The real Cultural Revolution was almost invisible, even to Chinese. There are six things to notice about it:
- It was a revolution and, as Mao pointed out, “Revolution is not a tea party. It is not like writing an essay, painting or embroidering flowers. Revolution is an act of violence, it is the violent overthrow of one class by another.”
- It was the least violent revolution in world history. A billion people participated in it for 10 years yet virtually nobody got killed.
- The peasants ‘lost’ the Cultural Revolution. They failed to overthrow the urban elite – but…
- It scared the living shit out of the urban elite. Things changed fast after that. The urban elite started delivering the goods to the people and haven’t stopped.
- The anti-corruption campaign can be viewed as a revival the Cultural Revolution: accusing powerful officials of corruption while being immune to reprisal – underwritten by Xi this time. Last time, by Mao. If the Chinese can get their bureaucracy as clean as Singapore’s they’re in fat city – and every Chinese knows it.
- The urbanization campaign, currently moving 200 million people into new cities with shiny infrastructure and city schools, is a way of acknowledging that everyone deserves a crack at urban life and every kid deserves a fair crack at the gaokao.
President Xi suffered far more than most during the Cultural Revolution. For a Chinese, eating millet three times a day is do-able. But not losing seven years schooling. That sucked. What didn’t suck as far as the peasants were concerned was that Xi spent his formative years in one of the poorest villages in China. He really knows what that life is like.
When he went back to visit for the first time and was so horrified at what he saw – nothing much had changed – that he couldn’t help blurting out, uncharacteristically, something to the effect of “what the fuck’s going on here? I though we were supposed to transforming people’s lives and after 30 years nothing has changed for these people?” I suspect that that moment was transformative for Xi and, subsequently, for China. Count that as a ‘win’ for the Cultural Revolution.
That idealistic young Xi – a guy who, like his parents and his wife, took Communist ideals seriously – is now running the country. That’s why he’s kicking ass and taking names. He’s tasted the bitterness of peasant life, precisely as Mao intended him to do.
So, maybe the peasants didn’t lose the invisible cultural revolution. Honest officials and a new condo in a new city within walking distance of a supermarket and high speed trains? Hmmmm.
The heart of the Cultural Revolution has indeed been a struggle for power, a struggle over the control of state power….But it has not been a struggle over power for power’s sake….It has been a class struggle to determine whether individuals representing the working class or individuals representing the bourgeoisie will hold state power. It has been a struggle to determine whether China will continue to take the socialist road and carry the socialist revolution through to the end, or whether China will abandon the socialist road for the capitalist road. (16–17)[S]ocialism must be regarded as a transition from capitalism to communism (or in the case of China from new democracy to communism). As such it bears within it many contradictions, many inequalities that cannot be done away with overnight or even in the course of several years or several decades. These inequalities are inherited from the old society, such things as pay differentials between skilled and unskilled work and between mental and manual work, such things as the differences between the economic, educational, and cultural opportunities available in the city and in the countryside, as long as these inequalities exist they generate privilege, individualism, careerism and bourgeois ideology….They can and do create new bourgeois individuals who gather as a new privileged elite and ultimately as a new exploiting class. Thus socialism can be peacefully transformed back into capitalism. (20–21). – William Hinton, Turning Point in China
In a explained the very real obstacles faced by the Cultural Revolution:
In the Cultural Revolution, Mao mobilized millions of citizens to confront powerholders, particularly capitalist roaders, to overthrow the traditional hierarchy from below, and to build a new government structure, starting with revolutionary committees composed of citizens, cadres and soldiers. But every effort in this direction generated a counter-effort from the establishment under attack. Core functionaries were able to delay, divert, misdirect, or carry to absurd extremes every initiative from Mao’s side. Far from creating a new, more democratic form of government, the movement bogged down in unprincipled power struggles that exhausted everyone and led nowhere. The failure of the Cultural Revolution laid the groundwork for a great reversal of policy in all fields. (William Hinton, 1991 speech at Harvard University. Monthly Review, November 1991, 10)