Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Happy Birthday to the Cultural Revolution
It is the 40th anniversary today of the start of the Cultural Revolution. An excellent starting place for any understanding of modern Chinese history is Nigel Harris’s “Mandate of Heaven” which has a chapter on the Cultural Revolution.
Obviously the book is 25 years old, and therefore makes no reference to the turn of the Chinese Communist party towards open free market capitalism, but it does provide an excellent understanding of how the CCP’s objectives were always to promote economic development and national independence, rather than advance socialism.
The Cultural Revolution followed the failure of the Great Leap Forward. Economic development seemed to be at an impasse, and Mao recognised that a new political superstructure had simply been grafted on to an essentially rural underdeveloped economic base that could not sustain fast economic development.
Mao wanted to break out of the stalemate, but could not simply purge the party without destroying his own power base. So instead he turned outside the Party for suppport. It all started almost comically when Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing, claimed that in the autumn of 1965, a number of articles in literary criticism by Mao were refused publication in Peking and Mao was obliged to have them published in Shanghai. Possibly on the basis of this experience, he concluded: “The central Ministry of Propaganda is the palace of the Prince of Hell.” A Cultural Revolution was required. At the start Mao used it to eliminate opponents, such as P’eng Chen, deputy general secretary, Lu Ting-yi (Minister of Culture and chief of the Propaganda Department), and Lo Jui-ch’ing, PLA (the army) Chief of Staff.
The result was an explosion of student militancy aimed at all symbols of discipline, and of the past. Nearly all pre-1949 writers and music was banned. People were imprisoned for having collections of classical music records, or books by Balzac or Goethe
Eleven million students went on a violent rampage as Red Guards, who while using the intoxicating language of social revolution were in fact easily manipulated by different factions in the party. Lin Piao and his supporters (the “Left”, led by the Cultural Revolution group) saw the chance to remove their main rivals within the party, Mao’s heir Liu Shao-ch’i and general secretary Teng Hsiao-p’ing. Lin Piao would then stand close to inheriting the supreme leadership on the retirement of Mao. Secondly, the party cadres disgraced by Liu and his wife during the socialist education movement now had a chance to destroy Liu, and secure their rehabilitation.
Liu and Teng were obliged to accept the role of scapegoats to protect the party, saying that they alone were responsible for the changes introduced after the Great Leap Forward. Liu ceased to appear in public and retired to his State villa in Chung Nan Hai. Thus the head of State, central committee member, and heir to Mao, suddenly became a “capitalist roader”, the source of all ills for hundreds of millions of Chinese.
The politburo were desperately trying to back pedal, but by November millions of workers started strike action putting forward their own demands. This was too much for the party who blamed a “handful of party persons in authority taking the capitalist road”. “These capitalist roaders have been even fomenting strikes, instigating the masses who do not understand the actual situation to flock to the banks and withdraw their deposits by force.” During the course of 1967 the PLA gradually restored order, and Mao’s twin power bases, the PLA and the CCP remained intact.
Today there will be no discussion of the Cultural Revolution in China. The CCP are no more democratic than they were then, and because their objective was always to simply grow the economy to allow China to become a super-power, they have no problem with neo-liberalism. The last thing they want is a discussion of the anarchy their rule brought China to, nor to remind people that they once used to talk the language of human liberation.