Prisoners in Red Guard Square on 12th September 1966. The placards round their necks accuse them of being counter-revolutionaries ©Li Zhensheng/Contact Press images from "Red colour news soldier" (Phaedon, 2003)

The chaos still haunting China

Mao's Cultural Revolution ended over 40 years ago, but for the country's leaders fear of the darkness it released still justifies their authoritarian control
May 16, 2016
Read more: China's cool, non-political youth

In mid-March this year, a document titled “A Thousand Yes-Men Cannot Equal One Honest Adviser” appeared on the website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, a top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) body. In a pointed, though anonymous, message to Xi Jinping, the Chinese President and CCP Secretar-General, the author quoted Mao Zedong to argue that “the Secretary of the Party must be a good ‘team leader,’ and… must put all the problems on the table and pay attention to the work of those comrades whose opinions differ from his own.”

The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962-1976, by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury, £25)

The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, by Xianlin (NYRB Books, £17.50)

Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, by Alec Ash (Picador, £16.99)

Nobody has yet identified the source of the admonishment, but there was widespread speculation that it came from a senior political figure concerned at the increasingly autocratic appearance of Xi’s rule. Internal fighting between competing factions is nothing new in Chinese politics. But it usually happens within an empire of whispered rumours: people talk about who’s up and who’s down at private dinners and in restaurants, not on public websites. One of the last occasions when senior leaders criticised each other in public, albeit in newspapers and with placards daubed with slogans in huge Chinese characters rather than online, was half a century ago, during China’s Cultural Revolution. In those days, the denunciation of a top leader could mean his sudden disappearance without a trace, or else public vilification. While 2016 is a different era from 1966, 50 years after the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, much of Chinese politics remains an unstated reaction against that period—when China was at its most violent and least comprehensible.

The Cultural Revolution itself was one of the most uncategorisably bizarre phenomena in modern history. Rather as Voltaire claimed that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman or an empire, the academic Ji Xianlin states firmly in his memoir The Cowshed, that “the Cultural Revolution was neither cultural nor revolutionary.” For most of the early period of Mao’s rule, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was a recognisable sort of state: Soviet-influenced in its authoritarian politics with a command economy. It wasn’t a clone of the Soviet Union, but its DNA was ostensibly similar.

By the summer of 1966, Mao, Chairman of the ruling CCP, felt under siege, sure that his Politburo rivals wanted to ease him out of power after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward (1958-61). The Great Leap was supposed to bring about social and economic change through rapid industrialisation and collectivisation, but it actually created a famine that killed tens of millions. To combat his fears, Mao called on China’s youth to “bombard the headquarters” and launch a civil war against the Party which Mao headed—those in their teens and twenties became known as Red Guards. Even the Great Helmsman himself was surprised at how quickly the movement took off, with the insurgents taking over university campuses and factories—eventually bringing down senior figures such as state president Liu Shaoqi. China’s universities became sites for the public humiliation of intellectuals, derided as the “stinking ninth” category of offenders. Meanwhile, Tiananmen Square was filled with up to a million youthful enthusiasts for Mao—aided in their journey by the abolition of train fares.

This “Red Guard” phase was ended by the army in 1969, but the Cultural Revolution ceased officially only with Mao’s death in 1976, and the arrest of the leadership group known as the “Gang of Four” led by Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife. The era saw millions of people persecuted (many of them pressured into suicide) and the destruction of China’s cultural heritage with a thoroughness that could teach Islamic State some lessons. The Cultural Revolution was officially repudiated by the Party in 1981. However, there is still nervousness in elite circles about discussing it too openly.

The continuing political relevance of the era makes Frank Dikötter’s new book, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976, a timely and impressive piece of work. It offers a narrative history that begins in the early 1960s, showing Mao’s increasing frustration that his party was losing its revolutionary fervour. By launching a movement dedicated to smashing “Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas,” Mao felt that China’s society—and particularly its youth—would renew the revolution.

Yet the insurgency quickly turned into score-settling among factions who used the Chairman’s own incitement to violence (“a revolution is not a dinner party; it cannot be so refined”) to persecute their enemies and to create a cult of Mao as a god. One worker remembered that every morning he waved his copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, more commonly known as the Little Red Book, as he and his fellow workers chanted “Helmsman Chairman Mao, may you live 10,000 years.” He recalled: “It struck me as absurd, like a religion… At the time, however, no one in their right mind would dare to say so openly.”

