TOPICS : Mao’s Cultural Revolution and new China

In a year full of traumatic anniversaries for China, the dates Chinese leaders choose to remember and commemorate speak volumes about the political climate in the country — oddly dissimilar to its vibrant economy.

They choose to remember the Tangshan earthquake — one of the most devastating natural disasters in Chinese history, which on July 28, 30 years ago, levelled the northern city, killing at least 240,000 people and exposing the country’s weakness and isolation during the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong.

But they chose to forget the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Cultural Revolution on May 16 — a man-made calamity unleashed by Mao — that saw hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people persecuted and killed in a whipped up frenzy of public denunciations, tortures and beatings.

In the run up to the Tangshan earthquake anniversary, Chinese media has been inviting experts on geological monitoring to talk about the country’s preparedness to deal with nature-inflicted disasters. No such liberty was allowed in the retrospection of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The subject is still taboo. A blanket ban on its coverage was imposed on newspapers, TV, radio stations and all popular websites.But in avoiding talking about the censored past, the country still faces the possibility of history repeating itself. While official records term the Cultural Revolution as the “years of chaos”, nearly everything was orchestrated from the top leadership and staged with careful planning. Mao Zedong used the Cultural Revolution to destroy his enemies within the Communist Party — those who had criticised his handling of the economy during the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the man-made famine, which took the lives of 30 million people.

Hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, artists and liberal party cadres died in orchestrated purges and battles between political factions, including Mao’s one-time designated successor, Liu Shaoqi. The movement was officially called the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ but nevertheless it was more about education than workers or factories. Mao asked students to destroy the education system and “smash the four olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits”. But while the Communist Party has gone to great lengths to erase that collective memory of Chinese people, individual acts of defiance continue to emerge

and researchers continue to probe the past, piecing the scattered evidence together.

Indeed, the years of Mao’s rule remain such a raw period of history that present leaders fear that allowing even a small retrospection or commemoration could trigger calls for responsibility and compensation of the victims.

The Cultural Revolution is the main theme of this year’s Dashanzi International Arts Festival, one of the biggest avant garde events. But the removal of Mao’s portrayals, that censors deemed too sensitive, has left the exhibitions with garish depictions of the period. — IPS