Argument

Is China Returning to the Madness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution?

There are disturbing similarities between the authoritarianism and thought control of one of the most awful periods of modern history and Xi's China today.

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The song most representative of China’s Cultural Revolution — the 10-year period between 1966 and 1976 of anarchy and anti-authority mania, where students tortured their teachers, employees denounced their bosses, and children murdered their parents — is “The East Is Red.” A simple yet catchy song about the brilliance of Chairman Mao Zedong, “The East Is Red” is an unofficial anthem of that decade; it articulated the brainwashed love people felt for the chairman. “The sun is rising. From China comes Mao Zedong,” the song lyrics go. “[Mao] strives for people’s happiness. Hurrah, he is the people’s great savior!”

But over the last few months, a modern version of the song has been bouncing around the Internet. Titled “The East Is Red Again,” it proclaims with modified lyrics: “The sun again rises, and Xi Jinping succeeds Mao Zedong. He’s striving for the people’s rejuvenation. Hurrah, he is the people’s great lucky star!” And even though censors deleted mentions of the song on the Chinese Internet, Xi has not repudiated the comparison. Indeed, an early May concert at Beijing’s massive legislative building, the Great Hall of the People, featured a performance celebrating “red,” or Communist, songs, including “Socialism Is Good” and “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.” Because of their popularity during the Cultural Revolution, these songs, and the act of playing them, now glorify that horrifically tumultuous era, which began 50 years ago on May 16.

Sadly, the celebration of red songs is not the only similarity between Chinese politics today and in 1966. This March, during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, an important gathering of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the delegation from Tibet wore badges showing Xi’s face. During the Cultural Revolution, people didn’t leave their houses without Mao badges. Like Mao, Xi has purged his political enemies through mass anti-corruption campaigns. Xi has strengthened the party’s control over the media and official ideology through the internal party communiqué Document No. 9, which warned about the dangers of press freedom. He also emphasized the need for patriotism in creative works during an influential October 2014 speech he delivered to important artists and propaganda officials.

Xi has also resurrected the calcified, blindly pro-Communist discourse of the Mao era; he regularly exhorts cadres to participate in “mass line” campaigns, a hazily defined concept, and to “bare their blades in the ideological struggle.” The anti-vice campaign — reminiscent of Mao’s mania for mass movements — that began in February 2014 in the southern city of Dongguan and spread throughout the country is yet another example of Xi’s Maoist madness.

In some ways, it feels like Xi is trying to turn back time and relive the Cultural Revolution, where the party reigned supreme and invaded every aspect of Chinese life. Luckily, he can’t, for China and the world are different now. Even if Xi wanted to, he could never realize Mao’s Cultural Revolution-era disregard for all laws, human and holy, nor could he create a pervasive cult of personality. Mao was history’s harshest despot, its greatest persecutor of humanity. But he wouldn’t have been able to persecute hundreds of millions of Chinese people without the historical background, social structure, ideological framework, and international environment of mid-20th-century China.

After Mao’s 1976 death, the party gradually settled on a system of collective dictatorship in which a small group of leaders rule for two five-year terms. Although the party operates above the law and seemingly without any effective restriction, there are internal disagreements and even power struggles among members at the highest levels. Moreover, there are divisions between the central leadership and local governments, which push back against orders from above. This so-called “local tyranny” poses a great obstacle to Xi’s campaign to deify himself.

The Cultural Revolution saw the mobilization of hundreds of millions of people — into opposing, often warring factions — the complete destruction of China’s legal system, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. That is also entirely different from today. While there is a widening wealth gap between the rich and the poor, mass mobilization is a thing of the past. Although totalitarianism makes an occasional appearance, today’s China has a legal system that performs better than the chaos-riven courts of the Cultural Revolution. Moreover, the arrests of high-level officials and political dissidents are at least packaged in legal terms and implemented through ostensibly legal procedures. And the violence present in Chinese society today is on a much smaller scale than in the 1960s and 1970s.

But if one defines the Cultural Revolution by its strict one-party rule, total control of the media, thought control, religious oppression, and suppression of dissent, then today differs only in degree. Xi has adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward political opposition and grassroots rights defense movements. Since Xi assumed power in late 2012, hundreds, if not thousands, of human rights defenders have been imprisoned. Civil society organizations like the pro-constitutionalism New Citizens’ Movement have been suppressed, and more than 300 human rights lawyers have been detained or intimidated. Many NGOs have been shut down; thousands of Christian crosses have been forcibly removed; Christian churches have been destroyed; and practitioners of small religious groups such as Falun Gong have been persecuted. Feminist activists, defenders of labor rights, Internet celebrities, and journalists who have dared to speak out have all been attacked.

Meanwhile, in the name of “counterterrorism,” Xi has cracked down on the people of Xinjiang and Tibet, even imposing martial law in parts of those regions. In Hong Kong, he has delayed honoring Beijing’s promise of universal suffrage and suppressed the protest movement known as the Umbrella Revolution. Xi has implemented the imperial tactic of punishing an individual’s entire family for the acts of that individual, detaining Mainland China-based family members of overseas Chinese activists and using them as political hostages. And in complete disrespect for basic, internationally recognized human rights, Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai was kidnapped from Thailand and forcibly transported to China — all because he was connected to a book about Xi’s romantic history.

But could the Cultural Revolution happen again in China? I don’t think so. The biggest difference between now and then is that Chinese people no longer bestow the party with the legitimacy it would need to implement such a campaign. Xi doesn’t control the Chinese people as tightly as Mao did — nor does Xi command the same loyalty, respect, and love. The 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, where members of the Chinese military slaughtered hundreds of unarmed student protestors, greatly reduced the party’s basis for rule. The authorities, knowing all too well the severity of their crimes, downplayed the matter and attempted to force the people to forget about it as well. Eventually, the party censored and forbade even the most oblique of references to the massacre. Over the last few decades, because of pervasive corruption, the forced demolition of many people’s homes, air pollution, forced abortions, and religious persecution, among other ills, dissatisfaction with the party has grown. The Internet and social media have helped to organize this dissatisfaction and resistance.

So, what does this mean for China today? Yes, the party is suppressing grassroots rights defense and dissent movements at a level unseen since 1989. But the party also knows that the development of China’s Internet, economy, legal system, and civil society means that these movements are more powerful than they were in the 1980s. The existence of these movements is the reason why Xi has sought to revive certain Cultural Revolution-era practices. Those in power want to stop the clock and prevent historical reckonings, to continue to monopolize power, to embezzle, bribe, and squirrel away their ill-gotten assets.

But the time for that has passed. The party members who want to revive “The East Is Red” should realize that China’s national anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” is more appropriate. As the opening of the song goes: “All those who refuse to be slaves, arise!”

This article was translated from the Chinese by Liz Carter.

Image Credit: JEAN VINCENT/AFP/Getty Images

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