The Cultural Revolution at 50 — A Q&A with Four Specialists (Part Two)

By Alexander C. Cook

[Editors’ note: This is the second of a two-part interview Alexander C. Cook conducted with four specialists in the study of China’s Cultural Revolution. We will have at least one more post related to this year’s anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, in the form of a list of suggested readings that flags recommended books, most of which deal with issues discussed in this two-part interview.]

ALEXANDER C. COOK: We left off last time talking about the culture of the Cultural Revolution. Of course we know about the Little Red Book of quotations at the center of the Mao cult, and also the famous model works that were meant to represent the new revolutionary culture. But Yiching Wu also mentioned that artistic and literary works of the period were both more diverse and more successful that we have usually acknowledged.

DENISE Y. HO: In the past, Cultural Revolution culture has been easy to dismiss. Despite Western fascination will objects that we might call “Mao kitsch” — buttons, statues, and posters — and Chinese nostalgia for Cultural Revolution music or plays, we have written off these cultural products as “just propaganda,” or not really culture at all. Recent scholarship has tried to change this view. One historian has suggested that the Communist Party created its own political culture, and that this was a key source of its legitimacy. Others have examined the art and music to show how Cultural Revolution culture was a modernization of both Chinese and Western traditions, part of a much longer project. Still others have focused on audience reception of these works, which could produce meanings beyond their propaganda messages.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What does a better understanding of culture contribute to our understanding of the Cultural Revolution?

DENISE Y. HO: My own research offers an illustration. I examine the use of exhibitions as part of political campaigns conducted before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. I show that exhibits were a political and cultural practice that taught people how to make revolution. For example, during one campaign in the years before the Cultural Revolution, officials displayed individuals’ personal possessions along with posterboards explaining why they were political enemies. Then, when the Cultural Revolution broke out, Red Guards invaded people’s homes and confiscated their belongings, putting objects on display along with posters describing their crimes. So political culture provided ordinary people with a repertoire, with an idea of how to act and how to describe their actions. This kind of evidence helps us understand where the Cultural Revolution came from, and how such propaganda was deeply powerful — sometimes producing tragic consequences.

YICHING WU: This issue of how ordinary people were provided with political repertoires to be acted on helps account for the characteristically dispersed and explosive character of the Cultural Revolution. While the rebels looked to the Maoist leadership for political guidance, the relationships between Mao and those who responded to his call were tenuous and fragile. With the breakdown of the party hierarchy, political messages transmitted from above were interpreted in different ways by different agents. People responded to their own immediate circumstances, giving expression to a myriad of social grievances and antagonisms. The forces unleashed by Mao took on lives of their own.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What happened to those forces?

YICHING WU: The disorder caused by mass insurgencies from below and paralyzing power conflicts at the top created a crisis. The nation was on the brink of anarchy. For example, some young radicals, invoking the historical example of the Paris Commune, claimed that China’s “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” would have to be toppled in order to establish a society in which the people can self-govern. Mao decided the crisis would have to be resolved. Quashing the restless rebels, the revolution cannibalized its own children and exhausted its once explosive energy. The demobilization of freewheeling mass politics in the late 1960s helped to restore the authority of the party-state, but also became the starting point for a series of crisis-coping maneuvers which eventually led to the historic changes in Chinese society and economy a decade later.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: How did the party-state manage to maintain its monopoly on power after the Cultural Revolution?

DANIEL LEESE: Our present explanations are usually quite terse. Besides the threat of brute force and censorship regarding historical issues, the stimulation of economic growth is cited as the most important factor guaranteeing political and social stability. However, the legacies of the Cultural Revolution forced the party to deal with past injustices in much more detail than is commonly known. While the trial of the Gang of Four and the resolution on party history are common knowledge, below the surface, the CCP was faced with millions of cases that did not easily fit these simplistic ways of dealing with the past. Who was to be considered victim or perpetrator and based on what standards? How were victims to be compensated for their ordeals and what about stolen property and withhold wages? Were party members or groups whose participation was important to reform to be treated differently than ordinary citizens? These questions were of fundamental importance and constitute core issues that can be considered part of what we now call “transitional justice.” Although China did not witness the fall of a dictatorial regime, and therefore seems ill-suited for the application of this concept, nevertheless there can be no denying the fact that the party consciously adopted certain elements and rhetoric associated with transitional justice, even while taking every effort at distinguishing between the Chinese situation and human rights violations in other contexts.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Can you tell us more about transitional justice in post-Mao China?

