The Cultural Revolution, Fifty Years Later

How It Echoes Today

A visitor looks at porcelain figures of Mao Zedong at a private museum in Sichuan Province, China, May 2016.  KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

For a number of years, Chinese liberal intellectuals have divided their country’s history into two periods. The “two 30 years,” as they have come to be known, comprised the era of Mao Zedong’s rule and the period of post-Mao reform and opening that followed, starting in the late 1970s. The former period was characterized by dictatorship, class struggle, and the traumas of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and the latter was dominated by economic modernization and a turn away from personalized rule. Chinese liberals have argued that today’s leaders should hew closer to the policies of the second period than to those of the first.

But Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have opposed this thinking. To Xi’s mind, the Mao era, like the period that followed it, also offers lessons for the Communist Party’s leadership in contemporary China. Xi is right, but not in the way he intends. Mao’s excesses—his cult of personality, concentration of power, and purging of so-called anti-party elements in the government and media—seem to have reappeared on a smaller scale since Xi took power in 2012. 

Busts of former Chinese leaders on display at the Revolution Museum in Jiangxi Province, China, September 2012. Xi Jinping has taken some cues from Mao in his consolidation of power.
Busts of former Chinese leaders on display at a museum in Jiangxi Province, China, September 2012. Carlos Barria / Reuters

The fiftieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, which began on May 16, 1966, offers an opportunity to consider these echoes. They are perhaps most apparent in the tactics used by Chinese leaders, past and present, to disempower rivals within the Chinese Communist Party. Consider the case of Liu Shaoqi, whom Mao considered a major rival and who was China’s president and the party’s vice chairman when the Cultural Revolution began. Mao sought to oust Liu, but Liu was so popular that Mao believed he would have to secure popular backing for his purging. So Mao set a trap: he left Beijing early in the summer of 1966, allowing Liu to manage the chaos that was erupting in the capital. After Liu sent party work

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