the story of the inevitable forward march—with himself in the lead position. The upshot is that one fifth of humanity must now pretend to believe a national story that was invented to keep the Communist party in perpetual control.

In Red Memory, Branigan uncovers the bitter histories of the Cultural Revolution that linger in the memories of middle-aged men and women. These histories include that of a woman whose father was beaten to death in her infancy and whose mother never recovered, killing herself decades later; and that of a man who, as a teenager, denounced his own mother, knowing she would also be beaten to death, and now loudly wails for forgiveness as he tries to protect her grave from destruction in a commercial development. The Cultural Revolution set friend against friend, child against parent, husband against wife, and made spectator-participants of almost everyone. It destroyed the moral underpinnings of Chinese society in the attempt to replace existing values with a fanatical devotion to Mao Zedong, in whose name any cruelty was permitted.

Xi has commanded a major rewrite of the historical record to reinforce the story of the inevitable forward march—with himself in the lead position.

It was also Mao’s greatest folly. He launched this revolution to restore his position following another disaster, the so-called “Great Leap Forward”, a quixotic attempt to overtake Britain in steel production in 15 years, as well as to collectivise the countryside. By the early 1960s, that episode had resulted in mass starvation and the deaths of 30 to 50m people. (In the official history, if this catastrophe is mentioned at all, it is described as three years of natural disaster.) To recover his leadership, Mao needed to attack his enemies in the party.

He called on young people to attack the “four olds”—old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits—and to assault those in the party whom he claimed were trying to restore capitalism. He created a decade of paranoia and political violence that scarred China for decades.

The first wave of the Cultural Revolution is the one best remembered outside China: the mass movement of student paramilitary groups known as the “Red Guards”; the assaults on teachers and other authority figures; the handwritten posters that debated points of political theology or denounced public figures as class enemies; the humiliation of party leaders who were paraded in dunce hats and forced into agonising positions as mobs screamed abuse at them; people beaten to death in “struggle sessions” or simply summarily executed.

As China descended into chaos, the mobs split into rival factions and one day’s persecutors could become the next day’s victims. After four years of mounting violence, Mao sent in the army to restore order, while the young Red Guards were sent to work in China’s impoverished countryside. By then, Deng Xiaoping, who would actually later go on to become China’s paramount leader, had been vilified and disgraced, and his son thrown out of a window and left paraplegic. Liu Shaoqi, who was chairman of the People’s Republic when the madness began, died in prison of an untreated cancer. Mao and his supporters ruled until his own death in 1976.

In the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, there was a surge of unhappy reminiscing—what became known as “scar literature”—but that moment passed. The stories that Branigan provides in her book—uncovered, in many cases, during her time as the Guardian’s correspondent in China—are ones that she argues could not be told under today’s stricter conditions.

Yet private memorialising of various sorts runs below the surface. Some former Red Guards still meet up to sing the songs of their youth and exchange memories, saying things that cannot be said closer to home. Meanwhile, Xu Weixin, an artist interviewed by Branigan, has turned to a more private form of art.

At the age of eight, Xu was told that his beloved teacher, Miss Liu, was the daughter of a landlord and therefore a class enemy. He drew a hideous caricature of her and pinned it to the blackboard. Haunted by the memory of her face when she saw the drawing, Xu in later life devoted five years to painting portraits—some of perpetrators of the violence, others of its victims—exploring through his brush the mystery of why people could turn on each other with such savagery. These portraits cannot be exhibited.

Others have tried in vain to create public memorials: the National Museum of China was inaugurated in 1959, but has spent long periods closed as arguments about the telling of history raged in the background. Its most recent renovation went on so long that it missed the target opening date of the 2008 Olympics. When it finally reopened, neither the Cultural Revolution nor the Great Leap Forward merited its attention.

For younger generations, the Cultural Revolution was later reinvented as kitsch

Of the 3,000 or so museums in China, only two attempt to deal with the Cultural Revolution. One dedicated museum was built by a former mayor of Shantou in Guangdong province, himself a victim; when Branigan went to visit, it was closed. The other traces are in Sichuan, in a private museum cluster built by Fan Jianchuan, an ex-soldier who made a fortune in property development. Fan is an obsessive collector of memorabilia, and three of the 15 museums he has built on his site include Cultural Revolution artefacts in their displays, but he has never been allowed to provide a narrative or dedicate a museum to helping visitors understand that catastrophic decade.

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Fanatical devotion: the Cultural Revolution fomented the personality cult of Mao Zedong © Retro AdArchives / Alamy Stock Photo

For younger generations, the Cultural Revolution was later reinvented as kitsch: themed restaurants—with waitresses dressed in baggy blue cotton Mao suits, along with cabaret-style “struggle sessions”—appeared in many cities. There is also, apparently, a market for Cultural Revolution tat, including grotesque porcelain tableaux of kneeling intellectuals in conical dunce hats being harangued by Red Guards.

Others have succeeded in repurposing their experience. Xi Jinping was 12 years old when it began: his father was internally exiled, his half-sister committed suicide and, at 15, he was sent to Liangjiahe, a poor village of cave dwellings in northwest China. He ran away after two months, only to be sent back.

Today, Xi’s experience has been transformed into an origin myth, a story of hardship endured and overcome, an exemplary tale of enduring devotion to the people. “When I arrived [at Liangjiahe] at 15, I was anxious and confused,” he wrote later. “When I left at 22, my life goals were firm and I was filled with confidence.” China’s officials, school parties and tourists dutifully retrace his footsteps at what is now a pilgrimage site.

