The Cultural Revolution: To Forgive and Forget?

By JOSHUA CHANG || August 10, 2016

50 years ago, Chinese communist titan Mao Zedong marshaled masses of subservient students indoctrinated with the radical tenets of Maoist Communist ideology and set them loose upon Chinese society. For nearly a decade, these students wreaked havoc and chaos throughout the country with one sole purpose in mind: to purge any elements perceived as a threat to Mao’s vision of a “Greater China.”

Fifty years later, despite the looming legacy of this calamitous movement, the Chinese government has declined to commemorate or discuss the nature of the incident. Any articles attempting to address the event have been removed through censorship on the internet, and state media outlets have seemed to follow the actions of the government through their reticence. One cannot help but wonder whether the Chinese government is deliberately withholding recognition of the event’s occurrence out of fear of rekindling bitter emotions that emanate from its memory, or because of embarrassment. Perhaps both, and other reasons as well.

The words “Cultural Revolution,” despite their seemingly innocent connotations, are a euphemism for a tumultuous period in contemporary Chinese history when old clashed with young, traditional ideas clashed with so-called “progressive” ones, and revisionism clashed with revolution. Ironically, it was a time in which the very attempts to restore China’s communist society led to its very undoing.

China’s confrontation with the Cultural Revolution’s legacy 50 years after its inception highlights the unpleasant nature of historical memory, as well as the relationship its government shares with the people.


Mao Zedong’s Communist Party seized control of China in 1949 after decades of civil war with its nationalist Guomindang rivals (who relocated to Taiwan to establish a Republic of China). Mao and his cohorts immediately embarked on a campaign to restructure China to become a communist state revolving around Maoist principles.

During the 1950s, one of Mao’s principal projects to bring about his Maoist society was through a series of radical reforms collectively known as the “Great Leap Forward.” Under this directive, which incorporated elements of Stalin’s collectivization schemes of the 1920s and 30s, the GLF consolidated Chinese farms into state-owned communes to enhance agrarian productivity. Laborers were expected to work to fulfill state-prescribed quotas and work for moral prestige and benefits rather than the materialistic rewards of capitalism. However, Mao’s ambitious vision only witnessed disaster for his country as mismanagement and famine caused the deaths of millions of Chinese. Slight capitalistic reforms enabling sale of surplus crops stabilized the situation, but Mao’s own prestige and vision for a communist society was severely damaged.

Demoralized by his defeat, Mao withdrew from public affairs, but still maintained control of power over China’s Communist Party. Fearing that his reforms would be undermined by reformist-minded moderates in the Party, and that China would revert back to a capitalist society, Mao laid the foundations for the Cultural Revolution. He sought to purge China of all traditional components of society and crush his political rivals to ensure that hardline communism would reign supreme. Thus, as aforementioned, the chaos of the late 1960s to mid 1970s crippled China’s economic activity and created fractures within the unity of China’s society. It wasn’t until Mao’s death in 1976 that the hardline revolutionary movement in his name subsided.

Contemporary Significance

The Cultural Revolution essentially elucidated two distinct factions in the struggle for control of China: the Maoist extremists who sought to advance communistic policies regardless of the costs, and moderates who sought to implement practical measures to support China’s economy while still maintaining the supremacy of the Party.

Without the Cultural Revolution, China would have never evolved to become a market economy. Because of the disillusionment with Maoist ideology due to the destructive nature of the Revolution, many turned to moderates such as Zhou En-Lai and Deng Xiaoping, who sought to advance China’s economy without the senseless, frivolous methods of the hardliners. For these moderates, capitalistic measures were only a small price to pay in order to turn China into a world power. Deng Xiaoping would go on to assume the reins of China’s leadership, and encourage China to proceed on the path of free trade, market capitalism to become the modern China as we know it today.

Throughout Mao’s tenure as the leader of China, Mao wanted to convey for himself an image of an infallible individual whose omniscience would guide the country through turmoil and distress. The GLF and the Cultural Revolution shattered that image, and prior to this, Mao did everything possible to ensure that any mistakes of his could not be seen.

In light of the Cultural Revolution’s 50th Anniversary and the Chinese government’s reluctance to comment on it, the implied attitude of Beijing in its reticence seems to align closely with that of Mao’s in his reign. The deliberate attempts to ignore the past seems to indicate that China’s government is not willing to acknowledge the atrocities that characterized the establishment of the entire political administration. In a time when elements of Chinese society are frustrated with government censorship and political practices, this will only exacerbate the government’s relationships with its people. A government is responsibly accountable to its constituents when it is readily willing to admit to the mistakes of the past. Any government that is able to recognize the errors of the past and resolve to move forward can significantly improve its standing. Take Germany, for instance. Many German citizens and German leaders (Angela Merkel included) have taken it upon themselves to never forget the atrocities of the Second World War, and have disavowed the actions of those responsible for the perpetrations of these offenses.

As we are supposedly doomed to repeat history if it is ignored, the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution may be an important lesson for the Chinese government in confronting its history properly. It should best heed the past’s warnings.

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