The Cultural Revolution at 40

Mao’s Cultural Revolution was launched 40 years ago this month, yet, despite 20 years of economic liberalization, its wounds remain a taboo subject. Today’s rulers dare not face up to their own experiences or moral responsibility. So, three decades after the Cultural Revolution ended, the national self-examination that China requires has not yet begun.

Of course, the Communist Party has deemed the Cultural Revolution a “catastrophe,” a judgment supported by mainstream opinion. But China’s rulers permit discussion of the Cultural Revolution only within this official framework, suppressing any and all unofficial reflections. The generalized official verdict, and the use of Lin Piao (once Mao Zedong’s Vice President and designated heir, who rebelled against him) and the “Gang of Four” as scapegoats, obscures the crimes of Mao and the Party, as well as the entrenched flaws in the system.

The Cultural Revolution’s major figures, who wrought so much mindless violence, thus either maintain their silence or offer spurious self-defenses. Most victims also use various excuses to bottle up their memories. Those who both persecuted and were persecuted are willing to talk only about their being victims.

For example, the fanatical Red Guard movement swallowed up almost every youth of the right age. Yet all but a few old Red Guards remain silent, saying, “it is not worth remembering.” During the Cultural Revolution’s early days, the Beijing-based Allied Movement, formed by the children of party cadres, committed horrendous acts of violence, operating under the slogan, “If the father is a hero, the son is a good man; if the father is a reactionary, the son is a turtle egg.”