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Fifty years ago this week, the Cultural Revolution began with a sudden shift in power. China’s youth, raised to revere their teachers and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres, were abruptly told to overthrow them instead. CCP Chairman Mao Zedong urged students to “bombard the headquarters,” smoking out crypto-capitalists and spies who had wormed their way into the party and betrayed the revolution. “To rebel,” the chairman assured the young, “is justified.”
They did: first with posters and speeches, then with mob beatings. By the end of the summer of 1966, dozens of educators and thousands of ordinary Beijing citizens were dead. Reviled and purged by their own subordinates, high-level party members fell like autumn leaves. Anyone showing restraint or a distaste for violence could be denounced for lacking revolutionary fervor.
As Beijing spiraled into chaos, one local teenager may have hesitated more than most. Xi Jinping, now China’s leader, had already witnessed his father being purged from Mao’s inner circle for “counterrevolutionary” crimes four years earlier, in 1962. As the son of a convicted reactionary, the younger Xi was in an impossible position: rebel too much, and he risked making even more enemies among his fellow elites; rebel too little, and he might be accused of sharing his father’s political guilt. As it turned out, Xi was beaten by his classmates and then sent to the countryside for years of hard labor.
Violence spread nationwide, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths: suicides, assaults, shootings, even cannibalism. Purges of China’s educated left projects without engineers, laboratories without scientists, and factories without foremen. Gangs of Red Guards pillaged libraries, museums, and tombs. Universities closed, and higher education stopped for over a decade. When the Red Guards themselves become too volatile, Mao deflated the movement by sending millions of urban youth to the countryside to do farm labor. Mao died in 1976, leaving behind a devastated economy, a fractured society, and a CCP in paranoid disarray.
In 1981, a shaken Politburo passed the CCP’s official verdict on the Cultural Revolution. The document was carefully worded to preserve Mao’s legacy as a founding father while carving out the Cultural Revolution as a “left deviation” run amok: the chairman’s one tragic mistake, a late-career error by an otherwise “great revolutionary.” That verdict has never been revisited. When state media do mention the Cultural Revolution, its complex miseries are compressed into the sobriquet “ten years of chaos,” unelaborated. To avoid a repeat of Mao’s authoritarian excesses, which nearly destroyed the CCP, Beijing’s elite keep unwritten codes of collective leadership and mandatory retirement. For party apparatchiks older than a certain age, the Cultural Revolution is a specter, a living dictionary definition of luan, or “chaos”: how the party nearly destroyed itself by giving too much leeway to a dictator and letting a youth movement grow beyond control. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, changed the tone when he called an end to perpetual “class struggle.” The party switched its emphasis to economic development and scientific modernization, with a flexible, heterodox approach to capitalism.
Xi’s own fate tracked China’s. Like most purged party officials, he and his father were officially rehabilitated and then allowed to return to Beijing. They rotated into careers supervising China’s experiments with capitalism. The elder Xi went to oversee the “special economic zones” in Guangdong Province, next to Hong Kong, laying a foundation for the world’s factory floor. He died in 2002, a respected party elder. The younger Xi made his reputation as a commerce-minded technocrat, rising up the ranks in the economically flourishing coastal regions of Zhejiang and Fujian. These outward-looking provinces felt far from the hidebound, internecine conservatism of the capital.
When he took power in 2012, Xi was a cipher, with little in his political career to offer any hint of a future agenda. That agenda has since emerged only gradually, as screws tighten on one group after another: NGOs, universities, media outlets, civil rights lawyers. Alongside the most severe crackdown on civil society since 1989, Xi has launched and pursued a parallel anti-corruption campaign of surprising ferocity and reach.
His unifying theme is control. Xi personally chairs at least seven top-level policy committees on national security, the Internet, foreign affairs, Taiwan, and the economy, “comprehensively deepening reform”; Australian academic Geremie Barmé has called him “Chairman of Everything.” In this, he seems to be reinterpreting some lessons from the Cultural Revolution. As an heir—literally—to the CCP’s founding generation, Xi sees his mandate as saving the party, this time by reigning in the excesses of experimental openness that arose since Mao’s death. That means reasserting control before libertine corruption and liberal ideas spread too far.
