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Decorative plates featuring images of Chinese President Xi Jinping and late communist leader Mao Zedong are displayed at a souvenir shop in Beijing. Photo: AFP

Cultural Revolution was a catastrophe and Mao was responsible, China’s Communist Party upholds in landmark statement

  • Historic resolution adopted by top party leadership reasserts previous narrative on the decade of turmoil and bloody Tiananmen crackdown
  • Document cements President Xi Jinping’s status on a par with Mao and Deng, seen as paving the way for him to stay on at the helm
China’s Communist Party has reiterated its official verdicts on the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989.
That is according to a new historical resolution adopted by its top leadership last week, only the third such resolution in the party’s 100-year history.

The resolution, according to the full text released by state news agency Xinhua on Tuesday, states that the party never swerved from its rejection of the Cultural Revolution, which plunged China into a decade of chaos and violence from 1966.

Officially titled “Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Communist Party of the Past 100 Years”, the resolution also cements President Xi Jinping’s status on a par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
The 36,000-word document, adopted at the sixth plenum of the Central Committee, hails Xi – who is also the party’s general secretary – for having engineered “major ideological breakthroughs” and identifies him as the leader who will steer China towards achieving national rejuvenation and becoming a great global power.

The resolution has been widely interpreted as paving the way for Xi to stay on as party chief beyond the 20th national congress next year and take on a third term as the country’s president in March 2023.

All three of the party’s historical resolutions have been issued at critical points for the country.

The first, in 1945, confirmed Mao’s status as the country’s founding father while the second, in 1981 during Deng’s leadership, gave an official verdict on the Cultural Revolution. The latest focuses on Xi’s credentials as a great leader who can steer the party to its next milestone – national rejuvenation.

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A communique giving a summary of the resolution after the sixth plenum last week stated that the previous two resolutions remained valid, but did not specifically mention the Cultural Revolution or the bloody Tiananmen crackdown.

But both events have been included in the new resolution, which describes the Cultural Revolution as “a catastrophe” and “10 years of turmoil”, and holds Mao responsible for it.

There were mistakes before the Cultural Revolution as well, including the “Great Leap Forward”, “the people’s commune movement” and the excessive scope of the anti-rightist struggles, the document says.

Students and locals gather at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on May 14, 1989 after an overnight hunger strike as part of a mass pro-democracy protest against the Chinese government. Photo: AFP

It repeats the 1981 resolution’s line that the Cultural Revolution took place because Mao’s “theoretical and practical mistakes” had become increasingly grave and that the party had failed to rectify them in time.

“Comrade Mao Zedong made a wrong assessment of the class situations in the country and our political development, and launched the Cultural Revolution … [and the movement] brought the most serious setback and losses” for the country since 1949, the resolution says.

The landmark third plenum in 1978, which officially ended the Cultural Revolution, “made the significant decision to completely reject the Cultural Revolution. For the past 40 years, the party has unswervingly upheld the policy and direction of this [1978] plenum,” the third resolution adds. 

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The resolution also touched on the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, repeating the party’s long-held position that the event was “political turmoil” caused by both external and domestic forces.

It said that in quelling the unrest, the party and the government “defended the socialist regime” and the “fundamental interest of the people”.

“To make a great leader, you need to have both legacy and achievements. Xi would not change the existing narratives [of the historic events] as he would want to inherit the legacy of Mao and Deng,” said Xie Maosong, a senior researcher with the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

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Gu Su, a professor of philosophy and law at Nanjing University, said party elders were consulted during the drafting of the resolution and they would want to see Deng’s conclusion about the Cultural Revolution included in the latest resolution.

“In Xi’s explanation speech [delivered at the plenum], he specifically mentioned that the previous two resolutions will not be changed. This is a clear gesture of respect for the two former leaders [Mao and Deng] and other prominent party elders,” Gu said.

“The part that addressed the Cultural Revolution as a ‘catastrophe’ is a clear indication that many within the party want to make sure Deng’s legacy of ending the Cultural Revolution and launch of reform and opening up policy would never be abandoned.”


Xi Jinping leads celebrations marking centenary of China’s ruling Communist Party

Xi Jinping leads celebrations marking centenary of China’s ruling Communist Party

Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said Xi would not change previous historical conclusions because the main focus on the new resolution was about his “new era”.

“The phrase ‘after the reform and opening up’ was mentioned repeatedly in the new resolution, which indicates the party is embarking on a new ‘post reform and opening-up era’ led by Xi. Changing previous historical conclusions will generate arguments and divisions in the party.

“Xi would rather keep the historical consensus and move forward in the new era in order to strengthen unity within the party.”