Fifty years ago this week, China embarked on what would turn out to be 10 years of turmoil known as the Cultural Revolution.
It was not a revolution in the usual sense, in that it was initiated from above, by chairman Mao Zedong himself, as he set out to destroy the party he created and to overthrow party leaders who he felt had deviated from the socialist path.
Today, President Xi Jinping and other Communist leaders don’t want people to remember those bad days.
Although the Cultural Revolution was basically a power struggle within the Communist Party, the Chinese people were the ones who suffered collateral damage.
Because the party was in control at every level and in every locality, factional fighting meant virtual civil war.
Eventually, Mao had to call in the military to run the country, since the entire civilian party leadership had been rendered illegitimate by endless denunciations.
Its top leaders, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, were purged. Liu died in prison.
Of course, even the loyalty of the military was not beyond question.
Mao’s No. 2, Marshal Lin Biao, who had been designated his successor, died in a mysterious plane crash in 1971 and was subsequently accused of attempting to assassinate him.
The only leader who was not formally toppled was premier Zhou Enlai, and even he had to weather constant criticisms, evidently approved by Mao.
And when Zhou was diagnosed with cancer, Mao refused to approve his treatment. Zhou died in early 1976, eight months before Mao.
In 1981, five years after Mao’s death, the Communist Party issued a formal assessment of the Cultural Revolution.
In it, the party negated the entire “cultural revolution”, putting the term in quotation marks to show that it was not the genuine article, being neither cultural nor a revolution.
The party said in its Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China that the late chairman Mao had confused right and wrong, and this fact “inevitably led to confusing the people with the enemy”.
As for responsibility for this state of events, which brought disaster to China, the document declared: “Chief responsibility for the grave ‘Left’ error in the ‘cultural revolution’ … does indeed lie with Comrade Mao Zedong …”
Having said that, however, it went on basically to exonerate Mao by saying, “But after all, it was the error of a great proletarian revolutionary.
“Comrade Mao Zedong paid constant attention to overcoming shortcomings in the life of the Party and state.
“In his later years, however, far from making a correct analysis of many problems, he confused right and wrong and the people with the enemy.”
But the party did not repudiate the ultra-left line that Mao, his wife, Jiang Qing, and his closest political comrades took – people who after his death were arrested and accused of being a “Gang of Four”, a phrase never used while Mao was alive.
Instead, the resolution put the word “Left” within quotation marks, suggesting that what Mao practiced was not real leftism.
Instead, we are left today with a situation where, within the party, it is still always safer to err on the side of being left rather than being right.
Moreover, the resolution actually pardoned Mao while outwardly criticizing him.
In the past, other people, such as Liu, were stripped of party membership on trumped-up charges, but the resolution repeatedly calls Mao a “comrade”.
Worse still, the party decided that Mao’s mistakes were understandable because they were those of a great leader!
The resolution said Mao “paid constant attention to overcoming shortcomings in the life of the Party and state”.
So, it seems, the Cultural Revolution was simply a mistake he made while he was trying to keep the party from making mistakes.
Of course, Mao’s successors’ gravest mistake was not to oppose Mao when he was mixing up right and wrong.
Which party leader did not shout “Long live Chairman Mao!” even while knowing that the chairman was making the mistake of his life?
Which party leader did not join enthusiastically in building up the cult of Mao so that his word could not be questioned?
The Cultural Revolution was not the mistake of one man.
It was the mistake of the entire party.
That’s why the party wants to sweep it under the carpet.
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