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The cultural revolution.

Fifty years ago, Communist China's leader Mao Zedong began inciting young people to turn on "class enemies"--even their own parents. Are there echoes of Mao's rule in China today?

When Chen Shuxiang arrived at his home in Beijing that night, everything was in shambles. His siblings were crying, the dumplings his mother had been making for dinner were squashed on the walls and floor, and his parents were missing.

A gang of high school students in green uniforms and red armbands had stormed in and taken them away, beating them with military-style leather belts and iron rods. His mother survived, but his father wasn't so lucky.

In the five decades since that night in 1966, Chen, who was 22 at the time, has hoped for answers and maybe an apology from those involved. But no one has ever come forward.

"Just before he died, my father wasn't even allowed a mouthful of water," says Chen, a 72-year-old retired teacher who still lives in Beijing. "It's something I don't like to think about even now, but also I want to hear from those who did this."

Chen's parents were among the tens of millions of victims of China's Cultural Revolution, which began 50 years ago. Heeding the call of Communist China's leader Mao Zedong to purge the country of "class enemies," radical youths known as Red Guards brutally attacked elite politicians, teachers, and even their own parents--in short, anyone who seemed to betray Mao's vision of Communism. Chen's father, a barely educated boiler operator, was targeted simply because his family had once owned 3 acres of land, enough to label him a landlord, which ran contrary to Communist teachings that land should be collectively owned.

The decade-long Cultural Revolution--in which more than a million people died and tens of millions more were beaten, humiliated, and jailed--ended with Mao's death in 1976, but it has had lasting effects that are still evident today.

"It was one of the most savage revolutions in world history," says Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. "Once you have such a deep revolution, it stays in your bloodstream," he adds, "and in China's President Xi Jinping today, we see many aspects of a Maoist form of leadership."

The 'Great Leap Forward'

Why did the Cultural Revolution happen?

Mao and the Communists had taken control of China in 1949. For the previous century, China had been dominated by foreign powers and badly weakened. Before and during World War II (1939-45), Japan had occupied much of China and slaughtered tens of thousands of Chinese and maybe more in a massacre that became known as the Rape of Nanking (see Timeline).

Under Mao, the Communist Red Army helped defeat Japan and then won a civil war by forcing the army of China's Nationalist Party to flee the mainland for the island of Taiwan. Mao became a military and revolutionary hero who pledged to transform China into a utopian Communist state that would dominate the capitalist West.

His victory blindsided the U.S., fueling a Red Scare during the 1950s that included Communist witch hunts known as McCarthyism, as America faced off with the Soviet Union and China in the Cold War.

But Mao's effort to turn his Communist vision into reality ultimately proved disastrous. Eager to impose his ideas on China's economy, Mao ordered an end to family farming and private land ownership. Farmers were organized into communes where people lived and worked together. The Great Leap Forward, as his program was known, was a tragic failure of bad planning and miscalculation. Farm production plunged and the famines that resulted led to as many as 45 million deaths. By the early 1960s, Mao had largely turned over control of the economy to deputies like Deng Xiaoping [dang shyao-ping).

At the same time, Mao had grown disenchanted with the Soviet Union, which he thought was abandoning the tenets of Communism. And he worried that China's own revolutionary spirit was being diluted. He also became increasingly paranoid that he would be sidelined and forgotten.

His answer was the Cultural Revolution. On May 16, 1966, the Chinese Communist Party issued a memo outlining Mao's ideas for this new revolution, which targeted "bourgeoisie capitalists" and authority figures in general. His wife and a handful of other radicals, together known as the "Gang of Four," became the movement's henchmen.

Mao held massive rallies that called upon students to destroy the Four Olds: old culture, old customs, old ideas, and old habits. It was a rallying cry that unleashed the young against the old. Soon, masses of young people across China formed Red Guard groups that became the shock troops of Mao's movement.

Teachers, government officials, people with ties to the West, and almost anyone in authority were beaten and paraded in public wearing dunce caps. Young people burned books, ransacked temples, and hung posters denouncing their neighbors. High schools and colleges were closed for years so students could dedicate their time to the revolution. "To rebel is justified!" declared a famous slogan of the era.

