‘Bombard the Headquarters’ The twin pillars of Mao’s campaign were uprooting supposed reactionaries and the promotion of sycophancy.

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

Looking back on the three years that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has been in power, it is tempting to say that his tenure has been leading, almost ineluctably, to revived memories of and comparisons to the moment 50 years ago when China embarked on the decade we remember as the Cultural Revolution.

Month after month has brought news from China of the unrelenting ways in which Mr. Xi has concentrated power in his own hands. This began early in his tenure, when state propagandists encouraged worshipful references to him as “Xi Dada,” or “grandpa Xi,” while elevating his glamorous wife, Peng Liyuan, to the status of national role model. In April, Mr. Xi, who was already president, chairman of the Communist Party and head of the country’s Central Military Commission, showed up in camouflage fatigues at a meeting with top military leaders, revealing yet another title: head of China’s Joint Battle Command Center.

Finally, just days before the anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, which fell on May 25, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was the scene of a theatrical extravaganza that combined revived radical rhetoric from that era with twinned images of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. Developments like these have made many Chinese and foreign observers ask whether China under Mr. Xi is edging toward a revival of Mao-like rule.

But to read Frank Dikötter’s “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976” is to understand how far Mr. Xi’s China—however worrisome recent trends—is from Mao’s radical, despotic regime.

Most accounts of this era begin in May 1966, when dissidents at Peking University displayed so-called big-character posters denouncing the university’s leadership as “Khrushchev-type revisionist elements.” Mao responded by urging the young radicals to “bombard the headquarters” of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, Mr. Dikötter commences his story four years earlier, when Mao began maneuvering to restore his prestige and power after the shattering failure of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, in which his plan to rapidly accelerate China’s economy ended in the starvation of tens of millions of his compatriots. Mao’s new campaign was built on two main pillars: the promotion of leftist ideas, which would require uprooting supposed reactionaries seeded throughout the party; and the promotion of sycophancy, which was ultimately fanned to a white heat.

THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION

By Frank Dikötter

Bloomsbury, 396 pages. $32

According to Mr. Dikötter, this two-pronged approach began with a 1962 speech by Lin Biao,a power-hungry military commander who would soon rise to become the chairman’s designated successor. (In 1971, Lin was himself destroyed amid vicious political infighting, dying in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia as he fled his country.) Lin set the standard for the deification of Mao, declaring him infallible: “The thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct. . . . He is never out of touch with reality.” Lin, who had the idea of printing millions of copies of a compendium of Mao’s thoughts, which became known as the “Little Red Book,” was only getting started.

As Mr. Dikötter’s subtitle implies, his history aims to give new emphasis to the voices and experiences of ordinary Chinese during this period in order to better understand a bewilderingly chaotic political era. What emerges most strongly from the book, however, is a deepened sense of the elite politics of the period, as the higher reaches of the Communist Party, senior military commanders and even provincial leaders were kept guessing about their obscurantist leader’s ever-changing whims, which Mao expressed with abstruse aphorisms and pseudo-Marxist gibberish. Throughout the book, especially its first half, what predominates is the ceaseless rise and fall of members of the nomenklatura as they parry charges of being closet rightists and seek to stay in Mao’s good graces. These figures include people at the very top of the hierarchy, such as Zhou Enlai, Mao’s longest-serving lieutenant; the twice-purged Deng Xiaoping; Liu Shaoqi, who was purged as president and died in prison; and Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who survived it all only to be arrested after the chairman’s death and imprisoned for her role as ringleader of the chaos.

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