By Andrew Browne at the Wall Street Journal
Fifty years ago, on May 16, Mao Zedong unleashed an attack aimed at smashing his own Communist Party apparatus from top to bottom, having concluded that it was going capitalist. “Bombard the headquarters!” he urged the masses in a famous People’s Daily article. Millions of young zealots responded, becoming Mao’s Red Guards, his fanatical foot-soldiers. Thus began China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a period of murderous insanity that ended only with Mao’s death a decade later, in 1976.
Nothing could be further from the tactics of President Xi Jinping today as he seeks to rid the party of the ills that he fears could lead to its extinction—corruption, moral decay, the loss of will to fight for a cause. His response has been to impose rigid order from on high, to stifle criticism—party members are forbidden from engaging in “improper discussion”—and to crush organized dissent, no matter how mild. Draconian media censorship has silenced debate on the Internet.
Yet, despite these obvious differences, Mr. Xi has spent his first three years in office resurrecting Mao, borrowing his rhetoric and aping his practices. He has concentrated power in his own hands and flirted with a personality cult—the most haunting symbol of the Cultural Revolution, in which blind worship of a supreme leader kindled years of convulsive violence. As many as 1.5 million Chinese were beaten to death, driven to suicide or killed in fighting among Red Guard factions.
Today’s China is nowhere near the point of another Cultural Revolution, and the 50th anniversary of the start of that traumatic era will go unmarked in official circles. Chinese leaders “are frightened of the Cultural Revolution,” says the historian Frank Dikötter. “They think that’s what might happen if you give ordinary people a say.”
But the paradox of Mao’s continuing influence remains: Contrary to expectations, a half-century after the Cultural Revolution began, the “Great Helmsman,” as he styled himself, is again the most potent force in the country’s political life. What part of his legacy, exactly, is Mr. Xi claiming?
The signal for the youth rebellion in 1966 was Mao’s “May 16 Circular,” which accused “representatives of the bourgeoisie” of infiltrating every corner of the party in a vast conspiracy to restore the old capitalist society. The aging tyrant feared that these “class enemies” would discard him when he died, just as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had denounced the departed Stalin and his personality cult in 1956. At the top of Mao’s target list were President Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who was then in charge of party administration. They were the prime “capitalist roaders.”
Marauding gangs of Red Guards, many of them just high-school kids, began by ransacking the homes of “counterrevolutionaries.” In Shanghai, they burst into the elegant residence of Nien Cheng, whose late husband ran the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell, cracking whips. A young man stomped on one of her exquisite Qing dynasty wine cupswhile others cut up her furs and evening dresses and used her lipstick to scrawl on her bedroom wall: “Down with the Running Dog of Imperialism!” Dragged off to jail, she survived more than six years in solitary confinement.
The signature torture of the Red Guards was the “airplane position.” It involved twisting people’s arms behind their backs until it wrenched at the sockets and then shoving their heads down. Doubled up in this way, often on a stage in front of frenzied crowds, the beatings began. A favorite weapon was a bicycle chain wrapped in rubber so that it bruised internally but didn’t draw blood.
All this became very familiar to the late Ji Xianlin, a Sanskrit scholar who had received his doctorate in Germany and found a spot as head of the Eastern Languages Department at Peking University, a Red Guard hotbed. In one of the few written accounts of that era, he described being herded into a detention-cum-torture center in the middle of campus, guarded by his own students, who flogged him mercilessly. He spent nine months incarcerated there. “The world seemed not to be ruled by men but by ghouls or beasts,” he wrote in “The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.”
Scores of faculty and staff at China’s premier college committed suicide in the first few months alone, Mr. Ji recalled. They couldn’t bear the humiliation, steeped as many of them were in a Confucian tradition that venerated scholarship. An eminent history professor overdosed on sleeping pills; a philosophy tutor slit his wrists and bled to death slowly in front of bystanders. Others jumped off buildings or leapt in front of trains. One walked off to the hills and swallowed pesticide.
Mao was seemingly taken by surprise at the extent of the anti-Establishment fury he had whipped up. When it finally spun into near civil war and Red Guards were blasting at each other with machine guns, mortars and tanks, he called in the army to restore control. China was essentially under martial law.
The scene of confusion at Mao’s deathbed shortly after midnight on Sept. 9, 1976, was a harbinger of things to come. His widow, Jiang Qing, was there along with others in the Gang of Four who had led the Cultural Revolution and would soon be arrested. It was decided that Mao would rest in a mausoleum on Tiananmen Square, but doctors had no idea how to preserve a body. In a panic, they instructed the Institute of Arts and Crafts to fashion a waxen dummy in case they botched the job.
The bigger concern was how Mao should be remembered. He had won a civil war against all odds, driving the former Nationalist government to Taiwan, and had unified China. Yet he had inflicted more death and suffering than all the rampaging imperialists put together since the Opium Wars. His Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, a deranged economic plan to catch up with the rich West, triggered a famine that killed 30 or 40 million people. He was both a demigod and a demon.
Mao himself offered a generous self-evaluation toward the end of his life: “nine fingers” good, “one finger” bad. The peppery Deng’s judgment (he was twice purged by Mao) was harsher: “70% right and 30% wrong.” A 1981 party document assigned blame for the Cultural Revolution primarily to Mao.
But China’s current leader, Mr. Xi, will not stand to see Mao denigrated, even though his own father, Xi Zhongxun, one of Mao’s top lieutenants, was purged in the Cultural Revolution and a half-sister killed herself. Mr. Xi himself was one of 18 million urban youths banished to the countryside to learn from the peasants.
