23 April 2019
When faced with thorny political and economic problems, China's Communist leaders may tread the old path of class struggle, some observers fear.
When faced with thorny political and economic problems, China's Communist leaders may tread the old path of class struggle, some observers fear.

Will China see another Cultural Revolution?

Fifty years ago, in May 1966, Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily published a lengthy document issued by the central authorities. The document, known as the “May 16 Notification”, summarized Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) ideological justification for the Cultural Revolution.

As the country underwent a massive sociopolitical upheaval over the next decade, the Cultural Revolution is estimated to have taken the lives of more than 1.72 million people.

Still, the repercussion of the catastrophe cannot be measured in just numbers. We should look at how it remolded the ideology, morality and the thinking of people on the mainland.

Since then, there has existed a Darwin mechanism: only the very fit or the fittest can hope to survive or succeed in the communist regime.

Those not politically cunning or shrewd enough had died in rounds of political calamities during the Revolution. And many who survived the purges could not survive a famine that was exacerbated by the proletariat’s struggle against the bourgeoisie.

The Communist Party’s remolding of the nation’s intelligentsia occurred in the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement, which was dwarfed both in scale and magnitude by the Cultural Revolution that altered for good how the ordinary think and behave.

And, such remolded cultural DNA has obviously been passed onto the next generation.

The May 16 Notification famously noted:

“Those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various spheres of culture are a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists.

“Once conditions are ripe, they will seize political power and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

“Some of them we have already seen through; others we have not. Some are still trusted by us and are being trained as our successors, persons… who are still nestling beside us.”

Some people were labeled as “arrivistes” or “conspirators”, among the plethora of other charges, in the party’s propaganda discourse back then.

Fifty years later, these words have now resurfaced from history.

Chinese President cum Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) said recently that “there are careerists and conspirators existing in our party and undermining the party’s governance. We should not bury our heads in the sand and spare these members but must make a resolute response to eliminate the problem and deter further violations.”

Xi’s words sent a chill down the spines of many, who still have haunting memories of what they had been through in the not so distant past.

Does it mean a new Cultural Revolution is underway, a new purge under the cloak of Xi’s anti-graft drive?

Among the numerous victims of the Cultural Revolution was Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇), who was the Chinese president but was publicly denounced and later died in custody in 1969.

But his son Liu Yuan (劉源), once a senior military official, has defended Mao for authoring the Cultural Revolution, stressing that Mao had “good intent”. The only mistake made was that the pace of the campaign and some policies were not “proportionate” sometimes.

The view is shared by many on the mainland today.

Even Xi himself was once made to suffer when he was sent to a rural area for ideological reeducation after his father Xi Zhongxun (習仲勳) was stripped of all posts and send into exile.

Yet it’s now becoming apparent that Xi worships Mao and may be even looking to revive the Maoist class struggle.

All this is proof that communist cadres never live by ethics. When faced with knotty political or economic predicaments that they cannot tackle via routine measures, they tread the old path of the Cultural Revolution as the best possible countermeasure.

Mao once said that the Cultural Revolution must be repeated every seven to eight years. Will we see this happen now?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 16.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Mao Zedong is usually deified in political posters. The slogan in this poster reads: "Follow Chairman Mao and raise our sail to brave winds and waves".

A "red song" gala held recently at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: Internet

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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