Xi escaped his rural exile in 1975. Millions of “sent-down youth” were not so fortunate. For a few fiercely competitive years in the late 1970s, university entrance exams were open to all who had lost the chance of education in the previous decade. Then the door was closed for ever: millions were left behind in the villages, unable to pull strings or get city jobs. China, meanwhile, moved on.

After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping instituted a formal historical review that categorised the Cultural Revolution as 10 years of chaos. He set about rehabilitating the reputations of prominent victims including himself and posthumously, Liu Shaoqi. And he televised the trial of the Gang of Four—a group of the Cultural Revolution’s most prominent and terrible proponents, including Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife—while being careful not to dethrone the real author of the chaos, Mao, as the country’s prime ancestral god

By 1979, China was poised to enter a decade that would see the biggest explosion of ideas and debate since the suppression of the Hundred Flowers movement in the mid-1950s. Gewirtz picks up where Branigan leaves off, with the story of that intellectual and political ferment, and where it led—or rather, where it didn’t. Here are the ghosts of a China that might have been.

It was a time of rapid change: Mao had all but bankrupted China, and Deng understood, with characteristic bluntness, that “poverty is not socialism”; the party could not retain power without economic growth. He called for “four modernisations”—science, industry, agriculture and defence—to kickstart a recovery of China’s fortunes.

In December 1978, an electrician at the Beijing Zoo, Wei Jingsheng, pasted a long, handwritten poster on an unremarkable stretch of wall in the city centre. It was entitled “the fifth modernisation—democracy”. Wei’s poster inspired hundreds of others and, through the spring of 1979, “democracy wall” became the epicentre of popular clamour for political reform. Nearly a year later, the authorities shut down this remarkable experiment in free speech, and Wei was to spend years in jail before ending up in exile in the United States.
Deng, who had initially supported the democracy wall, proposed what he called four “cardinal principles” to define the boundaries of discussion: upholding the socialist road (that is, China’s commitment to socialism); the dictatorship of the proletariat; the leadership of the Communist party; and, finally, Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. These constraints meant it was possible to criticise—but never to challenge—the party’s supreme authority.

But as Gewirtz chronicles in his meticulously researched book, the demand for democracy in the 1980s was not just a call from the streets or from a fringe group of dissident public intellectuals. The argument about what had happened in the Cultural Revolution, why, and how to avoid a recurrence raged through the highest levels of the party for a decade. It was encouraged and sustained by a man now virtually erased from the official narrative, one who set China on the path to prosperity: Zhao Ziyang.

A road with many branches and byways becomes, in the official historical record, a gleaming highway that leads straight to a bright horizon

Zhao held several of the highest positions in the land throughout that critical decade of the 1980s: party vice chair (1981–82), premier (1980–87) and general secretary (1987–89). He championed the move away from the planned economy: instigating a series of reforms such as the creation of open economic zones and of rural enterprises—signature policies of the 1980s that are now credited to Deng.

Had he stopped there, Zhao’s name might still be on the official roll of honour. But he also championed freedom of expression and the press, an independent judiciary and the separation of party and government—partially on the basis that economic reform would be ineffective without political reform. These ideas are now labelled “bourgeois liberalism” and are explicitly listed as mortal threats to Communist party rule.

Gewirtz proposes a revisionist view of the widely accepted story of China after the Cultural Revolution—that steady policy choices were made primarily by Deng. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including internal party documents that have quietly made their way out of China, along with propaganda and censorship directives revealing what the Communist party was anxious to suppress as it rewrote the history of the decade, he describes how Zhao and his ideals were progressively erased.

The 1980s ended with the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, and other cities where similar crowds had gathered to demand a say in the country’s future. Zhao opposed the violence and fell from power on the eve of the massacre. He had lost Deng’s support and spent the rest of his life under house arrest, dying in 2005.

Deng’s perspective had been heavily influenced by international events—notably the demands for freedom that emerged in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and, eventually, East Germany and the Soviet Union itself. As Soviet communism crumbled, China’s Communist party pointed the finger of blame at Nikita Khrushchev for his 1956 denunciation of Stalin and at Mikhail Gorbachev for his embrace of liberal ideas. From then on, no such questioning of its own record would be permitted.

They settled on a new patriotic version of history, bent on proving that, since the early 19th century, foreigners had been behind all the country’s setbacks. The people were to be persuaded that only the party stood between their country and the ill intentions of other nations, and that China’s long history and superior culture made it an exception to the widely observed phenomenon that, once they achieve a certain standard of living, citizens tend to demand a say in how they are governed.

As Never Turn Back and Red Memory show, controlling history in China is not merely a matter of censoring the accounts of events. It also includes censoring the history of ideas, of thought, of the arguments from which policy finally emerges. A road with many branches and byways becomes, in the official record, a gleaming highway leading straight to a bright horizon.

Anyone who is not marching in today’s direction is liable to be erased from yesterday’s journey. As Zhao’s secretary, Bao Tong, later observed, ideas of political reform in China died twice. First, they were killed by the events of 1989; second, “all traces have been erased from official materials”.

Removing the memory of debate erases the possibility of alternatives, of awareness of the roads not taken, of ideas and prospects that had been entertained. It disguises the fact that the choices that emerged were often the result of power struggles rather than of the scientific reasoning with which the party
credits itself.

But if there is a single lesson to be drawn from these books, it is that history does not end at the command of the Chinese Communist party. As China continues on its road to modernisation, there will be new moments when spaces open for other ideas. When that happens, things will look different again.