Fifty years ago this month, Mao Zedong launched China’s Cultural Revolution – a decade of chaos, persecution, and violence, carried out in the name of ideology and in the interest of expanding Mao’s personal power. Yet, instead of reflecting on that episode’s destructive legacy, the Chinese government is limiting all discussion of it, and Chinese citizens, focused on the wealth brought by three decades of market-oriented reforms, have been content to go along. But at a time when President Xi Jinping is carrying out ruthless purges and creating his own cult of personality, burying the past is not cost-free.
In August 1966, Mao published Bombard the Headquarters – My Big-Character Poster, a document aimed at enabling the purge of the Chinese Communist Party’s leading “capitalist roader”: then-President Liu Shaoqi. In the “poster,” Mao called for China’s youth to “pull the emperor off his horse” and start a grassroots rebellion.
Young people responded with alacrity. “Red Guard” student paramilitary groups quickly cropped up across the country to advance Mao’s will. Within 100 days, Mao had succeeded in purging swaths of the central Party leadership, including Liu and Deng Xiaoping.
But it was not just Mao’s political adversaries who were under attack. That first August and September alone, the Red Guards killed more than 1,700 people, either through beatings or forced suicide, and banished some 100,000 Beijing residents, after burning their homes and belongings. Educators were particularly vulnerable. Whenever the Red Guards appeared at elementary schools, middle schools, or universities, teachers and administrators were removed.
It did not take long for Mao to turn on the Red Guards, deciding that its members were the “underlings” of the capitalist roaders. After imposing military rule across China, Mao filled the Red Guard units with new proletarian rebels, often banishing the groups’ original members to far-flung villages for “re-education.”
For Xi, the events of the Cultural Revolution hit close to home. His own father, Xi Zhongxun, a senior Communist Party official, was removed from power, imprisoned, and ultimately sent to work in a factory making tractors, while his family was scattered across the countryside.
Yet instead of recoiling from the ideology and organization that tore apart his family and his country, Xi has adopted the key tenets and tools of the Cultural Revolution as his own. Xi seems to have retained within him the belligerence of Cultural Revolution-era youth. Power is his lodestar, and he appears to be willing to go to any length to secure it. In this effort, he has one key advantage: Mao’s legacy.
For decades, Mao promoted a form of class struggle in which citizens informed on one another, even their closest friends, neighbors, and family members. With no safe haven at hand, everyone – even non-members – became a servant of the Communist Party. In this environment of fear, the state quietly and efficiently subsumed personal identity.
The savagery required to assert absolute power over the population is one lesson of the Cultural Revolution to which Xi seems indifferent. He is concerned only about the “absolute power” part. And in his effort to obtain it, the survivors of the Cultural Revolution – people who know what it means to be intimidated into choosing politics over the personal – have become Xi’s most reliable political capital.
Xi knows that he can succeed only by reinforcing the Party’s authority, and his position as its leader. So he has presented the narrative that there is a grave threat to China from within – a threat posed by treacherous and corrupt leaders – and has declared Party loyalty to be of paramount importance.
There are only two types of people: Those who support the Party and those who do not. Like Mao in 1966, Xi believes that his power hinges on making all Chinese – government officials and ordinary citizens alike – loyal and obedient through any means possible. Power is founded on the repression of opponents, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the tens of thousands of other jailed authors and scholars.
But Xi is not counting on fear alone to cement his rule. He is also attempting to win popular support with a new unifying ideology, based on the so-called China Dream, a set of socialist values and goals that are supposed to bring about the “great renewal of the Chinese nation.” This has been accompanied by a galvanizing form of nationalism that portrays the world, particularly the United States, as seeking to keep China back from assuming its rightful place atop the international order. And he has nurtured a personality cult of a kind not seen since Mao.
Fifty years after the Cultural Revolution, its crimes and sins remain unexpurgated. On the contrary, it is being used to justify more political and social repression in China. But, despite Xi’s best efforts, his attempts to secure Mao-style authority are likely to end very differently for him, with his incompetent economic rule and political purges and repression gradually producing secret cadres that oppose him. As economic failures increasingly explode into political unrest, the old Red Guards may once again reprise their central role in the Cultural Revolution, backed by a young generation unaware of history. This time, the “emperor” they pull off his horse will be Xi.