Honest look at the past is key to the future

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2006, 12:00am

Remembering the past is a political exercise on the mainland, where the Communist Party continues to censor all attempts at interpreting history. Beijing's official silence on the 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution is worrying enough. It is all the more ominous because unofficial efforts to mark this dark moment in Chinese history are being suppressed.

The outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 epitomised what can go wrong in a one-party state. The lack of institutional democracy and civil society meant that Mao Zedong was able to hijack the Communist Party and perpetrate a series of crimes that left few families untouched.

Forty years on, the chances of the country being gripped by a similar political campaign are low. No party elder holds god-like status anymore. There is more internal democracy within the Communist Party, and rival power centres are keeping one another's ambitions at bay. The party still holds a tight rein in the political sphere, but has relaxed its control over economic and social life.

After years of living in relative freedom and growing prosperity, the younger generation is less likely to be whipped up by a revolutionary frenzy than their parents, who were engulfed by the Cultural Revolution when they were young.

Although another Cultural Revolution remains unlikely, the lack of effective political checks coupled with rising domestic tensions means that China must remain vigilant.

There is some truth to the jibe that economists don't see how China can fail and political scientists don't see how it can succeed. Many analysts worry that the mainland has become a social powder keg ready to explode. Despite rapid economic growth, the nation is marked by widening gaps between the rich and the poor.

Although it seems far-fetched today, Mao Zedong's thoughts about sharing wealth and dictatorship could still appeal as a rationale for disorder and violence to those left behind by economic progress.

A more likely scenario, however, is that hyper-nationalism could emerge as a danger. There have in recent years been worrying examples of nationalistic fervour getting out of hand on the mainland. This has been seen in the violent protests following Nato's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the abuse Chinese soccer fans directed at Japanese players in 2004, and the mass protests over Japan's school textbooks last year. It is not difficult to imagine such feelings being whipped up in the future over cross-strait tensions with Taiwan. The need to learn from the past is, therefore, all the more important.

Perhaps state leaders are concerned that discussions of the Cultural Revolution might focus attention on the defects of one-party rule. The party's monopoly of power would then be open to challenge. But they must realise that keeping a lid on such discussion may well be counterproductive. After the Cultural Revolution, the party managed to re-establish its legitimacy by delivering economic growth and rising standards of living. However, it is doubtful if the strategy can continue to meet the population's rising expectations without sweeping changes.

One way of pre-empting a resurgence of ill-conceived revolutionary fervour would be to openly talk about the rights and wrongs of the Cultural Revolution. The lessons learned should guide efforts to reform the political system.

For the long-term prosperity and stability of the country, the Communist Party should seek to maintain its legitimacy not by stifling dissent or locking up dissidents, but by re-engineering itself into a party that will win in a competitive election. That will mean more fundamental changes than taking an honest look at historical mistakes. But telling the truth when it comes to history would help ensure that nothing approaching this dark chapter in China's history will ever be repeated.