Behind the Chinese state-run media’s silence on the 50th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution on Monday lay two related yet distinct problems for the Chinese Communist Party. First, the party has always been reluctant to openly discuss the decade of chaos that began in 1966 and ended only after Mao’s death in 1976. Second, under President Xi Jinping, whose father was jailed and publicly humiliated as “an enemy of the party” during that decade, Mao’s status as the regime’s founding father has been reaffirmed and the candour of the 1980s — which saw several recantations, memoirs and histories — appears to have subsided. Thus, when the People’s Daily and Global Times did break their silence on Tuesday, after the international media had remarked on it, it was to merely ask the Chinese to respect the party’s “unshakeably scientific and authoritative” condemnation of the bloodshed in 1981 and look ahead. Interestingly, the state didn’t censor commentary on social media.
Mao’s attempt in his last decade, to purge rivals and take back a party he perceived had grown corrupt and threatened the revolution from within, let loose a “tyranny of the youth” that tore China’s social fabric. A million or more died, but the deepest scars were left by the memory of children turning in parents, students assaulting teachers and beating them to death, the imprisonment, exile and execution of artists and intellectuals, and the suspension of university education for a decade. All in the service of Mao’s diktat to destroy the “four olds” — old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. Often called the last burst of 20th century totalitarianism, the Cultural Revolution paralleled the Khmer Rouge’s terror in Cambodia and sired India’s Naxalite (later “Maoist”) violence, beginning with West Bengal.
Chinese youth inhabit a different country today. They know little about the horror that preceded the remade People’s Republic. The memory of survivors must be allowed to speak in order for lessons to be drawn.
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