The Specter of the Cultural Revolution

In the New York Times, author Lijia Zhang calls for a full accounting of the Cultural Revolution and says that the country risks repeating history without major reforms: “more democracy, rule of law, transparency, checks on power and a decentralized power structure”:

The Cultural Revolution began 46 years ago this month with Chairman Mao’s “May 16 Notification” and ended 10 years later with at least half a million people dead from torture, execution or suicide. This misguided movement tore apart China’s social fabric, touching all of us in one way or another.

A childhood friend of mine accidentally broke a porcelain statue of Chairman Mao. His mother was blamed, beaten and humiliated at public gatherings. She eventually went mad. My grandfather committed suicide at the height of the movement, terrified that his job as a grain dealer would make him a target of the roving bands of Red Guards who might persecute any merchant at any time because of a “capitalist” livelihood. My grandfather once said that he lived like a “bird startled by the mere twang of a bowstring.”

Such stories were all too common, yet we have not come to terms with their long-term effects. Until the Chinese leadership confronts the Cultural Revolution head-on, its ghosts will continue to haunt the nation.

In 1978, two years after the chaos ended, the Communist Party declared the Cultural Revolution a disaster and effectively banned any further public discussion. To this day, the movement’s excesses are glossed over in schools, and books on the period are subject to strict censorship. The topic is often blocked in Chinese on the Web. China has never had a full accounting of how and what went wrong.

Read more about the Cultural Revolution via CDT.

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