China is in the grip of a new wave of "revolutionary culture" ahead of a key political anniversary, although authorities still forbid public debate on Mao Zedong's brutal Cultural Revolution , analysts said on Wednesday.
Officials in the southwestern city of Chongqing have organized a series of "red song" concerts to strengthen social cohesion, and television stations have been ordered to run historical dramas lauding the ruling Communist Party ahead of its 90th anniversary on July 1.
But anthems like "Chairman Mao is the Reddest Sun in All Our Hearts," and "Without the Communist Party, There Would be No New China," are unlikely to make a mainstream comeback, with many people regarding them as retro curiosities.
"Revolutionary songs ... don't really influence ordinary people these days," said Wang Yunsheng, a middle-aged resident of the southwestern city of Chongqing, where the authorities are running a campaign for people to sing "red" songs in pursuit of a harmonious society.
"Especially the young people ... People are able to make their own decisions ... I think a lot will think of it as a joke," he siad.
A political move
Hu Ping, editor of the U.S.-based online magazine Beijing Spring, said that the drive to make revolutionary songs popular could be mistaken for a cultural phenomenon, but that instead it is a political move by the government.
"I think this trend is well worth keeping an eye on," Hu said. "These revolutionary song events are [often] led by the government."
"You would never see events like this in a free and democratic country."
In 1966, Mao, concerned over a possible power grab by other party leaders, launched the Cultural Revolution, plunging the country into 10 years of turmoil in which millions of workers, officials and intellectuals were banished to the countryside for hard labour. Many were tortured, killed or driven to suicide.
Mao however retains much public affection among Chinese as a charismatic leader seen to have liberated China from what they felt was humiliating imperial subjugation.
Hu said revolutionary song rallies are an attempt to recreate the aesthetic of the Cultural Revolution, with everyone singing rousing patriotic anthems in deep-voiced unison.
"They want to create this atmosphere," he said. "They want to have a powerful effect on the individual through events of this kind, where the individual mind merges with the group mind."
There are also moves which echo the stranglehold over cultural performances once wielded by Mao's wife Jiang Qing, whose Six Revolutionary Model Operas were once the only shows in town.
After banning time travel on TV, China's ruling Communist Party has now ordered state-run broadcasters to remove spy dramas from their schedules and begin airing approved revolutionary dramas to mark the Party's 90th anniversary.
Culture czars inside the Party, which celebrates the nine-decade anniversary of its founding on July 1, recently ordered satellite television stations in Zhejiang, Tianjin, Jiangsu, and other locations to stop broadcasting wartime spy and police dramas.
China's high-ranking cultural officials have instead prepared a list of shows which the government wishes to promote, including a 90th anniversary gala television performance lauding the Party.
Other shows on the list included the classic revolutionary drama "My youth is in Yan'an" and specially produced documentaries like "In July That Year" and "The Sons and Daughters of the Party."
Mao's image 'still powerful'
Ironically, Mao's image is still a powerful icon among China's dispossessed farming communities and other disempowered people, although the government seldom gives its blessing when it is invoked.
Ordinary Chinese who pursue official complaints against the government have banded together in a number of major cities to sing revolutionary songs from the Mao era in public.
Their unofficial "concerts" are usually dispersed by police.
And even as the Party spurs a resurgence of "red" cultural activities in honor of its founding, the future of a museum commemorating the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution in is doubt, Hong Kong media reported.
Officials in the southern province of Guangdong built the Cultural Revolution museum on top of Tashan, a mountain near Shantou city, to honor those who died in the province during the decade of political turmoil.
But China's leaders still permit no national memorial to the decade of chaos and political violence that was sparked by Mao, and the museum has come under intense political pressure since its founding six years ago.
The museum, which is privately financed and advertises only discreetly on the Internet, is poorly managed, and there are now fears for its future, Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper reported.
"What do we remember the Cultural Revolution for?" asked the museum's founder, surnamed Wan. "It is probably so that we don't forget this history, so as not to have this historic tragedy repeat itself."
"There is also a hidden, deeper meaning," Wan said. "If we re-examine the Cultural Revolution today we find that there were also some elements of reason in it."
Wan said the chaos of the Cultural Revolution was also a time in which ordinary people rose up and swept away those with more privilege than them, and in that sense contained the seeds of democratic change in the national imagination.
But he said the main purpose of remembering history was to avoid a repetition.
'The real culprit'
As former Guangdong provincial governor Ren Zhongyi, a reformer who oversaw the transformation of the province under Deng Xiaoping's earliest economic reforms, wrote in honor of the museum's inauguration: "We must take history as our guide and never, ever allow the Cultural Revolution to happen again."
According to Shenzhen-based political activist Zhu Jianguo, the government's attitude to that period in its history—when millions were persecuted, killed, or attacked by mobs in "struggle sessions," or locked up by kangaroo courts for imagined crimes—stems from the ambivalence of a certain generation of Chinese leaders.
"When the Cultural Revolution ended, and the Gang of Four had just fallen, there was a group of older leaders who had been persecuted back then, and they wanted to repudiate the Cultural Revolution personally, at a 'feeling' level," said Shenzhen-based political activist Zhu Jianguo.
"But they very quickly realized that if they did that, then their own basis for being in power would no longer exist. They would have repudiated themselves."
"So they ... decided that the verdict on the Cultural Revolution couldn't be entirely negative," Zhu said.
"The real culprit behind the Cultural Revolution was Mao Zedong Thought, and in the end, they had to protect that."
Reported by Gao Shan and Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.