Amid widespread calls for reflecting on the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution on its 50th anniversary, the official People’s Daily has finally broken its silence.
In an article published on May 17, the Communist Party organ argued that the country should learn from history in order to move on.
However, the article did not raise new points or reject Mao Zedong’s bloody purges.
It merely repeated the main theme of a party resolution which says that the Cultural Revolution “will never happen again” and that Chinese people “must remain steadfast on the socialist path”.
There was no criticism of Mao or the Gang of Four for starting the uprising.
In fact, the so-called “May 17 commentary”, which is regarded by many as the Communist Party’s official stance on the revolution, has a lower level of importance than a similar article in 1984, known as the “April 23 commentary”.
The People’s Daily has rigid rules on the level of importance of articles.
For example, an editorial on the front page has the highest importance because it usually reflects the thinking of the politburo or lays down official policy.
Next come articles written by in-house commentators, and lastly, in-house department commentary.
The May 17 commentary was bylined Ren Ping, short for “People’s Daily’s commentary” in Mandarin.
It was neither an in-house commentator’s article nor something written by an in-house commentary department and it appeared on the fourth page.
By comparison, in-house commentator’s articles are always on the front page or second page.
That speaks volumes about the level of importance attached to the May 17 editorial.
If we compare it to the April 23 commentary published 32 years ago, we can see a stark contrast in the general attitude of the party leadership toward the Cultural Revolution.
On April 23, 1984, the People’s Daily editorial, “We must totally reject the Cultural Revolution”, appeared on its front page.
“There are signs that some members of our party are still somewhat nostalgic about the good old days of the Cultural Revolution,” it said.
The article then asked: “Doesn’t it suggest that they still haven’t learned the painful lesson of that man-made catastrophe? Doesn’t it show that the toxic legacy of that disaster of unprecedented proportions lingers across our country?”
The article urged people to rebuild confidence in the Communist Party, completely reject the Cultural Revolution and cleanse the country of its toxic legacy.
It amounted to an official denunciation of the Cultural Revolution.
In contrast, the May 17 editorial has a much less cutting tone.
It does not mention “toxic legacy” nor does it say anything about the need to denounce and reject the Cultural Revolution.
Also, it does not mention the need to learn the lesson of that calamity.
Rather, the article emphasizes loyalty to the present party leadership and urges continued vigilance against any attempt to use the 50th anniversary of the revolution as a pretext to smear the party or undermine its credibility.
To me, the May 17 commentary signifies a fundamental regression of Beijing’s attitude toward the Cultural Revolution.
Unlike his open-minded predecessor, Hu Yaobang, Xi Jinping did not have the guts to confront this sensitive issue.
It is apparent that the current party leadership is more concerned about maintaining stability and consolidating its power than sincerely reflecting on that political disaster.
If anything, the publication of the May 17 commentary was nothing more than a perfunctory gesture in response to public apprehensions about the rise of the so-called “sub-Cultural Revolution” under President Xi.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 19
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]