China’s struggle to reflect, 50 years on from the Cultural Revolution
Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of China’s Cultural Revolution, a decade of political and social turmoil labelled a “catastrophe” by the Communist Party despite its apparent eagerness to contain public discussion of the topic.
On May 16, 1966, Beijing issued a directive to rid society of “members of the bourgeoisie threatening to seize political power from the proletariat”. In so doing, it ushered in a decade-long violent class struggle.
In the 10 tumultuous years from 1966, the country underwent massive sociopolitical upheaval that drove countless politicians and intellectuals to their deaths, killed civilians in armed conflicts, and destroyed priceless cultural relics and artefacts.
The official death toll was more than 1.7 million – twice the number of deaths suffered by Britain and the United States combined in the second world war.
Despite Beijing’s verdict in the 1980s that the revolution was a “catastrophe”, authorities fear discussion of the turmoil could embarrass the party and may damage the reputation of Mao Zedong, who reportedly called the revolution one of his two greatest achievements.
After close to four decades of the market reform it embraced after the end of the revolution, the party warns against extreme views on the turmoil and has taken care to contain public discussion that might challenge its ambiguous verdict.
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It’s a verdict doubted by both ends of the political spectrum. Liberals urge further reflection, arguing that democratic reforms are necessary to prevent a similarly destructive revolution.
Leftists, on the other hand, blame the market reform that followed the revolution for corruption and a growing wealth gap. They say before the market reform the public had greater oversight of the government.
Both sides want greater freedom to discuss the matter; both are strictly contained by Beijing.
In a comprehensive multimedia package, the South China Morning Post details the birth of the movement, how the hardline political campaign shook the nation, and how its effects rippled across the world.
Former Red Guards and rebels give personal accounts of a restless decade that the country and its people are still struggling to come to terms with half a century on.
Pages of the South China Morning Post from the 1960s and 1970s can also be viewed, giving a taste of the insights and limitations of the China watchers of the period.