The burden of history lingers on
Oct 24 2013
It is now over four decades that the traumatic events of the ‘cultural revolution’ shook China. In the late 1950s, Mao’s mad and self-destructive economic policies had caused the biggest famine in human history. After dramatic years of economic decline and social disintegration leading communists like Deng Xiaoping worked hard to begin to repair the damage. Mao, plagued by pathological paranoia, soon began to plot how he could get rid of these potential rivals. Ever since the early phase of his leading the Chinese communists, he had been obsessed by the fear that others might outshine or even replace him.
Finally, the chairman unleashed a movement that was to destroy the existing hierarchies both in society and in the party. Calling particularly on the younger generations, Mao started in 1966 the “great proletarian cultural revolution”. Untold misery and massive cultural damage was brought over the country. Millions of people died. Persons in authority, whether party cadres or teachers, were persecuted. In the best case, they underwent public humiliation; in worse cases, they ended up in concentration camps or even in front of execution squads. Millions of young people were sent for re-education to the countryside. Families were torn apart and children were instructed to spy on their parents and denounce them as ‘counter revolutionaries’.
Besides all these countless human tragedies, the cultural inheritance of the country and the institutions of the state, primarily the education system, suffered enormous damage. It is still not possible to calculate all the cultural treasures that disappeared or were destroyed during the ‘cultural revolution’. Performing arts were reduced to propaganda tools with Mao’s ambitious wife deliberately reducing such proud traditions as the Chinese opera to trash. Only the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 brought this tragic period to a close. Once the senile chairman was gone, the arrest of the so-called “gang of four” followed swiftly. Hardly two years later Deng Xiaoping, who himself along with his family had suffered during the ‘cultural revolution’, could unleash the most significant social and economic reforms in China’s history.
When visiting today’s China, it is difficult to recall that only a generation ago, the proud Middle Kingdom was reduced to penury and civilisationary devastation. Mao’s madness had returned the country to Stone Age. Someone who owned 10,000 yuan renminbi was considered rich and a vast bulk of people lived in extreme poverty. We still recall pictures of the masses of men and women in shabby blue uniforms, the scores of cyclists on Beijing’s streets, where the only private cars to be seen belonged to foreign diplomats or to the highest cadres of the party. After Mao had celebrated poverty, it was up to Deng Xiaoping to bring his countrymen into a new era, where the slogan was, “to get rich is glorious”.
Today, it is officially recognised that Mao Zedong was not infallible and that, while overwhelmingly he was right, he committed some mistakes. This refers to the ‘cultural revolution’. To deal with this tragedy, however, is not easy. First of all, the ruling Communist Party cannot remove Mao as was done in the Soviet Union with Stalin. After all, the USSR still had Lenin as its founder, while Mao Zedong is the founder of the People’s Republic. Furthermore, the party itself has to tread carefully. Its legitimacy is shaky and to admit to great crimes would obviously cause serious damage to its “mandate of heaven” to rule China.
Beyond party and state organs, the ‘cultural revolution is of personal concern to dozens of millions of Chinese. After all, the massive damage and the bloody persecutions were not Mao Zedong’s personal work. He needed millions and millions of willing collaborators, who carry their own personal guilt however misguided they may have been. In innumerable Chinese families, the questions of the son to the father: where were you during the ‘cultural revolution’, what did you do and were you one those who humiliated and persecuted harmless and helpless people, still remain to be answered.
The burden of history weighs heavily and is still straining family ties. At present, a new leadership is in charge of the country and of the party. The main exponents are in their late 50s, which means they were teenagers when the madness of the ‘cultural revolution’ struck the country. Their main concern will be that never again should China descend into such madness. To deal clearly and openly with this difficult chapter of recent Chinese history is a precondition that the ghosts and demons of the “cultural revolution” finally are laid to rest.
(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)