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We approach the end of the year and the Beijing leadership has still made no official mention of 2016 marking the 50th Anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, which Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed in May 1966. The Cultural Revolution, where the Chinese “masses” brandished his Little Red Book, provided a venue for Mao to re-establish the clout that he had lost due to his disastrous “Great Leap Forward,” a bizarre initiative which combined collective farms with backyard mini-steel production units that Mao had alleged would allow China to surpass the United States economically. Instead the “Great Leap Forward” led not only to an unacceptably low quality of steel and to drastic agricultural setbacks but to starvation and disease that claimed the lives of 20 million Chinese citizens between 1959 and 1962, according to Stephan Courtois’ “Black Book of Communism” (1997).
In 2016 China also failed to recognize the 40th anniversary of the fortuitous end of the Cultural Revolution, upended through the October 1976 arrest of the key operators, known as the “Gang of Four” and led by Jiang Qing, the fourth wife of Chairman Mao.
In his “Wealth of Nations” (1776), Adam Smith had recognized China as “one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world.” Less than seven decades later, China’s fortune plummeted when the Qing Dynasty was crushed by an overwhelmingly superior British military force. This was followed in the coming decades by European powers establishing scores of self-governing treaty ports on China’s coastline that further undermined China’s sovereignty. In 1895 an enfeebled China also suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of Japan. In surrendering, China was forced to cede Taiwan and part of the Mainland to Japan and remained a failed state until after World War II.
While China constantly reminds its citizens of that “Century of Humiliation” to justify everything from its alarming recent jailing of human rights lawyers to the seizure of a U.S. Navy underwater drone in international waters, it remains in denial of the “Decade of Humiliation” of the Cultural Revolution that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and, according to Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, “persecuted 100 million people.”
Current Chinese Leader Xi Jinping’s own father Xi Zhongxun, who had served as vice premier under Zhou Enlai, was denounced, tortured and endured years of imprisonment during this period. President Xi’s elder sister Xi Heping took her life because of the ruthless pressure and humiliation that she endured. Xi Jinping himself was denounced as a counterrevolutionary.
There is a rationale for China’s current leadership choosing not to recognize this year’s anniversaries. Indeed, the maddening events surrounding the Cultural Revolution had provided the raison d’tre for the 13 years of “Chinese Spring” that followed the arrest of the “Gang of Four.” With the end of the Cultural Revolution in October 1976, the limitations of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought could finally be openly discussed. Although there was no functioning public internet back then, there was a “Democracy Wall” from November 1978 until December 1979. The Chinese government itself showed some willingness to expose the skeletons of the past.
More than a year prior to Gorbachev’s call for Perestroika, China’s People’s Daily in a Dec. 7, 1984 front page editorial openly declared that Marx had died 101 years before and that “we cannot use Marxist and Leninist works to solve our present day problems.” Granted a day later they added a qualifier that one can’t “solve all our present day problems” with Marxism-Leninism; however, even so, this statement was still in blatant contradiction to the traditional view that Marxism, as had once been the case for Christian theology, stood as the “Queen of the Sciences” from which all truth could be derived.
The close of the Cultural Revolution allowed China’s leadership to experiment more easily with alternative economic and political models. Optimists could begin to envision a China with rule of law, with a free market, and the protection of civil liberties. A reform-minded Zhao Ziyang advanced under the tutelage of Deng Xiaoping to become China’s premier in 1980 and he rose to Party general secretary in 1987. Zhao surrounded himself by China’s “best and brightest” who aspired to be the architects to transform China into a state where the Communist Party would no longer have an automatic monopoly on governance but would compete for whatever power share it garnered. Following Tiananmen, Zhao was placed under house arrest and he remained so until his death in 2005. His wing of the Party was summarily muted after the Tiananmen crackdown. Beijing understandably reminds its citizens of the demeaning 1839-1949 chapter of China’s history dubbed by Mao himself as the “Century of Humiliation.” The Communist leadership continuously evokes this historical memory to quell dissent and to justify actions such as its controversial military consolidation in the disputed territories of the South China Sea.
China is clearly re-emerging with the “Humiliation” narrative still being used to reinforce resolve and provide context for controversial actions taken by the Chinese government. Yet will recalling the Century of Humiliation alone be sufficient for China to secure and preserve its “peaceful rise?” The “peaceful rise” of China must be realized in partnership with the international community. That requires a shared commitment to foundational principles such as respect for the rule of law and the protection of civil rights, ideals that were championed during the 13 years that followed the Cultural Revolution. As 2016 comes to a close, we should reflect on the enormous suffering of the Cultural Revolution and remember those who harbored the dreams and aspirations that followed.
• Thomas Ward is dean of the College of Public and International Affairs at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
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