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Donít mention the Cultural Revolution

By Brian Hennessy - posted Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Recently, Premier Wen Jiabao mentioned the unmentionable: the Cultural Revolution. Although he did so within the context of laying the groundwork for the sacking of Bo Xilai, the Party Secretary of Chongqing who was aiming for promotion to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, normally this historical event is never referred to in public.

Why then, did Wen refer to it?

Bo Xilai’s populist style of leadership was the reason why. Bo has reminded the current leadership of something that they have preferred to forget: Chairman Mao’s leadership style, and the disastrous effect that it had on Chinese people and the nation's development.


This is the real reason why Bo is being investigated. The damning allegations of his ex-Police Chief Wang Lijun, and the alleged criminal behaviour of his wife Gu Kailai are just excuses for the purge.

Why so much anxiety over a leadership style?

Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China in 1949 was an autocrat who behaved more like a traditional Chinese emperor than the head of a collective, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He morphed into a charismatic leader of a popular movement, the Cultural Revolution (1967-1975), which used his political idea of continuing revolution as the means to impose a pure form of communism on Chinese society.

In reality however, the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s vehicle for recapturing the power that he had lost after he had been politically sidelined following the failure of his Great Leap Forward: a policy which ruined the economy and starved an estimated 30 million peasants to death.

But the Cultural Revolution unleashed forces that were difficult to control. The youthful and politically naive Red Guards, whom he had incited, convulsed the country in an orgy of political correctness and violence as they carried out his instructions to destroy China’s cultural heritage.

Government administration broke down, schools and universities closed, and mobs ruled. The peasant class was idealised, and anyone with an independent thought in their head was persecuted. Intellectuals, teachers, administrators, monks and the like, bore the brunt of this exercise in extreme political fundamentalism.


The population was terrorised, victims suicided or were incarcerated in China’s gulags, and traditional Chinese society was debased as neighbors, friends, and family members were coerced into informing on each other. One estimate says that half a million people perished during this cataclysm.

This convulsion lasted until Mao died in 1975. Since then, the CCP has done everything it can to excoriate the Cultural Revolution from history. It does not want Chinese people to know how Communist ideology fuelled this mass distortion of reality and its consequences.

And generally speaking, the CCP’s cover-up of the Cultural Revolution has been successful. History textbooks gloss over this catastrophic event, and the history museum in Beijing allocates one line of text and one photo only to the memory of this painful period in China's history.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for thirteen years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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