He has declared that it is just as unacceptable to negate Mao’s 30 years in power as it is to speak critically of the 30 years that followed under Deng. He has set side-by-side, on equal footing, a period marked by spasms of mass killing and destruction and an overwhelmingly peaceful era that saw the greatest economic progress in human history.
Outsiders may wonder why Mr. Xi takes such an impartial view of one of the 20th century’s worst despots. But in the Chinese context, it makes a certain sense. A key to understanding Mr. Xi’s relationship with Mao is the system of hereditary privilege that still exists in a once-feudal country. The Red Guards had a saying: “The son of a hero is a real man; the son of a reactionary is a bastard.” Mr. Xi’s father was a hero. And he owed it to Mao.
It is Mao, by extension, who gives Mr. Xi his prestige as one of China’s “red aristocrats,” scions of Mao’s closest comrades, even if those comrades were badly abused. It is Mao who was responsible for the young Mr. Xi’s enforced sojourn in rural Shaanxi province, where he stayed in a cave and had his political coming-of-age. Above all, it is Mao—a heroic version of Mao, the patriot who proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace—who stars in Mr. Xi’s “China Dream,” a narrative intended to uplift the masses and instill pride in the party at a time when the economy is slowing dramatically.
The story starts with the Opium Wars and China’s ensuing “century of humiliation” by Japan and the West and leads, via Mao’s 1949 revolution, toward a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Absent Mao, the story falls apart. Mao has become Mr. Xi’s best—and perhaps last—hope for rescuing his party from the fate that befell its Soviet counterpart.
As he hones and polishes his chronicle of national redemption, Mr. Xi is carefully picking and choosing from Mao’s legacy. He wants Mao the hero without Mao the author of chaos; Mao the patriot without the Mao who appeared so indifferent to the death and suffering of his own people. But the Mao era can’t be so neatly disaggregated. Some Chinese, especially intellectuals, fear that their leader is playing with fire.
Mr. Xi’s “China Dream” depends to a large degree on silence, secrecy and propaganda about the Cultural Revolution, which traumatized some 100 million Chinese. Authorities won’t allow open discussion of that era for fear that it would discredit Mao and undermine the party’s legitimacy. At the National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square, the tragedy gets a single mention: a photo of Red Guards surging through Tiananmen, lost in a high corner of a cavernous gallery.
The memories are also too painful for many Chinese, who prefer to forget an era in which they both suffered and dealt out suffering. Mr. Ji, the mild-mannered Sanskrit expert, is a case in point. He had taken sides with one Red Guard faction against another at Peking University at a time when students were fighting pitched battles with homemade spears. He didn’t fight, but he was implicated in the violence.
And over the years, memories have grown selective. To the urban poor and others left behind by China’s high-speed growth, Mao represents a purer, more egalitarian, less corrupt era. The nostalgia feeds today’s popular enthusiasm for dances from that era and for singing revolutionary songs like “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman.” These groups welcome the Mao revival, though it makes the party nervous. The last thing Mr. Xi wants is for Mao to become a symbol of protest for the downtrodden.
Unlike Mao, Mr. Xi will be judged not by his revolutionary charisma but by his job performance—his ability to deliver economic growth. He has committed to a “moderately prosperous society” by 2049, the centenary of the revolution. And while Mao was aloof from day-to-day administration, Mr. Xi is a micromanager who personally runs the economy, national security, defense, cybersecurity and just about everything else.
What passes for Mr. Xi’s cult today is modest indeed. Obsequious jingles to “Daddy Xi” may circulate online, but copies of his tome, “The Governance of China,” pile up on bookstore shelves, and few Chinese pay much attention to the laudatory headlines of the People’s Daily. Mao’s cult was of a different order altogether. At its height, writes Mr. Dikötter in “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976,” demand for plastic to cover the Little Red Book, a collection of Mao’s aphorisms, forced toy factories to scale back output, and the production of Mao badges—as many as five billion of them—exhausted aluminum supplies.
The more serious parallel to the past is Mr. Xi’s tendency to seek solutions for the party’s woes in its early years. To clean up official corruption, he has set loose the party’s own spies and inquisitors instead of lawyers and prosecutors. Like Mao, he believes in the power not of institutional constraints but of ideology to mold human nature and reform behavior. Self-criticism and public confessions have made a comeback, techniques designed to induce shame and subservience to the party’s will.
There has always been a streak of xenophobia in Chinese communism, and that too is creeping back. A cartoon poster warns female government workers of “dangerous love” with foreign spies, as illustrated by the naive “Little Li,” who hands over government secrets to a red-haired “David.” China increasingly sees itself in ideological confrontation with the West. Last month, the party magazine Qiushi quoted Mr. Xi saying that some Chinese have “unwittingly become trumpeters of Western capitalistic ideology.”
Mr. Xi’s economic policies also bear a Maoist stamp. He insists on bulking up state enterprises, the bedrock of Mao’s command economy, even as the state sector hemorrhages money and threatens to overwhelm the economy with debt.
In the decades after the Cultural Revolution, a conviction took hold outside China that ideology no longer mattered inside. Deng was supposed to have buried it, and Mao had become a benign cultural icon, his smiling portrait on bank notes and gazing out across Tiananmen Square. To the extent that Chinese leaders believed in anything, the thinking went, it was in a technocratic future. They had become pragmatists, single-mindedly devoted to economic growth. Hadn’t Deng declared that “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice”?
Some in the West imagined that as Chinese living standards caught up with the rest of the modern world, the political systems would start to converge too. This assumption has proved wrong. On Mr. Xi’s watch, as in Mao’s time all those years ago, the East remains in the grip of communist ideas with a logic and power of their own. The Cultural Revolution lives on.