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China Mao Tsetung mit Anhängern am Nationalfeiertag 1968
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/DB AFP

Opinion: The injustices of the present

Felix Wemheuer / act
May 16, 2016

Fifty years after Mao Zedong launched the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," Chinese society has still not found a consensus on how to judge it, writes Sinologist Felix Wernheuer.


In 1981, the Communist Party of China tried to wipe the slate clean by proclaiming the Cultural Revolution "10 years of chaos" and a "great catastrophe for the people and the party." However, a heated debate between supporters and rivals rages till today, especially online. There are four main schools of thought:

1. The view that the Cultural Revolution lastingly destroyed (Confucian) Chinese culture as well as human relations is widespread. There is a sense that today's greed, corruption and moral decline have their origin in the "collapse of civilization" triggered by the Cultural Revolution after Mao called on students and workers to rise up against authority. One example of the "madness" of the time was when high-school students beat their teacher to death in August 1966. Many artifacts belonging to China's cultural heritage were destroyed. The belief is that Mao was only worried about his power and abused the young generation. This should never be repeated. That's why stability is so important for China now.

2. An influential proportion of liberal intellectuals views the Cultural Revolution generally as negative. However, it also says that an unplanned side effect was that the collapse of the party apparatus had opened many eyes and promoted criticism. During the first months (until 1967), politically and socially marginalized groups were briefly able to defend their interests. Disappointed Red Guards formed critical movements where libertarian ideas were discussed and the party's bureaucratic dictatorship was called into question. According to this school of thought, the spiritual origins of the "Beijing Spring" of 1979 and the student movement of 1989 lie here.

China Kulurrevolution Rote Garde
Red Guards, high school and university students, parade in Beijing, June 1966Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Vincent

Necessary mobilization against the 'bureaucratic class'

3. Neo-Maoists by contrast believe that the development after 1978 confirmed the necessity of the Cultural Revolution. Mao mobilized the people against what he called the corrupt "bureaucratic class" to prevent China from becoming capitalist. They regret that because of the Cultural Revolution's failure, this class continues to exploit workers and farmers to this day. The more radical neo-Maoists see a new Cultural Revolution, a revolt of the people against those "taking the capitalist road," as the only means of saving China.

4. Dominated by scholars, the "New Left" does not want a return to the Mao era but thinks that the "total negation" of the Cultural Revolution contributed to intellectuals being unable to criticize neo-liberalism and global capitalism in the 1980s. They would like the positive aspects such as worker participation in management, a high level of politicization among the people, and health and education policies with a social impact, to be reappropriated.

Armed struggle between rival factions

For reasons of stability, the party leadership and some parts of the population do not want an open debate about the Cultural Revolution. It is frowned upon to look back favorably on the Cultural Revolution, but groups that consider themselves victims are suppressed and not allowed to express themselves. It is not only those who were persecuted elites of the time who feel unfairly treated. Many left-wingers who followed Mao's call to rebellion ended up in jail when the army restored order in 1968 and 1969. An open debate could re-open old wounds.

Prof. Dr. Felix Wemheuer Universität Köln
Felix Wemheuer teaches at the University of CologneImage: privat

The explosive force of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1968 can be attributed to the fact that the power struggle in the party was linked to social conflicts in the population. While Chairman Mao attacked President Lui Shaoqi, universities and factories formed enemy factions which fought bitterly, at times even resorting to arms. If one looks at online debates today, little imagination is needed to understand how the supporters and opponents of the Cultural Revolution might have clashed. The Red Guards' tendency to defame their rivals was by no means exclusive to them and can be rivaled by contemporary equivalents.

Neo-Maoist tendencies among the younger generation

Now, it is not only a matter for eyewitnesses who are continuing to fight their old battles. Liberals and left-wing critics of the party are looking at the past to find approaches to criticize the system today. Most refer positively to the anti-bureaucratic agenda of the Cultural Revolution even if only a few defend the attacks on teachers and cultural artifacts. What is new is that there are many young people and students among the neo-Maoists and not only dismissed state workers, ex-rebels or retired cadres.

The leadership elite under Xi Jinping is composed mainly of party families, which were victims of Mao's attack on the party bureaucracy and supported reforms in 1978. Xi has tried to instrumentalize certain aspects of Mao's policies, such as his populist rhetoric, for his anti-corruption campaign. However, Xi and his comrades are scared of the masses organizing themselves against the local party apparatus like in the early days of the Cultural Revolution. The leadership knows that apart from economic growth, their guarantee of stability is the most important source of their legitimization.

There has yet to be a serious reappraisal

The intensity of the debate about the significance of Mao's last revolution shows that the ghosts that he called up with his words "Rebellion is justified" have not yet come to rest. The key issue - the uncontrolled rule of the "bureaucratic class" over society - is still not resolved. If Chinese society ever deals seriously with its past, it will not be able to avoid looking at the injustices of the present.

Felix Wemheuer is Professor of China-Studies at the University of Cologne and author of a biography on Mao Zedong, published in 2009.

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