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China's media ignores 50-year anniversary of Cultural Revolution

Published 16/05/2016

50 years ago, China embarked on its Cultural Revolution, a decade of chaos launched by Mao Zedong to enforce radical egalitarianism. (AP)
50 years ago, China embarked on its Cultural Revolution, a decade of chaos launched by Mao Zedong to enforce radical egalitarianism. (AP)

The 50-year anniversary of China's Cultural Revolution has been largely ignored by the country's media.

On May 16 1966, the ruling Communist Party's Politburo met to purge a quartet of top officials who had fallen out of favour with its leader Mao Zedong.

It also produced a document announcing the start of the decade-long revolution to pursue class warfare and enlist the population in mass political movements.

The start of the Cultural Revolution was not widely known or understood at the time, but soon took on an agenda characterised by extreme violence, leading to the downfall of leading officials, factional battles, mass rallies and the exile of educated youths to the countryside.

Despite the party's formal repudiation of the movement five years after it ended, traces of the Cultural Revolution can still be seen in China's authoritarian political system, the intolerance of dissent and uncritical support for the leadership, said veteran journalist Gao Yu.

Ms Gao, who was a university student in 1966, said her initial enthusiasm for the Cultural Revolution faded after fanatical young Red Guards raided her home and accused her father, a former ranking party cadre, of disloyalty to Mao. She said the violence of the era was impossible to avoid.

"I saw so many respected teachers in universities and high schools get beaten up," Ms Gao said. "The movement wasn't so much a high-profile political struggle as a massive campaign against humanity."

A long-time party critic, Ms Gao, now 72, was allowed to return home last year on medical parole after being imprisoned on a state secrets charge related to her publicising a party document about ideological controls.

Ms Gao and others say cynicism in Chinese society still lingers from the Cultural Revolution, when students were called on to denounce authority figures, including teachers and even parents. Traditional morals and philosophy were attacked and Buddhist temples were defaced and destroyed.

No official events were held to commemorate the anniversary, although neo-Maoists have been staging private commemorations.

Newspapers monitored in Beijing provided virtually no coverage of the anniversary apart from small articles mentioning demand for antiques dating from the era.

Egged on by vague pronouncements from Mao, students and young workers clutching their leader's famed "Little Red Book" of sayings formed rival Red Guard factions starting in 1966 that battled each other over ideological purity.

Few sought to oppose them given Mao's approval and the popularity of slogans such as "to revolt is justified", and "revolution is not a crime".

Rising violence later compelled party leaders to send in the People's Liberation Army to reassert control as many government functions were suspended and long-standing party leaders sent to work in farms and factories or detained in makeshift jails.

To put a stop to the violence and chaos, millions of students were dispatched to the countryside to live and work with the peasantry, among them current President Xi Jinping, who lived in a cave dwelling for several years in his family's ancestral province of Sha'anxi.

Much of the country was on a wartime footing during the period, with Mao growing increasingly feeble and tense relations with former ally the Soviet Union breaking out into border clashes. Radicals allied with the so-called "Gang of Four", consisting of Mao's wife Jiang Qing and her confederates, battled with those representing the party's old guard, who were desperate to end the chaos in the economy, schools and government institutions.

The Cultural Revolution finally came to a close with Mao's death on September 9 1976. In the aftermath, Deng Xiaoping emerged as the country's leader, initiating four decades of economic development and a gradual repudiation of orthodox Marxism.

China formally closed the book on the era with a 1981 party document approved by Mr Deng declaring it a "catastrophe" for the nation, but largely exonerated Mao, whose portrait continues to hang from Tiananmen Gate in the heart of Beijing and is on banknotes.

The national curriculum offers students only a minimal account of the events, although a number of former Red Guards have written about their experiences and some have come forward to apologise to those they persecuted.

Despite the official silence, recent years have seen the growth of informal discussions online, in private magazines and at social gatherings of those who lived through the events. Revolutionary songs and operas from the period also remain popular.

"Memory has dwindled, but discussion of the Cultural Revolution has significantly expanded online," said Yang Guobin, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry said: "Regarding this issue, the Chinese government has made a correct conclusion long ago."

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