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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.

Mao rightly worried that his responsibility for that disastrous decision would limit his power, if not force him out completely. He was criticized in party congresses and was increasingly marginalized as moderates rose to power in the CCP leadership. The Cultural Revolution was his gambit to stay in charge. It was, for him, an unqualified success. Young Chinese “Red Guards” enthusiastically embraced the search for traitors, seeing it as an opportunity to settle scores created by the mistakes of CCP rule or satiate the desire for change that comes with youth. While loyalists sought to destroy the “Four olds” of customs, culture, habits and ideas, Mao used the campaign to sew chaos and eliminate any rival to his power and authority.

The result was an atmosphere of fear and fanaticism, in which loyalists launched attacks against anyone who they asserted was resisting Mao’s will. Lucky individuals were “merely” detained and publicly humiliated; less fortunate souls were interrogated, beaten, tortured and murdered. Deaths created more grievances, more accusations and more opportunities to settle scores. The Communist Party split into factions, and open fighting was not uncommon.

The exact number of deaths that resulted from the Cultural Revolution is unknown, but it is feared that millions of lives were lost. Families were destroyed. Schools and universities were shuttered for a decade. The purge of the “four olds” resulted in the destruction of Chinese art, institutions and all symbols of history, learning and knowledge. No Chinese was untouched by the Cultural Revolution.

The madness only ended with the death of Mao in 1976, the return to power of Deng Xiaoping and the jailing of the “Gang of Four.” In 1981, the party would offer an official verdict on the Cultural Revolution, declaring it “an error comprehensive in magnitude and protracted in duration” that “brought serious disaster and turmoil to the Communist Party and the Chinese people.”

Apart from insisting that those mistakes would never be made again, the CCP has preferred to avoid studying that decade of madness. That readiness to look away has been abetted by the desire of the Chinese themselves to turn their back on the chaos, fearful that the complicity of an entire generation meant that no scrutiny could be tolerated without risking the return of instability.

This week, at the 50th anniversary of the May 16 declaration, the People’s Daily noted that China “must never forget to draw lessons from the ‘Cultural Revolution,’ ” and “cannot and will not allow a repeat performance.” Such assurances ring hollow when Chinese are not allowed to learn their history. And indeed, alarm bells rang earlier this month when a concert was held at the Great Hall of the People titled “In Fields of Hope.” It featured “red songs” from that period to celebrate the Communist Party, including “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman,” the anthem of the Cultural Revolution.

Chinese authorities disavowed the meeting, and participants said they had been misled about its content. Perhaps, but it is hard to imagine how a program could be held at such a venue, one of the most important locations in China, without intense scrutiny by the government. Some see the program as a probe, testing the waters to see how far President Xi Jinping can go as he consolidates his authority. Most China watchers dismiss any prospect of a cult of personality like that of Mao. They are probably right, but confidence would grow if the Chinese people had a better sense of what transpired 50 years ago and why.

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