Why are so many Chinese nostalgic for the Cultural Revolution?
Mao’s utopian dream finds fans among the young, to consternation of some who experienced upheaval
Tens of thousands of Maoists marched in the Hunan hometown of late leader Mao Zedong on December 26 to mark the 122nd anniversary of his birth.
Beyond paying their respects to the atheist revolutionary with fireworks, flowers, music and the burning of paper money, many of those in Shaoshan also expressed their nostalgia for Mao’s era, which ended with his death in 1976, and the Cultural Revolution that marked the last decade of his life.
Dai Cheng, 62, led a group of 60 people from Changzhou in Jiangsu, 800km away, to sing revolutionary songs in Shaoshan’s main square that night, as the temperature dropped to four degrees Celsius.
“We will never forget the Mao era. He made us secure throughout our lives. We didn’t need to pay for medicines, education or housing. And there was no corruption,” he said, raising his voice to be heard above the fireworks.
Dai said it was the Cultural Revolution he missed most. That was when Mao asserted his personal authority over the first generation of communist revolutionaries, who Dai blamed for major mistakes before the Cultural Revolution, including the Great Leap Forward, despite Mao’s unchallenged dominance in the party.
“They started a coup in 1976 immediately after the death of chairman Mao,” Dai said. “They betrayed communism. They betrayed chairman Mao. They betrayed the Chinese people.”
As he went on, criticising Deng Xiaoping, the mastermind behind China’s post-Mao market economy reforms, some in the crowd applauded and cheered.
“The Cultural Revolution was aimed at uprooting corruption,” Dai said. “Anyone who opposes it is a supporter of corruption.”
May 16 marked the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, which Mao reportedly hailed as one of his two biggest achievements but which the Communist Party declared more than three decades ago to have been a “catastrophe”. More than 1.7 million unnatural deaths occurred during the Cultural Revolution, according to official data released in the 1980s, and more than a million wrongful convictions were overturned in the eight years after it ended – most of them from that tumultuous decade.
The Cultural Revolution slogan “politics in command” saw teaching at numerous schools and production at many factories halted so pupils and workers could concentrate on “class struggle”. The country’s economy was close to the “brink of collapse” in the last three years of the Cultural Revolution, Deng said in a speech in 1979.
While most people in China agree with the party’s verdict that the Cultural Revolution was a catastrophe, a minority nostalgic about it has been gaining influence. That nostalgia has grown beyond its usual supporters – retired or laid-off elderly people who were adversely affected by market reforms – to include younger people, some educated overseas, who were not alive when Mao was in power. That attraction mostly stems from dissatisfaction with today’s China , which they describe as a state with little welfare and a large wealth gap.
Many supporters of Mao’s political teachings call themselves believers in democracy, referring to the form of government during the Cultural Revolution, when many voices were given a say, not just bureaucrats.
“I admire the revolutionary committees during the Cultural Revolution, it was a reform of the government. There’s no more supervision now,” said Li Musen, a former Red Guard leader in Chongqing who later became a vice-director of the city’s governing revolutionary committee. He was 28 when the Cultural Revolution broke out.
A little over two years into the Cultural Revolution, and usually after bloody clashes backed by the military, all 29 provincial-level governments at the time had been replaced by revolutionary committees, with bureaucrats holding only a third of the seats.
Many political scholars have argued that the composition of the committees, where rebels held around half the seats, caused perpetual political instability. But Li disagreed.
“Representatives of the people, military, all had authority,” he said. “Representatives of cadres were endorsed by all. We supervised each other. What about now? The cadres are so paternal.”
Despite the fact that none of the committees were elected, Li, who calls himself a “dissident” who believes in democracy and freedom of speech, argued that they provided more checks and balances.
“In our revolutionary committee, we spoke what was on our minds ... when we didn’t agree, we stood by our own opinions,” he said. “I think that should be the normal atmosphere. The different opinions themselves showcase supervision.
“Now the government just cooks up pretexts used to maintain political stability. There’s a complete lack of freedom of speech.”
China in the Mao era also struck Li as a much fairer society, where the most skilful technicians earned more than the factory director. “Deng said let some people get rich first,” he said. “It turned out to be letting the cadres get rich first.”
Some younger supporters of the Cultural revolution are attracted by the idealism of a movement they never experienced.
Li Beifang, 38, who holds a master’s degree in anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Science, is considered a leading Maoist intellectual born in the post-Mao era.
