Fifty years ago, a socio-political movement known as Cultural Revolution was carried out in China to preserve the so-called ‘true’ Communist ideology. During the decade-long movement, many people who are labeled as ‘capitalists’ or ‘revisionists’ were purged in a violent class struggle. They were humiliated, tortured, harassed, etc.
Many of the purged could not withstand the humiliation and harassment and took their life at that time. Although there were no official numbers on the death toll, around two million, or even 20 million were killed, purged to death or committed suicide during the turmoil.
Besides the so-called ‘capitalists’ and ‘revisionists’, many historical relics and artifacts were also destroyed as they are related to the ‘Four Olds’ – old customs, culture, habits and ideas, which were meant to be demolished.
The whole event ended when the then military leader Lin Biao died in 1971. By then, Chinese economy was hit badly as people had either devoted themselves in the Revolution or been purged. Education system was also wrecked as many intellectuals, including teachers, died in the purge.
In 1981, the Central Committee adopted the “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China”, assessing various historical events, including Cultural Revolution.
Even though the Chinese Government had admitted the Cultural Revolution was a “disaster and a turmoil to the Communist Party and the Chinese people” in the Resolution, the event itself remains to be a taboo in China. In National Museum of China in Beijing, only one photo and three lines of text are used to describe the period.
While for the Chinese people, most of them are unwilling to talk about the event, no matter if they experienced it or not. It seems they are afraid that the Chinese Government might do something to harm them if they have mentioned the topic.
This brings us a question: no matter Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping, all of them were not beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution. In fact, some of their families suffered frompurges during the period. Why would they treat the topic as a taboo after they came to power?
“It is the atmosphere in mainland China which makes the people afraid of talking about the topic,” said Juliet Wu, a mainland student in Hong Kong. “It’s just like there is an ‘invisible hand’ watching you.”
“People fear that if someone overhears you talking too much on the Cultural Revolution, there will be officials coming to bother you,” she added.
She said the fear comes from the examples of people who are outspoken being prosecuted by Beijing Government, such as those human rights activists.
In fact, the Chinese government has keen on prosecuting the activists, especially when they stand against the government in some issues – Tan Zuoren and Huang Qi during the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Zhao Lianhai during the 2008 Chinese milk scandal, etc.
According to a report issued by China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, 249 human rights lawyers were detained, called, prosecuted, put under house arrest or even disappeared for no reasons during the period between 9th and 23rd July 2015.
To Xujun Eberlein, the author of Apologies Forthcoming, a book about Cultural Revolution, Chinese people voluntarily keep quiet towards the event rather than being forced to.
“The memories make those who suffered in the Cultural Revolution to be very painful and shameful,” she said. “What makes people’s feeling to be more complicated is that many of the experienced went through the roles of victims and victimizers.”
Same feeling applies to Chu Sai-lan, who experienced the decade-long period when she is a child. She seldom talks to others about her experience in the event except for her close friends.
During the Cultural Revolution, her father was one of the purged. He was one of the leading person during the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which caused him to be criticized by his colleagues as a ‘rightists’
Chu’s father was asked to do inferior jobs instead of office work, and one of the co-workers shaved half of his hair when they criticized him.
“After all, it is a dishonorable experience and my father has passed away for a long time,” she said. “There are more people whose problems are worse than mine.”
Fred Lai, another mainland university student in Hong Kong, thinks the more the people understand, the more reluctant the people would like to talk about the Cultural Revolution as they would know how horrible the Communist Party could be.
“When they understand the Revolution more, they know more about the tactics used by the Communist Party to purge the dissidents,” said Lai. “They know where the bottom line of the Party is and thus dare not to cross that line.”
He explained during the Hundred Flowers Campaign, many Chinese voiced out their views and opinions to the Beijing Government, but were retributed afterwards by class struggle.
“If you ask a taxi driver in Beijing [about the Cultural Revolution],” he added, “his viewpoint might be better than that of official commentators in China.”
Zhu Xueqin, a Chinese sociologist and a professor from Shanghai University, said although the Party issued an official assessment stating that the event “brought serious disaster and turmoil to the Communist Party and the Chinese people”, the so-called assessment was only just a political decision. It does not have any history meaning.
He explained the assessment only politically denied the Cultural Revolution and the group which manipulated the event, but it does not mentioned anything related to the reason why Mao Zedong started the movement, nor how devastating it was to the Chinese people.
Ding Xueliang, a professor of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the reason why Chinese Government does not have a unified stringiness on controlling studies and discussion related to the Revolution is related to the policies and propagandas of a certain period.
According to Ding, Beijing has adopted this way of controlling for over 40 years, and that people will not be able to know whether they are allowed to talk on certain topics in the coming years.
Xujun said the silence was broken once two years ago, when many of the former Red Guards stand out bravely to apologize for their actions when they are young.
“It was like the name of my book [Apologies Forthcoming] in 2008 was becoming real,” she said. “But the wish burst when all the apologizing voices disappeared, and never heard again.”
Ding thinks the period when the deepest reflect was made by Chinese Government was the time when Deng Xiaoping returned in the 80s.
Yet since the June Fourth Incident in 1989, Beijing changed its tolerating policy and strengthened the control towards mass movements. Ding explained that even though the rulers hated Cultural Revolution, they feared the students and people might treat them in ‘Cultural Revolution ways’, which includes crowd demonstration, Big Character Posters and rebellion.
Ding said that is the reason why the Chinese government would not allow the publishers to publish books related to the decade-long period, and that there is not an official museum of Cultural Revolution in China.
As Beijing is reluctant in mentioning the topic, the youth in China were not well-educated about the truth in the Revolution, and this caused them to have misunderstanding towards the incident.
According to Lai, the part talking about Cultural Revolution covered only one-sixth of the page in mainland secondary school history textbook.
“The content was just similar to what they’ve mentioned in the ‘Resolution’,” said Lai. “Although the teacher tried to tell us more about the topic, it is just not enough.”
In the ‘Resolution’, Mao was described as being manipulated in the Cultural Revolution period by the Gang of Four, to which Lai disagrees.
Lai and Wu both said many of the teenagers in China have no idea what happened during the ten-year period, which is very dangerous.
Xujun said she once saw Chinese adolescents studying abroad in the United States refused to believe all the crazy stuffs happened during the Revolution.
“The most common reason they used to deny those crazy stuffs was that they believe their parents would have told them the stories if those stuffs were true,” said Xujun.
“As the youngsters do not understand what has happened at that time,” she added, “most of them may not be aware of the mistake made. The disaster may repeat as they may have misunderstanding towards the issue.”
If there are no in-depth studies and reflect done that show the truth of the event in a country that is heavily affected by the Cultural Revolution, people in the country and their offspring will then unable to comment on the devastating effect caused by the incident on China’s politics, economics, society, culture and education correctly. The collective memories of Chinese people’s fear towards the Cultural Revolution could never be reminded. And that the unforgettable ten-year long incident may come back at any time, causing similar or even worse consequences to the development of China.
文革，中國仍然沒有結束的一場革命？ – BBC 中文网 (in Chinese)
《文化大革命: 史實與研究》，劉青峰著 (in Chinese)
China’s Cultural Revolution must be confronted – Al Jazeera English