A timely reminder of the human cost and miscalculations of Mao’s last experiment, fifty years on
Fifty years ago this year, Mao Zedong issued the directive that launched the Cultural Revolution. His “May 16 Notification” exposed and denounced supposed traitors (“counter-revolutionary revisionists”) at all levels of the Chinese Communist party (CCP). By the time Mao died, just over a decade later, his final, extended purge had torn Chinese government and society apart. Perhaps one and a half million people died unnatural deaths (including two of Mao’s designated successors), millions more had been brutalised, the economy and education had been stultified by political dogma, and some 20 million had been banished from the cities to a countryside that could not feed them. The Cultural Revolution’s hyper-Maoism had devastated and disillusioned the population.
Public memory of these events remains fractured in China today. Some former Red Guards – Mao’s shock troops for propelling the early violence of the purge – have apologised for their actions, while others still defend their beliefs; far more have buried their pasts. Leading novelists – Mo Yan, Tie Ning, Yan Lianke, Yu Hua – stress the sufferings of victims: the ordinary people persecuted by ideologues, opportunists and mindless thugs. Born-again neo-Maoists – many of them too young to remember the Mao era in any meaningful way – celebrate the Cultural Revolution as a utopian experiment in mass democracy.