It has been (arguably) 50 years since the start of one of the greatest, but least well understood, social upheavals of modern history. The Chinese Cultural Revolution, overseen by Mao Zedong, has been in the news in the West and in China both because of this anniversary, and because of controversy surrounding a recent concert in Beijing that featured 'red' songs from the period.
These, along with observations that President Xi Jinping is creating his own personality cult, not unlike Mao's, are causing some to speculate that another Cultural Revolution could be possible. However, the likelihood of another descent into such chaos in contemporary China is low. This is not because of newfound access to information via the internet, or nascent stirrings of political liberalism but, rather, because today's leadership know that to unleash that kind of havoc would be the end of the Communist Party, the last thing Xi wants to see.
While Xi is widely accepted to be consolidating power in a manner not seen since Mao, he is not likely to be the driving force behind a second Cultural Revolution.
It is generally accepted that 16 May 1966 marked the onset of the decade of turmoil and turbulence overseen by then Party Chairman Mao Zedong, a period of disorder that most of Australia could not even imagine. It only ended when he died in September 1976. During that time Mao instructed the people to question authority, criticise the Party and, ultimately, overturn his enemies. Chinese society imploded, friends and families turned on each other, trust among people was deliberately destroyed and replaced, by force if necessary, with loyalty to the Party–state.
'Thought remolding' to reinvent social structures with the Party–state at the centre, as Hu Ping describes in his disturbing and enlightening book, was sophisticated and effective. There is no doubt that the impacts are still felt today, despite the extraordinary fact that many young people know very little, if anything, about what happened. Hu Ping notes that while 'thought remolding' was removed from the official Chinese lexicon in the early 1980s, this 'was not at all equivalent to achieving the freedom of thought'. History in China, much the same as anywhere else, is a political tool to create and reinforce the unquestionable normality of contemporary reality, and the Cultural Revolution has not been open for discussion.
In the last few days there has been some discussion in China about the place of the Cultural Revolution in contemporary China. According to reports, a concert held recently in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing featured 'red' Communist songs from the Cultural Revolution era. However, we should not hastily conclude that the concert signified a resurgence of revolutionary fervour. Red songs to most Chinese people are not the still-glowing embers of revolt. Elderly people singing, playing and dancing with fans or swords to red songs is a common sight in Beijing parks and on street corners. Strange as it may seem, red songs are equated just as much with nostalgic, though perhaps partial, memories of youth as they are with revolution.
The comparison of Xi to Mao — as in a number of recent publications such as The Economist, with a picture of Xi in a pose reminiscent of Mao, and Time, featuring a cover picture of Xi being peeled back to reveal the former Chairman — is also arguably overblown. As Dingding Chen argues, Xi is certainly a strong leader, but this does not equate to a personality cult like Mao's (more good discussion is here). Likewise, Xi's consolidation of power and crackdown on corruption do not herald a second Cultural Revolution.
There are several factors that make a second Cultural Revolution under Xi highly unlikely.
The first is Xi himself. Does he have the will or the ability? Whether he has the will is hard to say, for Chinese or external commentators alike. I believe it is unlikely given the purpose of the Cultural Revolution was to rip apart and reinvent the Party, and Xi seems to be committed to the preservation of the Party above almost all else. Also his memories of what the Cultural Revolution did to his own family must surely resonate.
Whether he has the ability depends of course on his hold on power, and the degree of loyalty and fear he inspires in those around him. Certainly, regardless of Xi's consolidation, the structures of power and the nature of society now are very different from those in Mao's time.
We must also of course not overlook the role of the Chinese people. A second Cultural Revolution would require their complicity and support. This is highly unlikely, but not because the Chinese populace is embracing a more small–'L' liberal politics (they're not) that would make such a thing almost unthinkable.
First, it is unlikely because for the Chinese people maintaining social stability is key to Communist Party legitimacy, and for the CCP, its own continued legitimacy is its raison d'être. While the Cultural Revolution is not actively discussed, it is certainly not forgotten among those who lived through it, and those memories form the foundation of a deep and visceral desire to live a peaceful life (noting that memories of historical events exist within a certain political context). After the Tiananmen protests in 1989, the Party-state's continued legitimacy became reliant on an unwritten social contract in which people's political activism was exchanged for, among other things, government-assured prosperity. Therefore, if Xi looked as if he was sponsoring a policy that undermined social stability, the foundation for the CCP's continued rule would be irrevocably shaken.
Secondly, it is unlikely because while some elite Chinese are dissatisfied with the state, and many everyday Chinese people may grumble about certain aspects of the Party-state from time to time, its existence is largely viewed as an infallible and unquestionable truth. Many Chinese still believe (again remembering that any beliefs always exist within a certain context) that while their Party–state system may be imperfect, it is immutable. It is 'China.' In addition to the social contract in which people gave up their interest in political life, including any interest in trying to change or overcome the status quo, it is widely understood that even if you did want to, the Party is not a 'problem' that can be 'overcome'. The result is that most Chinese have neither the interest in trying to change the system, nor the belief they could prevail even if they tried.
For a second Cultural Revolution in which people were to question and challenge authority, the Party–state would somehow need to be shown to be fallible. In Mao's time, Mao declared it to be fallible to pursue his own personal power. Xi is unlikely to do the same, as his commitment to the Party–state seems to be paramount (although conceivably as a vehicle for his own power). Cracks do exist that could develop into fissures allowing people to question the inevitability of the Party-state, such as the environment and the economy. However the leadership is supremely aware of these vulnerabilities, and will be managing them closely. Success is not guaranteed.
While there is little likelihood of a second Cultural Revolution occurring in the foreseeable future in China, and while it does not take up much space in the public discourse — or most people's private discourse — it is still highly relevant for understanding Chinese politics today. This is true both for understanding what is happening, and also what is not happening. It is to some extent the proverbial elephant in the room; its absence in discussion as much as its presence hangs over Chinese politics and society as the ultimate undesirable.
The Party does not want it because it wants to preserve its own power and legitimacy, not begin a ruthless self-examination; and because it knows the people want stability, not a repeat of the decade of violence and turbulence. Xi is certainly consolidating power in noteworthy ways, but equating him with Mao is an oversimplification that ultimately results in a fundamental misreading of contemporary Chinese politics.
(Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)