One strength of Dikötter’s book is the depth of archival material from within China, which provides invaluable details on the horrors of the period. The brassy certainties of the Mao cult of personality look particularly empty in the face of the economic devastation wreaked by the policies of the Cultural Revolution on parts of China. When inspectors visited a village in Shaanxi province in 1973, they found a starving, half-frozen peasant sobbing, “Please allow the government to take care of us!”

Dikötter argues powerfully that the decisions made during the Cultural Revolution have affected China’s development. He makes the case that Mao’s decision to relocate many industries to the interior of the country and mobilise the rural peasantry was a scandalous misallocation of infrastructure and capital. He also argues that private enterprise returned to China because of the activities of the peasants themselves, who recreated free markets in agriculture by selling crops in defiance of the Party; what he terms the “silent revolution” that predates Deng Xiaoping’s turn to “opening-up and reform” in 1978.

There is much to be said for that argument, but there is another view—that, despite the psychological traumas that it created, Maoist economic planning overall may have laid the ground for some of the successes of the reform era. In a panic over a possible Soviet attack, Mao promoted a move to the “Third Front”—the west of China—a decision that brought infrastructure to the interior and away from the coasts. Although the move was made for military rather than economic reasons, it nonetheless shifted some of the centre of economic gravity to provide new growth in deeply underdeveloped areas.

Dikötter also has little time for the famed “barefoot doctor” programme, which he calls a “sham.” The initiative was intended to provide a village-based type of healthcare by training peasants in basic techniques. The “doctors” were clearly inadequate in many ways, but they often served an important role in terms of wider healthcare education as well as providing an element of locally-based care that was at least better than the folk remedies and superstitions prevalent in much of the countryside. Today, as rural healthcare remains patchy in China, some remember the barefoot doctors with nostalgia. All these areas demand further debate, and Dikötter’s hard-won evidence will be a crucial part of those arguments.

Yet we are still left with the hardest question of all: why did the Cultural Revolution happen in the first place? The question is posed by Ji Xianlin in The Cowshed, although he immediately replies: “I am ill-equipped to answer.” However, the inability to provide a response does not rob the book of its power. It is one of the most graphic accounts of the persecution of a Chinese intellectual during that turbulent era ever published. In 1966, Ji was professor of Sanskrit at Peking University. Noting that Red Guards at the university demanded that class enemies should be cut “into a thousand pieces” and boiled “in a vat of oil,” he draws on his research speciality to observe drily that “perhaps their unusually vivid imagery was borrowed from the Buddhist hell.”
"The current direction of travel seems to ignore the most important lesson of the Cultural Revolution: the need for a more open society"
Ji was targeted as someone with foreign connections and interests. He was consequently held and tortured as a representative of “capitalist-roading” and “bourgeois revisionism.” The small details of his tale give it poignancy; at one point, he spent long hours on his own practising the “airplane position,” the excruciating hunched stance with arms stretched upwards and sideways that the Red Guards forced on their victims, so that he would have enough stamina not to fall down and receive a beating during the real thing.

One of the virtues of Ji’s memoir is that it provides a different viewpoint from that found in many English-language memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, which, as Jianying Zha’s fine introduction suggests, tend to cast their protagonists either as simple victims or as brave resisters. Ji’s memoir is frank about his willingness, at first, to denounce colleagues, although he was never a leading figure in the movement. “Without quite knowing what I was doing,” he writes, “I joined the ranks of the persecutors.” The division between perpetrator and victim was much greyer than many would prefer to believe today.

We may never know the causes of the Cultural Revolution, even when the archives are fully opened, because the answer may well lie in the realm of psychology rather than in the tracing of bureaucratic decisions. However, the extraordinary violence of China’s 20th-century history may well have been a factor. Large parts of China spent much of the period between the 1910s and 1950s engaged in conflicts, either between warlords, against Japan, between the Nationalists and Communists in the civil war and, of course, during the fierce campaigns of the early Mao era.

In addition, China’s nationalist modernisers were more iconoclastic in the pre-war period than, for instance, their counterparts in India, which may explain why the regime established post-1949 in China was so much more inclined to destroy the past than its postcolonial counterparts elsewhere. This history, capped by the Cultural Revolution, has left China’s political culture in fear of luan, or chaos, and nurtured a feeling that a lack of freedom is better than a lack of control.

