China must let the dark deeds of the Cultural Revolution come to light
Cary Huang says the nation is doomed to repeat the mistakes of this tragic episode of its past if no effort is made to remember and learn from it
China’s Communist Party is known for obsessing about commemorations of historic events and making use of them in current-day politics, either as a way to denounce enemies or glorify the party.
And, traditionally, China attaches greater significance to every 10-year anniversary of important historic events.
But such habits are highly selective – as evidenced by the fact the government will not stage any public event to mark the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, which falls on Monday.
This is the case even though the decade-long political hysteria that brought tragedy and catastrophic suffering for the Chinese people was as immense and grave as the two world wars of the last century. Tellingly, there were also no commemorative activities to mark the 20th, 30th or 40th anniversaries of the Cultural Revolution, either.
Mao Zedong (毛澤東) launched the campaign in order to regain his dominant position in the party. Political zealotry turned it into a “Chinese holocaust” with millions killed, and tens of millions suffering imprisonment, seizure of property, torture and general humiliation. It bankrupted the economy and destroyed Chinese culture, traditions, art and all religion, as well as ancient structures, artworks, sculptures, temples, buildings and so on. In Beijing alone, 4,992 cultural sites out of an original 6,843 were destroyed.
The worst consequence was the destruction of people’s conscience and humanity, which is at the root of many current-day social ills, such as a lack of trust, care and love among people, as the whole of society struggles to distinguish between basic right and wrong.
Although the party officially condemned the event as “disaster and turmoil” in 1981, successive leaders, post-Mao, have also tried to bury the painful memories and keep the dark side of history under the carpet.
While many Western universities run courses and research programmes on the Cultural Revolution, Beijing has banned public discussion and academic study of the topic, fearing that revisiting the dark period and reflecting on the past would lead to a reassessment of the party’s role in modern China.
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With efforts to shift the blame squarely to the “Gang of Four”, the party has yet to give a clear answer about why a country could be torn apart by the madness of a single person, who cared only about his status and nothing about his people’s suffering. During his rule, Mao was responsible for tens of millions of deaths, more than under Hitler and Stalin, through economic mismanagement and political terror.
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Fifty years on, and the party has failed to bring any kind of justice to address the traumatic event; no compensation has been awarded and no official apologies given to those who have suffered, meaning the wounds and scars have yet to heal in the hearts and souls of many people .
Moreover, it is not just about remembering the past tragedy, but also about whether the ruling party can learn from its mistakes. Perhaps the biggest lesson from the historic event is that it dramatically exposed the inherent contradictions of the communist state, which requires a fundamental overhaul.
The political legacies of the Cultural Revolution continue to affect Chinese politics, as can be seen from the often violent internal power struggles within the leadership in the post-Mao era.
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The continuation of a party-state system built by Mao has also become the main obstacle to efforts to embrace modernity. And if the party fears disclosing the truth about its own past and refuses to learn from it, how can it have a clear vision of the right direction for the future?
The biggest danger now facing the nation is, as George Santayana, the Hispanic-American philosopher, once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”.
Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post