At the same time, Mao promoted his own cult of personality. About 900 million copies of his Little Red Book were published, and all Chinese were expected to carry it everywhere so they could study his writings. Even literature and the arts were expected to pay homage to Mao and his revolution.

Over time, Red Guard units began fighting each other, each claiming to represent Mao's true ideals. By 1969, China had spun so out of control that a new phase of the Cultural Revolution was launched. Army units subdued the Red Guards and took control of many government functions, as urban officials and intellectuals were sent to the countryside to do backbreaking work and study Maoist philosophy and "class struggle."

Learning From Peasants

Millions of young people--including Xi Jinping [shee jin-ping), China's current president--were also sent to the countryside to learn from peasants. Many lived apart from their parents for years.

The most radical and violent period was over by 1970, but the Cultural Revolution didn't end until Mao's death in 1976. Trying to restore the Communist Party's legitimacy with the people of China, party leaders arrested the Gang of Four.

Ironically, Deng Xiaoping, once exiled to the countryside, became China's new leader. He opened the country to the outside world and introduced free-market reforms in 1978 that allowed private business and foreign investment--and led to three decades of explosive growth. Today, China is the world's second-largest economy, after the U.S.

Deng and his successors over the past decades, however, have continued to keep a tight lid on political expression and personal freedoms, and China's current president has taken an even harder line, in ways that some see as reminiscent of Mao's leadership.

Upon taking office in 2013, Xi issued a memo urging party officials to eradicate "seven subversive currents" coursing through Chinese society--including "Western constitutional democracy," notions of "universal values" of human rights, and a Western-style free press.

China has 500,000 political prisoners today, and the media is highly censored. More than 100,000 Internet monitors--known as the Great Firewall--block thousands of websites, including Google, Facebook, and Youliibe, and American news sites like The New York Times. They scrub search results of information they don't want people to see--like any mention of the Cultural Revolution.

"Anyone who criticizes it in a strenuous way is accused of 'historical nihilism'--namely, contradicting the Communist Party's version of history, which is that the party has always been basically right with a few little errors," says Schell of the Asia Society.

A private museum to remember the victims of the Cultural Revolution opened in the eastern city of Shantou in 2005--but it was recently shut down. Peng Qi'an, the museum's founder, says he thinks the orders came from "higher up."

"We built this museum in good faith," he says. "We wanted to mourn the dead, to remember the history, to learn lessons from it, and never let the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution happen again."

With reporting by Jim Yardley, Chris Buckley, and Didi Kirsten Tatlow of The New York Times.




Emperor's End

China becomes a republic after the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty is overthrown. Sun Yat-sen, head of the Nationalist Party, is named president, but years of instability follow.


Chianq Kai-shek

Chiang Kai-shek (right), the , Nationalists' military leader, takes power. Clashes with the Communist Party soon begin.


Japanese Occupation

Japan invades and occupies much of China, committing many atrocities against the Chinese, including a massacre known as the Rape of Nanking.


Civil War

Japan withdraws after its defeat in World War II, and China soon plunges into civil war between the Nationalists and Mao Zedong's Communists.


The People's Republic

Mao establishes China's first Communist government. The Nationalists flee to Taiwan.


Cultural Revolution


Nixon in China

A year after the U.N. admits China and expels Taiwan, President Richard Nixon (right, with Mao) visits Beijing in an effort to improve relations.


From Mao to Deng

After Mao's death, moderates led by Deng Xiaoping take control and begin to modernize the economy.


Tiananmen Square

Mass student protests for democracy in Beijing are crushed by the military. Hundreds of people are killed.


Booming Economy

China surpasses Japan as the world's second-largest economy, after the U.S.


Return to Mao?

China's current president, Xi Jinping (above), has consolidated power in ways that are reminiscent of Mao's reign.
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Title Annotation:TIMES PAST 1966
Author:Majerol, Veronica
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Nov 21, 2016
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