May 16 marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a decade of chaos that descended upon China and destroyed an entire generation. A half century after this savage campaign was launched, and 40 years after it concluded, the Cultural Revolution remains a topic brushed aside with reflexive assurances that such madness cannot happen again. Given the scale of the brutalities that were unleashed and the complicity of almost all Chinese in those events, silence almost makes sense. Probing what actually transpired and why could rip China apart anew.

The Cultural Revolution began with a resolution, written by Mao Zedong and presented to an expanded meeting of the Politboro, that asserted that the Communist Party, the military and the government had been infiltrated by "representatives of the bourgeoisie" and "counter-revolutionary revisionists." Only the rigorous application of "Mao Zedong thought" would discern who was a loyal communist and who was a traitor. And since the party apparatus itself was compromised, only spontaneous, ad hoc actions outside formal institutional structures, under Mao's guidance, could be trusted.

While evidence of bourgeois infiltration was hard to come by, Mao had reason to be concerned about his rule. In 1966, China was still recovering from the horrific damage done by the Great Leap Forward — Mao's project to force China into the industrial era with forced collectivization of industry and agriculture. The result was famine and mass starvation, estimated to have claimed from 18 million to 46 million lives.