Born two years after the Cultural Revolution ended following Mao’s death, and in the same year the Communist Party kicked off market reform and opening up to foreign investment, Li became a leftist while studying at Peking University.
“I realised that what’s more important than knowledge is stance and affection. Who do you place your heart closer to? The powerful and the rich, or the bullied and compromised people?” he wrote of his reasons for becoming a Maoist in a preface to a book published last year.
Like many supporters of Mao and his political teachings, Li Beifang applauded the Cultural Revolution as Mao’s attempt to create an egalitarian utopia.
In a key directive issued a month before Beijing kicked off the revolution, Mao proposed that China return to the social state of communist zones during the anti-Japanese war in the 1940s, where soldiers, farmers, workers and students all lived in a barter economy. All people should learn to farm, produce industrial goods and prepare for war at the same time, he said, while also carrying out “class struggle”.
“Without such an attempt, the human race’s imagination about future forms of society will be exhausted, “ Li Beifang said of the Cultural Revolution in a panel discussion in Beijing in August. “Yes, it was aimed at a utopia and its failure was no surprise. But how could the human race not have a utopia ... [we] would lose direction of where to go and end up trapped in nihilism.”
Li Beifang said a vacuum of belief was to blame for widespread materialism in China, another common belief among Maoists.
“After the Cultural Revolution ended, the mental vacuity made problems generated by reform and opening up even worse,” he said, adding that the Cultural Revolution was not successful because it harmed the interests of too many senior cadres.
Li Beifang declined an interview request, citing the sensitivity of discussing the topic with media outside of mainland China.
His nostalgia for utopian Maoism is shared by Zhou Jiayu, 71, a former Red Guard leader in Chongqing who once rose to the top leadership in Sichuan province.
“Like the Paris Commune, it failed and its spirit will always be there,” Zhou said. “The spirit of the Cultural Revolution is rebelling and revolutionising towards inequality and injustice. I miss the unsparing dedication to the revolution. I miss the equality and fraternity between people.”
Each Ching Ming grave-sweeping festival, Zhou visits a cemetery where some 400 Red Guards from his faction are buried. “They gave their lives for their beliefs. They had a sublime goal,” he said. “Before they were hit, they were all chanting slogans like ‘Long live chairman Mao, long live the Cultural Revolution’.”
Like many Maoists, Zhou spoke highly of Bo Xilai, the former party boss of Chongqing, who was sacked for corruption before a major reshuffle of the party’s top leadership in 2012.
Bo was a controversial figure because of a high-profile campaign he launched in 2008 to revive revolutionary songs reminiscent of the Mao era. He was also widely criticised for allowing Chongqing police to skip due process when cracking down on businessmen accused of being gangsters.
However, Bo was also popular because of his welfare policies. Thanks to a massive public housing construction drive in Chongqing when Bo was in power, Zhou only needs to pay 470 yuan (HK$557) a month to rent a 47 square metre apartment.
“Bo is a sacrifice and a loser in a high-level political struggle,” Zhou said. “He did a lot of actual good for Chongqing people and is supported by many. He just failed for being too high-profile.”
Li Zhengquan, 66, another former Red Guard in Chongqing, would beg to disagree. Li Zhengquan was working for Chongqing’s judicial bureau when Bo’s campaign to promote revolutionary songs swept through the city.
“I saw young people singing revolutionary songs wearing the armbands of Red Guards on stage,” he said. “They don’t even know what Red Guards did. And people applauded. I felt terrible, as if the sky and earth were spinning.
“Maybe they don’t know how Red Guards came into being, or what consequences they caused to the country. Would people applaud in Germany if they saw people dressed in SS uniforms sing on the stage?”
The nostalgia for Mao and his rule culminated two weeks before the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution when a concert that featured revolutionary songs was staged at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
The songs praised the party, President Xi Jinping and Mao, with many of them from the Mao era, including Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman, a song that was hugely popular during the Cultural Revolution, when it was used to trumpet Mao’s personality cult.
Despite Bo’s downfall and the party’s sternly worded verdict on the Cultural Revolution, many of those who gather in Shaoshan every year to commemorate Mao’s birth openly support them.
“Bo Xilai is innocent!” shouted a women in her 30s, as others in front of a 12 metre high statute of Mao cheered and applauded.
“Rebellion is justified!” another man in his 30s shouted, repeating a quote by Mao that inflamed the decade of political and social upheaval, when policemen ordered a banner to be folded.
“Let all proletariats in the world unite and overthrow all depriving and oppressive regimes,” it read.