Today, the teenage Red Guards of the late 1960s are starting to claim their pensions. Yet the Cultural Revolution still hangs over Chinese society like a ghost only half-exorcised. It was referenced repeatedly during the rise and fall of Bo Xilai, the populist leader who fell from grace in 2012 after he was accused of corruption and his wife convicted of the murder of a British businessman. Bo’s hegemony as CCP chief of the city of Chongqing was based on a variety of tactics, one of which was changhong, encouraging citizens to revive the singing of anthems such as “Love of the Red Flag” that brought to mind the Cultural Revolution era (although they were not directly from it).

For his rivals, Bo’s charisma and personality-based rule uncomfortably brought to mind Mao’s excesses. Nonetheless, the Cultural Revolution has not been taboo for all Chinese in recent years. One of the crazes of the early 2000s in Beijing was restaurants that featured “Cultural Revolution” cuisine, which brought to mind the supposed joys of being sent down to the countryside by serving simple peasant-style cuisine, albeit at ruinously expensive prices.

And of course, generations have now grown up with no personal memory of the era. The children of the Cultural Revolution generation are known as the balinghou—the “post-80s.” It is this group who are the subject of the journalist Alec Ash’s compelling and beautifully-written study Wish Lanterns, which follows the lives of six young urban Chinese born between 1985 and 1990. They are a varied bunch, including a would-be rock star who gives himself the Miltonian pseudonym Lucifer; a country lad who gets to college but has to take time out because he becomes addicted to video games; and a fashionista determined to find a more cosmopolitan lifestyle than she can manage in China’s grey far west.

The journalist Evan Osnos has called the current era China’s “age of ambition,” and one of Ash’s protagonists expresses this idea to perfection as she prays in front of a Buddha with the following words: “I don’t know what I want, but I know I really want it.” Ash follows them through the rituals of young adulthood in China, including the gruelling college exams, the search for a partner and the desire to find a fulfilling job that will bring in enough to prevent becoming that dreaded Beijing phenomenon, a “mortgage slave.”

These young people are far from the nationalistic xenophobes that often serve as a caricature of Chinese youth. In fact, this post-Cultural Revolution generation never seem to think of political engagement as a way to get what they “really want”—not even “Fred,” the daughter of a mid-tier CCP official. Discussing politics openly is hard in China, but it’s notable that Ash’s subjects have little sense that activism, let alone joining the CCP, is even worth thinking about as a way to improve the problems that trouble this generation such as high housing costs, lack of welfare or increasing job insecurity.

During the Cultural Revolution, there was no alternative to being politically engaged; now even for those most closely involved with the official system, active ideological commitment is hard to articulate. And that is a feature, not a bug, of a political system which is still desperately afraid that the spirits of luan unleashed by the Cultural Revolution may reappear.

After the death of Mao, part of Deng’s ambition in reforming Chinese politics was to remove the possibility of any dangerously charismatic leader coming to power again. For two decades, the low-key Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were the incarnation of that desire. Xi’s ascendancy has been very different: he has concentrated political power under his own command, and has also promoted a personalistic style that celebrates himself as Xi dada (“Uncle Xi”). There is a new stress on ideological conformity for the media, academics and lawyers.

But this does not mean a return to anything like the Cultural Revolution. The thirtysomethings whose stories Ash tells are the evidence of that. The Party shows little interest in recruiting them and absorbing their energy or ideas; the CCP wants technocrats, not potential revolutionaries, and the manoeuvrings for power in Zhongnanhai, the section of the Forbidden City reserved for top leaders, are highly unlikely to draw in China’s youth as a political force in their own right. Chinese politics is no longer an arena for mass participation, and the mysterious message on the Central Commission website was certainly not a call to “bombard the headquarters.”

In Beijing, supporters of today’s Chinese system point at the Cultural Revolution and argue that it represents the worst results of mass democracy. But that is a sleight of hand, implying that the only choice is between anarchic violence and strong authoritarian control. Sadly, the current harsh direction of travel seems to ignore the most important lesson of the Cultural Revolution: the need for a more liberal and open society. China’s greatest modern writer, Lu Xun, wrote in 1930: “Revolution is a bitter thing… while destruction is straightforward, construction is troublesome.” More than eight decades later, China is still grappling with the problem that Lu Xun posed.