The Cultural Revolution and China’s Future review: A red dragon’s rise – and fall?

Two essential new books chart China’s blood-stained modern history, as well as what the future holds

The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962—1976
The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962—1976
Author: Frank Dikötter
ISBN-13: 9781632864215
Publisher: Bloomsbury Press
Guideline Price: €32

In the autumn of 2017, in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, a group of seven cadres, most likely all men, led by Chinese president Xi Jinping. will walk out onto a podium in front of a large painting of the Great Wall. Here the future direction of China will be decided for the succeeding five years. The line-up of the cadres, down to the order in which they walk out, will have an impact on the whole world.

Four of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee of China’s ruling Communist Party will be debutants on the elite body, replacing veterans required to retire. Will Xi, as is widely expected, fill their places with his allies? And in which direction will this new leadership take China?

When Xi took over the reins in 2012, there was speculation that he might be a reformer who would eventually guide China onto a more pluralist path.

In the absence of a democratic system, gauging Xi and the party's true popularity is difficult. Among the general populace, however, he is admired, and his crackdown on corruption has won him friends among the laobaixing, the common people.


David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, believes this popularity will not be enough to keep the communist's grip on power without reform. China's Future, a piercing polemic, depicts a country undergoing its worst repression since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, with faction fights at the top and essential economic reforms flagging.

Shambaugh’s views have changed substantially, from reckoning in 2006 that China was embarking on necessary change to a more critical stance. He now sees China’s future as resembling a car approaching a roundabout, facing four possible choices. These include neo-totalitarianism or hard authoritarianism – the road it is currently on, in his view. The third sign points towards soft authoritarianism, while the final option is a type of semi-democracy.

“The current (post-2009) situation of tightened controls and increased repression only accentuates and makes more acute the already severe tensions within society and between the party-state and society,” he writes. “In my view, such Hard Authoritarianism only serves to accelerate the Party’s existing atrophy and decline.”

Dynamic period

The period 2000-2008 was one of genuine opening and reform under the guidance of vice-president Zeng Qinghong. Shambaugh believes Zeng learned the lessons of the collapse of the Soviet Union and opted for the Communist Party becoming more dynamic and managing change rather than using outright oppression.

This was when Jiang Zemin was in charge, before handing over to Hu, a president who many now feel treaded water and didn't intervene enough to shape the economy and shore up abuses among the elite.

A shift to semi-democracy along the lines of Singapore and Hong Kong would be a real breakthrough, one that would transform China. But it would require reinvention of its current political system, which may be beyond the party's abilities.

Shambaugh says hard authoritarianism will prevail until the 19th Party Congress in 2017, when Xi’s rivals on the Standing Committee are forced to retire. There is already talk that Xi will seek a third term.

“After that the chances of a return to Soft Authoritarianism will rise, given the turnover of personnel described above, although it will likely not prevail. If it does not, then secular stagnation will continue, the reforms will continue to stall, and the CCP will gradually lose its grip on power,” Shambaugh writes.

“This is China’s current dilemma, and it is a profound one. Quite simply, it is not moving ahead politically and therefore not moving ahead economically either. China can stay on the current road – the road to continued relative economic stagnation, increased social tensions, and political decline possibly leading up to the collapse of the Chinese Communist regime – or it can open up politically and enjoy far better chances of becoming a fully developed economy and modern country.”

To understand where the leadership is coming from, it helps to look back to the formative years. Many of today’s leaders, Xi included, fell foul of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which began 50 years ago. At the age of 15, Xi was sent to work in a remote village for seven years when his father was purged from power. Memories of the Cultural Revolution must remain strong for the current president.

With The Cultural Revolution: A People's History 1962-1976, Hong Kong-based historian Frank Dikötter brings to a close his trilogy about the dark era of Mao's rule, from the liberation to the Great Leap Forward, in which he estimates that 30 million-50 million died, to the 10-year period of chaos unleashed by Mao. The book gathers tales of tens of thousands of class enemies killed in Guangxi province in 1968, with the added detail of how some of the victims were eaten.

What sets Dikötter apart from many other historians of this period is his obsession with detail and insistence on bringing the story back to the individual account.

The reports of cannibalism of class enemies during the Cultural Revolution are not new, but remain vivid and horrific, such as the detail of how one man, Zhou Shi’an, was consumed by villagers.

“There was a hierarchy in the consumption of class enemies,” he writes. “Leaders feasted on the heart and liver, mixed with pork and a sprinkling of local spices, while ordinary villagers were allowed only to peck at the victims’ arms and thighs.”

A party leader was subsequently expelled but remained unapologetic. “Cannibalism? It was the landlord’s flesh!”

The level of research in Dikötter’s book is astonishing. He had remarkable access to many regional archives and collected a trove of eye-witness accounts and testimonies, as well as commentaries. But the book wears this research lightly, with the human story coming through strongly.

Dikötter tells the tale of Chen Zhigao, a scissor factory worker in Yangzhou, who trekked inland to Purple Mountain, a historic site believed to be haunted by spirits.

“Its peak, now in every shade of green, often vanished in mysterious clouds of gold and purple at sunset . . . amid the bamboo groves and ancient oak trees growing in the shade of a mausoleum where the Hongwu emperor [was] entombed, Chen Zhigao swallowed a vial of cyanide,” he writes.

A child had stuck a stark poster to Chen’s front door and the pressure had been too much. “He became one of the first ordinary people to fall victim to the Cultural Revolution.”

In exposing the machinations behind the Cultural Revolution and humanising the horrors of the period, Dikötter adds considerably to the store of knowledge of how the Communist Party is where it is today. Shambaugh reaches his dystopic future vision by an argument that has vital lessons about how decisions are reached in the secretive halls of Zhongnanhai.

By evaluating the past and looking at China’s possible futures, these books provide an urgent insight into what is happening in China right now.

Clifford Coonan is China Correspondent

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing