Tweeting Mao's Cultural Revolution in Real Time

A historical Twitter account made for surreal reading in 2016.

Vendors unfurl a banner from 1969 depicting Mao Zedong as he "inspects the great army of the Cultural Revolution" (Ng Han Guan / AP Photo)

Can we agree on this much? Twitter was terrible in 2016. Too many tweetstorms, too many Russian troll-bots, too much game theory. For the blank slate of 2017, may I suggest you follow the 50th-year anniversary of the Cultural Revolution in real time.

Fifty years ago this past May, Mao Zedong declared the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and in 2016, someone had the idea to livetweet that tumultuous period on a half-century delay.

@GPCR50 has about 1,500 followers, which is frankly on the low end of modest. But I’ve been one of its avid followers because this was an uncanny year to see the events of the Cultural Revolution swirled together with the 2016 election in my feed. Violence simmered over at Trump rallies. Red Guards attacked their teachers in Beijing. Deng Xiaoping made self-criticisms in deference to Mao. Newt Gingrich declares “I made a big boo boo” in suggesting Trump did not plan to drain the swamp. The surreal past met the surreal present.

Anyways, I don’t want to draw tidy parallels between the Cultural Revolution and America in 2016 because, obviously, so much does not run parallel. But in a time when voters have shown casual eagerness to blow up a system that isn’t working for them, at at time when Trump can ask, “What do you have to lose?,” @GPCR50 was a daily reminder by tweet of just how much we have to lose. We’ve had relative order and stability for so long. Chaos is a foreign country.

I confess to being no expert either here. As a kid, most of my awareness of the Cultural Revolution came from stories from my parents, who were born in China around that time. And like the fairy tales a parent might tell, these stories had a kind of unlogic; they seemed no more real to me than a fairy tale. A man, for example, rides home with a portrait of Chairman Mao tied up to the back of his bike. The rope holding the portrait in place just happens to go across Mao’s neck. This is a sign of disloyalty. He is mobbed and killed.

What the hell? Yet @GPCR was a constant stream of surreal-sounding violence. Mao directed the Red Guards, which grew out of middle-school students in Beijing, to attack the “Four Olds”—old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. In effect, this meant the destruction of books, museums, temples, and shrines, as well as the people who stood for them. Middle-school students turned on their teachers and killed them.

And for a certain period in August, the @GPCR50 was just death count:

The man behind @GPCR50 is Jacob Saxton of Southampon, U.K., whom I phoned one recent afternoon to talk about his Twitter creation. Saxton is a not a historian—he is a logistics analyst by day—but he has an interest in modern Chinese history and was reading Mao’s Last Revolution last year. He noticed the 50 years that passed and no one else was chronicling the period. So he decided to. The one book soon grew to a stack, and Saxton now plans out tweets month by month in a “sort of slightly shoddy Excel spreadsheet.” In August, when the anti-teacher violence was reaching its peak, he had to take a few days off work to catch up on the tweets. “It’s a lot more time than I realized at the beginning,” he says.

Some of the tweets can, admittedly, be a bit abstruse if you are not already familiar with the cast of characters. But the best tweets capture some small measure of humanity. One of Saxton’s favorite stories involves a fruit basket, which he actually didn’t get to tweet in real time because he read about it too late. (A hazard of his tweet-writing process.) I’ll let him tell it himself now:

Right at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Mao got rid of Peng Zhen, who was the mayor of Beijing.  He was quite close to Liu Shaoqi, the president. Liu went out on a big foreign trip during the time when the purge of Peng Zhen was happening, and he was so in the dark about this—the way Peng had gone from the mayor of Beijing, this really important guy, to pariah—he came back with a beautiful fruit basket for Peng.

Only on the last leg of the journey did he found out how much things have changed. It’s quite a funny image to imagine him trying to hide this fruit basket.

In tweeting out these events in real time, Saxton has also gotten to experience them in real time. “I thought the saddest bit were the way you could see this violence creeping towards people—people who you might read about having died on a certain day in the Cultural Revolution,” he says. “But then you look more into it, there are weeks of it gradually ramping up, and the attacks get more physical and their own mental state chipped away.”

When Saxton began the Twitter account, he had no idea that it would be such a tumultuous year for politics in his country, the U.K., let alone the U.S. He is wary of drawing close parallels too, but he says it struck him how long it took China’s political elite to realize how bad the Cultural Revolution would get.

It can get worse.

The Cultural Revolution officially ends in 1976. For now, Saxon says, he’s committed to tweeting the whole thing.