Forty Years On, China’s Cultural Revolution Still a Forbidden Zone

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Cultural Revolution propaganda poster. Photo courtesy Stefan R. Landsberger.

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WASHINGTON—Forty years after Chairman Mao Zedong ushered in 10 years of mayhem and bloodshed with his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government has banned any commemorations, ignoring calls for a memorial hall.

The officials do not permit open discussion, the victims do not want to remember and the persecutors are not willing to repent,

Top officials have said publicly that China must “look to the future,” ruling out any commemoration of the anniversary in spite of an open letter from 48 intellectuals and former officials in March.

Behind the scenes, the Party’s Central Propaganda Department has issued a directive banning media commentary, retrospectives or exhibitions on the topic.

And national security police have prevented several top scholars from attending an academic conference marking the anniversary.

“We can have meetings like this outside China, but not inside China. We are not allowed to have a museum, either,” Princeton University professor Perry Link told RFA’s Mandarin service at a recent conference marking the anniversary in New York.

Chinese academics stuck at home

“Neither do we have the opportunity for the truth to be heard properly, for a complete facing up to the reality of the past…This conference isn’t very big, but at least it’s a place where we can really get to the bottom of these issues,” Link said.

The organizer of the U.S.-based conference, Cultural Revolution scholar Song Yongyi, said several top academics had booked a place and then failed to show up after official interference.

“One method they are using is obstruction,” Song, a prominent U.S.-based academic known for his Bibliography of the Cultural Revolution , said.

“They are all from respected institutions like libraries and universities. They tell them that if they go to this conference then they will be in danger of losing our jobs. They also warn them that if they try to travel to the conference, they will be detained at the airport.”

“Another tactic they use is to cancel your plane ticket via the travel agents and tell you that your plane ticket is no longer valid, owing to a ‘computer error’. So the end result is that none of these scholars has been able to attend the conference,” he added.

The conference, “Historical Truth and Collective Memory,” ran from May 11-14 at the City University in New York. It included sessions exploring the distortions of events in both personal memory and the historical record, and the fragmented nature of much of Cultural Revolution history.

Party fears the past

The May 16 anniversary marks the launching by Mao in 1966 of a tumultuous mass campaign aimed at weeding out enemies and consolidating his leadership of the Communist Party.

What started as a campaign against "capitalist roader" officials turned into a decade of violence and repression, as students and workers formed squads of radical Red Guards, who killed hundreds of thousands in purges and bouts of warfare.

Qualified professionals like teachers and doctors were locked up in “cow pens,” while schools and universities were closed and health services fell into disarray under the supervision of "revolutionaries."

Beijing-based dissident Liu Xiaobo said the ruling Communist Party feared a reckoning with its recent past because it feared its grip on power, already precarious, would be undermined still further.

Many in China who suffered at the hands of the Red Guards are still unwilling to talk about their experiences, Liu said, and such a strong public aversion to the subject has bolstered the official silence.

In stark contrast to the flurry of commemorative activities outside China, inside China there has been nothing to mark the anniversary. A search on popular Web sites available in China using the keywords “Cultural Revolution 40th anniversary” yielded “no results.”

'Rotting' memories

Just before the National People’s Congress parliamentary meetings in March, Culture Minister Sun Jiazheng was asked by reporters if there would be any events to mark the Cultural Revolution this year.

He replied that there would not, and that China should “Look to the future,” a commonly used official slogan often used ironically by ordinary Chinese as a pun: “Look towards money.”

Liu said the lack of fuss surrounding the anniversary showed that the anguish over the Cultural Revolution was not just a forbidden zone for Party officials.

“The officials do not permit open discussion, the victims do not want to remember and the persecutors are not willing to repent,” he wrote in an essay posted on

“Most of the documents about the Cultural Revolution are locked away in the black boxes of officialdom, or else they are rotting in the memories of the participants.”

“The person with the most responsibility for the Cultural Revolution catastrophe is Mao Zedong, who is still the 'big savior' of China. The children of the senior cadres who enjoyed the greatest fame during the Cultural Revolution are now the principal beneficiaries of today's lame reforms,” wrote Liu.

Meanwhile, appreciation of the kitsch Communist aesthetic of the era seems to be growing in China, with Cultural Revolution memorabilia fetching higher and higher prices in Chinese bric-a-brac markets.

“This was a very unusual time that will not be repeated. So people regard mementoes of that time as very precious,” exiled former Party scholar Yan Jiaqi told RFA’s Mandarin service.

“For example, a lot of people like the Revolutionary Model Operas commissioned by Jiang Qing. They find them fun and easy to remember.”

“In the United States in Chinese churches you’ll often find people singing hymns to the tune of the Revolutionary Model Operas…These are very easy for people to accept. That was a unique time in which the cult of personality brought disaster to so many people,” Yan said.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Shen Hua and Yang Jiadai. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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