Fifty years ago this month began the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s decade-long sociopolitical movement that ushered in violence, social, and economic upheaval throughout China. The Party has since 1981 officially condemned the mass movement, and discussion of it has been largely avoided in official commentary. Last week, controversy broke out after a concert at the Great Hall of the People by patriotic girl group 56 Flowers—advertised as a “celebration of socialism” in line with Xi Jinping’s call for art that expresses “positive energy”—appeared to pay homage to the Cultural Revolution. “The South China Morning Post’s Nectar Gan reports on the show and the criticism it attracted:
Ma Xiaoli, daughter of Ma Wenrui who was persecuted for being a leader of an “anti-party clique” with President Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun during the 10-year turmoil, called the show a recurrence “of the culture of the Cultural Revolution” and accused it of “taking a step back in history”.
Ma lashed out at organisers in a letter, accusing them of violating the Communist Party’s political discipline by honouring the memory of the Cultural Revolution with the show.
“We must raise our strong vigilance against the comeback of the Cultural Revolution and [against] extreme leftist ideology making waves again,” she wrote.
[…] Some people commenting online drew comparisons between the show and the campaign to promote “red culture” in Chongqing under the city’s disgraced former leader Bo Xilai, who is now serving a life sentence for corruption.
One person commented: “This is the role of power at play. They [the people with power] reminisce about it, so they can directly put on a show about it. They are only representing their own interests, which have nothing to do with the people’s interests.” [Source]
Promotional material for the concert listed the official-sounding but apparently fictitious “Communist Party Central Committee Propaganda Department Office of Socialist Core Value Propaganda and Education”; a censorship directive shared by Twitter-user @beidaijin ordered all media to immediately delete content mentioning the imaginary government body. In a separate SCMP article, Wendy Wu reports further on public confusion about the internal politics and official sanctioning of the event, and accusations of deception hurled at both the performers and organizers:
There has been confusion among some members of the public over whether Monday’s concert, given its high-profile location, signalled a political stance or intention in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the revolution.
The event was staged by the Fifty-Six Flowers troupe and the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre, which is directly under the Ministry of Culture.
The theatre group, which is one of the top departments in charge of performances at the hall, said it was deceived by the co-organiser.
The cultural authority for Xicheng district, where the hall is located, said it approved the concert last month but the performers added a new organiser “in violation of regulations” and accused the performers of making up a propaganda agency. […] [Source]
The semi-centennial anniversary of the Cultural Revolution comes as commentators have repeatedly compared the rule of Xi Jinping—characterized by a focus on ideological conformity and rallying against Western values, low tolerance for dissent, a revival of the encouragement of socialist realism, and a spirited image-crafting campaign—to that of the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong (others, however, have disputed that comparison). At The Wall Street Journal, Chun Han Wong notes speculation that the controversial event could have been staged by opponents of Xi to highlight such comparisons:
It wasn’t clear what lay behind the staging of the concert or its timing. Some observers say such a show—with its controversial content and high-profile venue—could only have come about with high-level party support.
“The performance looks so over the top that one wonders if it were meant as caricature,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a political science professor at University of Miami. She suggested critics of Mr. Xi’s concentration of control in his own hands might have tried to use the concert to play up a comparison with Mao. [Source]
At The New Yorker, former China correspondent Evan Osnos (currently covering politics and foreign affairs from D.C.) writes on the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, warning against mistaking the political atmosphere in Xi’s China to that in the country 50 years ago, while acknowledging that clear parallels do indicate Mao’s lingering influence:
China today is in the midst of another political fever, in the form of an anti-corruption crackdown and a harsh stifling of dissenting views. But it should not be mistaken for a replay of the Cultural Revolution. Even with thousands under arrest, the scale of suffering is of a different order, and shorthand comparisons run the risk of relieving the Cultural Revolution of its full horror. There are tactical differences as well: instead of unleashing the population to attack the Party, as Mao did in his call to “bombard the headquarters,” Xi Jinping has swung in the direction of tighter control, seeking to fortify the Party and his own grip on power. He has reorganized the top leadership to put himself at the center, suffocated liberal thinking and the media, and, for the first time, pursued critics of his government even when they are living outside mainland China. In recent months, Chinese security services have abducted opponents from Thailand, Myanmar, and Hong Kong.
And yet there are deeper parallels between this moment in China and the time in which Xi came of age, as a teen-ager in the Cultural Revolution, which illuminate just how enduring some of the features of Mao’s Leninist system have proved to be. Xi, in his constant moves to identify enemies and eliminate them, has revived the question that Lenin considered the most important of all: “Kto, Kovo?”—“Who, whom?” In other words, in every interaction, the question that matters is which force wins and which force loses. Mao and his generation, who grew up amid scarcity, saw no room for power-sharing or for pluralism; he called for “drawing a clear distinction between us and the enemy.” “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?” This, Mao said, was “a question of first importance for the revolution.” China today, in many respects, bears little comparison with the world that Mao inhabited, but on that question Xi Jinping is true to his roots. […] [Source]
For more on the Cultural Revolution, see prior coverage via CDT.