Today is the 50th anniversary of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Just how great was it? Well it was such a disaster that even the state-run Global Times called it, “painful,” “chaotic,” and “a devastating decade of political turmoil.”
Even the Communist Party itself admits that the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution was “a serious mistake,” and that Mao was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong.” Part of that 30 percent wrong is presumably killing two million people during that time.
Mao began the Cultural Revolution in May 1966 to purge his enemies and restore ideological purity to the Communist Party. The revolution raged out of control, only coming to an end because Mao died in 1976. Not only was it a period of good old fashioned book burning, temple smashing, and people yelling—but also pure political chaos. You could be a model member of the Communist Party one day, and the next—purged. Only to later find yourself back on top. In fact, that’s what happened to Mao’s eventual successor, Deng Xiaoping. Twice.
The human cost of the Cultural Revolution was immense. Groups of violent young people known as the Red Guards, denounced, beat, and even killed people who were branded “counter-revolutionaries.” In some areas the political frenzy was so insane that people literally ate these so-called enemies.
People were encouraged to report their neighbors, friends, even family members. In 1970, 16-year-old Zhang Hongbing heard his mother criticize Mao for starting the Cultural Revolution. He reported her to the police and recommended that she should be shot. She was beaten and executed. Now Zhang is trying to tell his story in hopes that the Cultural Revolution will never happen again.
It’s not so easy, because the Communist Party, while acknowledging that the Cultural Revolution was a mistake, doesn’t really want people talking about what happened.
So it was a little surprising to suddenly see this, a massive “patriotic” concert featuring songs and imagery from the Cultural Revolution. Complete with slogans like “People of the world unite and defeat the American invaders and their running dogs.”
The response from Chinese citizens was, as you might expect, less than glorious. Which kind of raises the question: Who’s idea was this concert? Amazingly, no one seems to really know. The performance was put on by the patriotic girl band 56 Flowers and the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre. According to the South China Morning Post, the second group said, “it had been deceived by its partner, which claimed to be from an office under the Party’s Central Publicity Department.” That would be “the Central Propaganda Department Office for the Promotion of Socialist Core Values,” which apparently does not exist.
State-run Global Times said, “we do not believe the show has any official backing.” But…it was held in the Great Hall of the People. That would be like saying a concert at the US Capitol building had no official backing. Plus, several officials from the Central Propaganda Department were in the audience. And state-run media published articles about the concert. Until they were deleted.
But here’s a hint at what’s behind it: giant pictures of Mao Zedong next to giant pictures of Xi Jinping. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say someone is trying to make a comparison. And for Xi Jinping, that’s a dangerous comparison for people to make. Ever since Mao, the Party has been terrified of the thrall of a personality cult. Remember the last guy that tried to start one? Bo Xilai. He’s now in jail for life.
So…this concert can’t actually be good for Xi, right? Well, that might be the point. The day after the Cultural Revolution concert, Xi just so happened to give a speech warning about “cabals and cliques” within the Communist Party. He said, “There are careerists and conspirators existing in our Party and undermining the Party’s governance.” And by governance he most likely means himself.
Since Xi stepped onto the stage in 2012, there’s been a constant power struggle between Xi and the people who used to hold the reins within the Communist Party: a faction—or “cabal”, if you will—affiliated with former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. And it just so happens that many of the most powerful members of Jiang’s old guard have been purged in Xi’s so-called anti-corruption campaign.
Xi has been amassing power and titles. He just appointed himself as China’s first ever Commander-in-Chief. So is he the next Mao? Well, as Roderick MacFarquhar, an expert in elite Communist Party politics, put it, “Chairman Mao never needed titles. Everyone knew who was in charge.”
So was this Cultural Revolution concert just a way for Xi’s rivals to compare him to Mao, so they could criticize him and take him down? Might not be as far fetched as it sounds. Liu Yunshan—the official in charge of China’s propaganda—is one of Xi Jinping’s big rivals.
So, there’s a mysterious concert at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. It appears to have been approved in some way by the Propaganda Department. And it could make Xi Jinping look like a dangerous leader of a personality cult on the anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. Then, outrage over the concert, people blame a fake propaganda agency, censorship ensues.
Evidence of a power struggle? Or inept political blundering? Leave your comments below.