Wen Jiabao gave a press conference a few weeks ago where he said that without reforms in China, “such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.” Most have assumed that this was a swipe at Bo Xilai and the left-wing of the Communist Party, which indeed may be the case. Bo led a number of red rallies in Chongqing that had a distinct whiff of Cultural Revolution. But Bo was no fool. His red revival was more of a power play tugging at people’s nostalgia than anything else. Wen’s words may have had a broader and more significant target than just Bo.
The official account of the Cultural Revolution that’s taught in Chinese textbooks is that unseemly figures like the Gang of Four manipulated Mao and the entire country into complacency with the campaign’s excesses. In reality, it was directly overseen by a paranoid Mao as a means to keep control.
Hermann Goering, designated successor to Hitler, once explicated the political tactic that would go on to describe the Cultural Revolution perfectly:
Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
Hitler had the Jews, McCarthy had communists, and Mao had “counter-revolutionaries.” But after suffering badly through the Cultural Revolution, is China really susceptible to making a similar mistake? In a word, yes.
Since 1989, the only real sources of legitimacy for China’s authoritarian government have been economic growth and nationalism. If the economy slows or abruptly halts, then the void will have to be filled somehow. That could be done through political reforms that give direct accountability to the people, or some kind of scapegoat could be used to consolidate angst in a direction away from the government. I suspect Wen Jiabao’s calls for the former are in hopes of avoiding the latter.
But political reform isn’t the only issue. The generation born after the Cultural Revolution is reaching the age of influence. Since Chinese students aren’t taught the mechanics of how authoritarian leaders like Mao hold power, they aren’t equipped to guard against it. And while it was Mao that initiated the Cultural Revolution campaign, it was actually common people on the ground who were responsible for its greatest horrors. Like the Salem Witch Trials before it, many were happy to use the witch hunt as a pretext for settling personal scores or engaging in downright sadism. Here’s one telling account from that period:
In early September 1966, the gang of Red Guards mercilessly beat an old man accused of once having been a landlord. That same day, fearing more torture, the old man killed himself. But the guards weren’t finished. They gave the corpse to his three sons, demanding that the boys parade it around the village. Then they told the boys to chop the body into three pieces and place them in pigpens. If any of them had refused, they all would have been dubbed ‘evil spawn of the feudal class’ and destined for persecution.
Chinese students are taught in gory detail about the atrocities the Japanese carried out in Nanjing, but history books stop short of showing that Chinese (like any other nationality) are capable of inflicting these horrors on one another. We all like to think that we could never do such despicable things, so it’s painful when we learn that fellow countrymen just like us became monsters. It tacitly shows that if circumstances were different, we might not be the people we think we are.
Because political reform has stagnated, many of the same circumstances that preceded historical tragedies are in full force in today’s China: Jingoism, political dogma and blind obedience that are hammered into students from birth, rampant conspiracy theories promoted by the government, shielding of information that comes from the outside world, and strict censorship of the media and individuals who might highlight these things critically.
There’s been recent talk of re-evaluating the Cultural Revolution and even the Tiananmen crackdown. For China’s sake, hopefully it will come to fruition. A full account of history isn’t just critical for the sake of truth, but to teach awareness of those who might try to repeat age-old violent power plays. History’s most important lessons though aren’t the horrid policies that leaders enacted, but how otherwise good people were led into becoming instruments of evil.
 Pomfret, John. Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2007