DANIEL LEESE: Previous injustices were interpreted as temporary miscarriages of justice to be solved on an individual basis in a political system portrayed as generally sound. The party tried to preclude the formation of collective claims or the overburdening of local budgets. In both scope and timing, it was inevitable that case revisions saw great regional differences. Just as Yiching has turned historians’ attention to local history, our research group in Freiburg analyses how the party dealt with Maoist era legacies in different regions, ranging from the rehabilitation of former capitalists to the purge of persecutors within the party. Yet despite the political character of the “rehabilitation campaign” and the obvious continuities in the Chinese judiciary, the reversal of verdicts changed the fate of millions of people. Not least, the research leads us to rethink many aspects of what actually happened during the Cultural Revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What is the long-term significance or global legacy of the Cultural Revolution?

FABIO LANZA: It is difficult to generalize globally, because the Cultural Revolution was an example that was interpreted, used, and deployed differently in different circumstances. But, going back to some of the themes I highlighted previously, we can essay a provisional assessment. At the risk of being overly dramatic, I would say the Cultural Revolution (including its global repercussions throughout the 1960s and 1970s) marks the end of Communist project, at least as embodied in the form of the party-state.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Yiching, would you say the same characterization is true for China?

YICHING WU: I absolutely agree with Fabio that the Cultural Revolution and its global repercussions marked the end of Communist project. But it’s also important to note, as Daniel does above, that the Chinese party-state survived the upheaval, and I would add that it has even thrived — however precariously — as the steward of “reform and opening up.” Fifty years ago Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to forestall the slide of Chinese socialism to capitalism, and the emergence of a new ruling elite which might lead China toward a class-stratified society. However, this is exactly what has happened in its aftermath. In order to understand this profound historical irony, I think that we must fundamentally rethink the conventional scheme of historical periodization, which typically portrays China’s post-Mao transformation as a radical break from the Maoist past. I argued in my book that the key to understanding China’s post-Mao shift of course lies in the late Mao era. In spite of its militancy, the Cultural Revolution attacked individual bureaucrats more than the very system of bureaucratic power. While the mass movements that it unleashed challenged the Party, the Cultural Revolution was unable to provide a viable alternative to the Leninist party-state. Leaving a regime in deep disarray and tens of millions of people traumatized and exhausted, the ideological failure of late Maoism paved the way for China’s ruling stratum to reorganize its rule by resorting to market-oriented policies as forms of political appeasement and readjustment. In this view, the post-Mao reform forms part of a continuous process of ideological and political maneuvers to contain, neutralize, and displace the prevalent antagonisms that resulted from the Cultural Revolution, when the mass movements unleashed by Mao threatened to undermine the foundation of the party-state. In contrast to the conventional wisdom that views changes in post-Mao China as in opposition to Mao’s utopian “last revolution” — and dates their starting point to the late 1970s, I therefore would argue that the origins of these changes in fact can be traced to the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1968-69, when mass demobilization and restoration of party and state organizations were in full force.

FABIO LANZA: We usually think of 1989 as the iconic date and the collapse of the Berlin wall as the iconic event in the collapse of Communism. But by then, the promises of political innovation within that framework had already been exhausted. As Yiching mentioned, the Cultural Revolution configured an attack against the Communist Party itself as the crucial element in the reproduction of inequalities in a supposedly class-less Chinese society. Globally, that attack reverberated in the form of radical movements that challenged established structures and political organizations — especially those which were supposed to be representatives of the disenfranchised (trade unions, leftist parties, black leadership in the US). The ultimate failure of the Cultural Revolution, in this sense, signaled the impossibility of change within and marked the end of decades of experiments centered on that model. In this perspective, it is not surprising that, globally, by the end of the 1970s we witness a massive tectonic shift in the political horizon — what Fukuyama called “the end of history.” The result was the apparent triumph of neoliberal capitalism everywhere, including in Deng’s China.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Thank you, Denise, Fabio, Daniel, and Yiching.

Leave a Reply