The Cultural Revolution’s Legacy in China

The Chinese government did not celebrate the 50th anniversary of the bloody period, but President Xi Jinping’s actions have drawn comparisons to the era.

Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, it didn’t matter that future Chinese President Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a veteran and leader in the Communist Revolution. He was a representative of the bourgeoisie that China needed to purge, Mao Zedong said. The elder Xi was jailed for 16 years, while the future president was sent to the countryside to grow up and perform hard labor, leaving his life as an intellectual to realize Mao’s revitalized vision of communism.

The 10-year period began May 16, 1966, as Mao inspired the country’s youth to turn on their parents and teachers, often violently. These so-called Red Guards targeted the elites who were driving the country toward capitalism. During that period, 16 million children, like Xi, were sent to the countryside, while top leaders who were perceived as being against the Communist Party were either jailed or killed.

While there is no official count for the number of people who died during that period, one scholar estimated the number as between 500,000 to 8 million, and the number of people persecuted in the tens of millions. As The New York Times describes:

During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards targeted the authorities on campuses, then party officials and “class enemies” in society at large. They carried out mass killings in Beijing and other cities as the violence swept across the country. They also battled one another, sometimes with heavy weapons, such as in the city of Chongqing. The military joined the conflict, adding to the factional violence and killing of civilians. The pogroms even included cannibalization of victims in the southern region of Guangxi.

That period, which ended with Mao’s death in 1976, is a controversial part of China’s history, one that current top officials would rather look past than celebrate. Monday marks the 50th anniversary of that start of the Cultural Revolution and there is no official celebration or recognition from state media.

Xi, though rarely, has talked about the turbulent decade. Speaking to state-run CCTV in 2003, he said:

“In the past when we talked about beliefs, it was very abstract. I think the youth of my generation will be remembered for the fervor of the Red Guard era. But it was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realized, it proved an illusion.”

The anniversary leaves the Chinese government in a predicament. It clearly wants to look past what the Communist Party in 1981 said was “the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the country, and the people.” It also wants to quell any concerns that China may be heading toward another Cultural Revolution.

That fear was highlighted earlier this month when a symphony played several “red songs” at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, celebrating the Communist’s Party’s socialist past. One of those songs was “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman,” the anthem of the Cultural Revolution. “Mao Zedong Thought is the sun that forever shines,” reads one line of the song.

Though the party’s Central Committee quickly distanced itself from the performance, critics still said a group inside the country wants a return of the repressive period.

Xi has led a crackdown in recent years on dissent, censoring media and the Internet. He has also gone after civil society, giving security forces control over foreign non-governmental organizations that deal with human rights, public health, and education.

Like Mao during the Cultural Revolution, there’s also been an increase in Xi’s cult of personality, as his face dons the front page of newspapers and propaganda across the country. There are even pop songs that celebrate him.

Xi even gave himself a new title as Chinese military power grows and regional tensions increase with disputed islands in the South China Sea. In April, donning a camouflaged uniform, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party also became the commander in chief of the joint battle command.

Meanwhile, Mao is still a celebrated as one of the key figures in Chinese history. On the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth four years ago, Xi called him “a great patriot and national hero.” As The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

But 40 years on from his death, Mao remains central to the Communist Party's narrative of ruling legitimacy. His embalmed body lies in state in a mausoleum overlooking Tiananmen Square, while his portrait smiles over the Forbidden City and graces every Chinese banknote.

By Mao's own measure, the mass campaign was his greatest achievement after leading the Communists to victory over the Japanese and the Kuomintang government which was exiled to Taiwan.

The Chinese government’s actions today are eclipsed by the events of that 10-year period, but as Xi tightens his grip over the country, comparisons are being made with a dark period in China’s history.