Controlling the present requires control of the past. This month, Beijing is marking a half-century since the start of the Cultural Revolution with an act of Orwellian doublethink. Official media will smother key dates—starting with May 16, Mao’s first call to arms—with the type of leaden silence and terse euphemisms that the regime reserves for toxic anniversaries such as the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
At the same time, Xi is offering Mao the sincerest form of flattery. He has overseen the buildup of a personality cult modeled after the Chairman’s, complete with worshipful songs and books detailing his own political theory. He has amassed more formal personal power than any leader since Mao and is using it against his colleagues. Once-untouchable CCP grandees have been purged as traitors, accused of betraying the people through corruption. And Xi is renewing demands for ideological purity, reminding artists, journalists, and academics to serve the party and avoid even the mild criticisms that have been largely tolerated for decades.
Xi’s cult of personality stresses his years of farm labor in a mountain village near Yan’an, Mao’s onetime base (and the “cradle of the revolution”), as his formative experience, a kind of grassroots gap year that lasted for seven. He is, by most accounts, personally frugal and genuinely concerned with the standard of living of China’s less fortunate, including the peasants he labored with. Having grown up with the party elite’s insular, esoteric language and rituals—a blend of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and China’s indigenous authoritarianism—Xi witnessed firsthand its power over the lives of seasoned revolutionaries like his own father. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, Maoist rhetoric and rituals were seen by Deng Xiaoping’s consensus-oriented technocrats as too divisive and potentially toxic. But decades of disuse did not entirely dissipate their power. And for many Chinese, mostly those left behind by the country’s dramatic, gilded transformation since economic reform, memories of Mao-era social equality, the exaltation of the working classes, and a national sense of common purpose are increasingly rose-colored.
As to why Xi might prefer to recall Mao in his actions and words, it is worth remembering a quip by Deng Xiaoping: “It doesn’t matter of it’s a black cat or a white cat, as long as it catches mice.” At the time, observers in the West read the remark as a pragmatic embrace of capitalist markets. Xi retains that pragmatic spirit—but the mice are different now. He has several objectives: in order of priority, keeping the CCP’s monopoly on power, giving average Chinese a decent material standard of living, and achieving a “great revival of the Chinese nation” while restoring China’s global stature. Rightly or wrongly, he has judged that a strongman approach is best suited to fulfill them. His revival of Mao is highly selective, an administrative and political tool meant to burnish the party’s reputation and enforce discipline down the ranks with a bracing tonic of nostalgia and fear.
But despite the tonal change, the signature power shift of the Cultural Revolution—unleashing the masses against the party itself—has not occurred. Instead, Xi has revived Mao’s themes to achieve the opposite of perpetual revolution: tempering the steel of the party machine, not wrecking it. The CCP is no longer a revolutionary party, but a ruling one. Xi hopes to harness the party-state’s red heritage to make the bureaucracy more efficient, accountable, and service-oriented—responsive enough to avoid popular discontent, but not to the point where the people might actually govern themselves through open elections. (The party elite’s monopoly on power is non-negotiable.) In this sense, Xi’s new tone, and his revival of Maoist concepts like the “mass line,” is simply an evolution of the CCP’s post-Mao pragmatism: a new chapter in “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” an intentionally vague phrase meant to accommodate China’s signature blend of Marxists, Maoists, and markets. Xi uses some Maoist themes, but has not revived notions of “class struggle”; he is targeting high-ranking comrades for treachery, but not unleashing out-of-control youth groups to enact his purges.
At the dawn of the Cultural Revolution, Red China was an enigma to the West. By the time of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972, the Red Guards had been rusticated and order restored to Beijing. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution was kept at a distance from the visiting Westerners, where it remains today. It is seldom discussed with outsiders, and even then rarely in detail and never in public.
But the phrase “new Cultural Revolution” is now whispered frequently in Beijing. That is almost certainly an exaggeration: whatever Xi’s maneuvering to shore up the party’s legitimacy, and his own within it, his own obsession with control makes any repeat of his teenage years’ chaotic traumas exceedingly unlikely. After near-death moments such as the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen protests, the party has accumulated decades of experience maintaining social stability; none of the thousands of local economic protests that roil China every year have ever snowballed into a serious political threat. Modern China is too developed, connected, and cosmopolitan. Chinese society is more exposed and interconnected to global politics and commerce than at any time in its history, vastly more so than 50 years ago.
Yet that globalized exposure also carries risks. The country is still run by an insular Leninist vanguard that have lived through a traumatic and intimate lesson in the brittleness of their own power. They are scarred by the Cultural Revolution—the memory of how, suddenly, the center could not hold. As rulers of China, they cannot escape it. And even watching from the West, neither can we.