05/16/2006, 00.00
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Cultural Revolution shrouded in total silence

by Bernardo Cervellera

The government has decreed a total blackout about the most painful and disastrous era of the history of China's Communist Party. The fear to face history and the risks of repeating it.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Complete silence reigns in China about the 40th anniversary of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that started on 16 May 1966. The government has decreed that the so-called "10 years of great calamities", which marked the lives of 200 million people and the country with death, destruction, lagers, and internal strife within the Communist party, shall not be commemorated in special celebrations or newspaper articles. Academics and scholars have been "persuaded" not to hold private meetings or discussions on the subject, much less to take part in seminars and events abroad focusing on the topic.

The leadership fears such activities or commemorations may reopen "old wounds" caused by one of the darkest periods in the history of the Chinese Communist Party, when Mao Zedong, venerated as a god by the "Red Guards", pitted the youth of the party against its older members. Officially, it was meant to be a campaign against the "feudal and bourgeois culture"; in reality, it was planned to destroy his enemies, gathered around the president Liu Shaoqi. For around 10 years, Maoist revolutionary fervour ranged itself against attempts by moderates to reduce the power of the "Great Helmsman" and to launch modest economic and liberal reforms.

Iconoclastic revolutionary fervour destroyed universities, libraries, and art galleries and dragged lecturers and scientists through dust and humiliation. Figures considered as "bourgeois", "feudal" or "religious obscurantists" were summarily tried, mocked by the people, tortured, killed, thrown into re-education camps. Churches, temples, monasteries, religious books and works of art were destroyed or re-used "for the revolution". Economy, culture, education, morality, and the very cohesion of the nation were brought to the brink of collapse. Scholars estimate that the economic damage wrought by the Cultural Revolution was equal to the total of investments in China between '49 and '78: more than 500 billion yuan. The damage done to people was greater still. Although the government has never published official figures, several Chinese scholars say between 2 and 20 million people were killed in this period. But at least 200 million – out of an overall population of 600 million at the time – were somehow affected by the ideological hurricane.

Current economic development and the opening-up to the outside world owe much to the Cultural Revolution: they were born of a bid to cancel out the consequences of the Great Calamities and to turn this page of China's history. In 1981, at the beginning of the economic opening-up, the party managed to blame what happened on the Gang of Four (the wife of Mao, Jiang Qing, and another three extremists) and on the "grave errors" of Mao. But although for many in China, the name of Mao is synonymous with "monster", his enormous photo is still camped in Tiananmen Square.

The point is that on the one hand, the PCC protests its innocence as regards the Cultural Revolution, but on the other, it does not dare – as several Chinese scholars have suggested it should – to cancel the face of Mao from banknotes, to take down his photo in the square and to transfer the mausoleum preserving the embalmed body of the Great Helmsman.

By refusing to allow anyone to publish studies about the Cultural Revolution, the government is conniving with the mythologizing of Mao, whose cult has spread among young and old. In fact, many party members idealize the Maoist period as egalitarian and full of justice, criticizing the current situation characterized by strong economic development, but also by deep-set corruption and abysmal gaps between rich and poor.

The current leadership fears that recalling the Cultural Revolution may empower extremist groups (neo-Maoists?) of the party that criticize ongoing economic reforms. From here emerges the decision to hush up any research about the party history. To be sure of maintaining political stability, some months ago, Hu Jintao ordered stronger ideological control of media and universities, arresting journalists and scholars critical of the government policy. But without studying history, Hu is condemning himself to repeat it.

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