China Collectively 'Forgets' Its Past

Chaos of Cultural Revolution began 30 years ago today

Shortly after China launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Li Xu openly questioned the government in front of fellow factory workers and lost his job.

He was denounced by his colleagues, beaten by youthful Red Guards, and spent much of the next 10 years in a reeducation camp. Only after Chairman Mao Zedong, the architect of the decade-long terror, died in 1976 was Mr. Li reinstated to his job.

Today, he works alongside those who attacked him 30 years ago. They act as if nothing happened. But Li says he can never forget. "After I returned, some people apologized and said they were forced to do it," says Li, a slight, balding man with a sad, worn look. "But that can't change what happened. I lost the golden years of my life."

Thirty years after one of the major upheavals of modern Chinese history, Chinese still have painful memories of the Cultural Revolution. Surging to become a world powerhouse, China refuses to acknowledge the legacy of that tumult: a government fearful of dissent and democracy; a distrustful, divided society; an intentional memory block of the turmoil that killed or ruined the lives of millions; a wounded education system; and an economy still rebounding from the era's worst excesses.

Worried that today's 30th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution could turn the focus on the failings of communism, the government has prohibited any observance or discussion. And, guilt-ridden by their own involvement in the repression, many Chinese say they just want to let the past rest.

"There is a collective forgetting. The government hasn't wanted retrospection, and people have picked up on that and tried to get on with their lives," says Jonathan Unger, a China specialist at Australian National University in Canberra. "So many people who were victims are also guilty. Under the system, everyone was obliged to participate, to be collaborators," he says. "People don't want to look back on that because very few have clean hands."

"No one could stand up to them," recalls a professor in Beijing. "Everything Mao said was considered to be good."

A movement to shake up Chinese society

Ostensibly, the Cultural Revolution was a power struggle between Mao, founder of Communist China, and his less radical opponents. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mao's totalitarian policies had triggered political persecution of millions of people and the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign and famine believed to have killed 20 million people.

Concerned that critics were abandoning his hard-line policies to rescue the devastated economy, Mao launched a movement to shake up Chinese society and bring down his opponents. His arsenal was the country's youths, who were urged to rebel and "bombard the headquarters." Exhorted by a regime that used violence to silence challenges, the so-called Red Guards went on a three-year rampage in which they abused, tortured, and killed businessmen, intellectuals, and officials; ransacked military arms caches; and devastated temples and other cultural landmarks.

Factional infighting erupted in many cities. The Chinese military did not regain control until late 1968 when, in a move to restore urban order, millions of youths were dispatched to the countryside. Mao's totalitarian rule did not end until his death in 1976, ushering in the era of market-style economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping.

Although economic disruption was limited at first and China's largely rural economy continued to function, the Cultural Revolution sent the Chinese economy into a long slide. By the late 1970s, China had eroded its industrial base, crucial oil supplies, and, because of the lengthy closure of schools and universities, its human capital.

"By the mid '70s, the number of trained engineers and technicians had dropped by half. This definitely had an impact on the economy," says Barry Naughton, an economist at the University of California-San Diego.

The flip side is that the erosion of government controls undermined the planned economy and set the stage for Deng Xiaoping's market reforms. "That made it much easier for them to open up economically and muddle through to economic success," Mr. Naughton says.

Chinese universities, the battleground of the Red Guards, still reel from the chaos of 30 years ago. Shut down for five years and not back in full operation until 1977, higher education in China lost a generation of teachers and suffers a yawning leadership gap.

Preferring to forget

The government's desire to close the book on the turmoil has stifled research and debate. Archives with documents verifying Mao's culpability are closed, and numerous studies and histories remain unpublished. Even school textbooks heap more blame on Mao's radical protgs, known as the "Gang of Four," than on the leader himself.

Indeed, after decades of socialist cradle-to-grave controls, the economic insecurity of China's emerging capitalism has fostered a nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution and Mao's iron-fisted rule. "There are many good things about Mao," says Shao Shiwei, a taxi driver with a Mao picture in his cab. "Some people even consider him a deity."

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