China’s Cover-Up

When Communists Rewrite History

Accessory after the fact: pendants featuring Mao and Xi, September 2016  THOMAS PETER / REUTERS

The Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong’s “permanent revolution” destroyed tens of millions of lives. From the communist victory in 1949 in the Chinese Civil War, through the upheaval, famine, and bloodletting of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, until Mao’s death in 1976, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set segments of Chinese society against one another in successive spasms of violent class warfare. As wave after wave of savagery swept China, millions were killed and millions more sent off to “reform through labor” and ruination. 

Mao had expected this level of brutality. As he once declared: “A revolution is neither a dinner party, nor writing an essay, painting a picture, or doing embroidery. It cannot be so refined, so leisurely, gentle, temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” 

Today, even experts on Chinese history find it difficult to keep track of all the lethal “mass movements” that shaped Mao’s revolution and which the party invariably extolled with various slogans. Mao launched campaigns to “exterminate landlords” after the Communists came to power in 1949; to “suppress counterrevolutionaries” in the early 1950s; to purge “rightists” in the late 1950s; to overthrow “capitalist roaders” during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s; and to “rectify” young people’s thinking by shipping them off to China’s poorest rural areas during the Down to the Countryside Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The ideological rhetoric obscured the extremism of these official actions, through which the party permitted the persecution and even the liquidation of myriad varieties of “counterrevolutionary elements.” One of Mao’s most notable sayings was “the party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party.” Long after his death, his successors carried on in that tradition, most visibly during the Tiananmen Square massacre and the ensuing crackdown that the CCP carried out in response to peaceful protests in 1989, which

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