Chinese state media breaks silence on Cultural Revolution

Fifty years on, newspaper editorials admit ‘grave mistake’ but emphasise looking ahead

“Little red books” of quotations of the late Chairman Mao Zedong at a market in Beijing. Photograph:  Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

“Little red books” of quotations of the late Chairman Mao Zedong at a market in Beijing. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images


The People’s Daily, the official organ of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, has broken official silence over the chaos wrought by the Cultural Revolution, 50 years to the day after the start of Mao Zedong’s campaign to destroy his rivals.

“The ‘Cultural Revolution’ was a grave mistake launched by the leadership, which was then used by counter-revolutionary groups and caused serious and comprehensive harm to the Communist Party, to the state and to the people,” ran the commentary, which came out at midnight on the 50th anniversary and used italics around the very expression itself.

“History has proved that the ‘Cultural Revolution’ was completely wrong in both theory and in practice, it is not and cannot be social or revolutionary progress in any sense,” it said.

The statement is very much in line with official thinking on the 10-year period of doctrinaire Maoism which killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed millions of lives, but it comes after a period of official silence on a period that remains difficult for the ruling Communist Party to discuss even 50 years later.

As the country’s founding father, the attitude to Mao can be ambiguous and the official line is that the leader, whose face adorns every banknote and who looks down on Tiananmen Square from a giant painting, was only 30 per cent wrong.

Officially a war on bourgeois culture and class enemies, the Cultural Revolution was primarily a bloody purge aimed at entrenching Mao’s hold on power and cementing the cult of personality built up around him. Increasingly paranoid as he aged, the Great Helmsman felt he had been sidelined politically and the Cultural Revolution was a brutal reminder of who was boss.

Little red books

The Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death and the persecution of the Gang of Four, including Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, whom many believe were scapegoated for the excesses of the ideological campaign.

Some feel the Communist Party has since been ambivalent in its reaction to those events. Beyond a statement in 1981 which “completely denies the values of the Cultural Revolution”, no deeper analysis of what happened has been allowed.

“History is always moving forward, we summarise and draw lessons from history going forward. We must never forget the historical lessons of the Cultural Revolution . . . and unswervingly take the socialist road with Chinese characteristics,” the People’s Daily said.

The Global Times newspaper, a nationalist tabloid published by the same group that publishes the People’s Daily, also broke silence with a commentary.

“Completely denying the values of the Cultural Revolution is not only an understanding throughout the party, but also a stable consensus of the whole of Chinese society,” the Global Times editorial said, describing the event as a “huge disaster”.

The newspaper argued that the lessons learned from the Cultural Revolution had given China a certain immunity when it comes to civil strife, unlike other developing nations.

“Nobody fears turmoil, and desires stability more than us . . . We have bid farewell to the Cultural Revolution. We can say it once again today that the Cultural Revolution cannot and will not come back. There is no place for it in today’s China,” the Global Times said.