Monday, May 16, 2016

Cultural Revolution falls into a memory hole

"Have you heard of the Cultural Revolution?" a teacher at a middle school in southwest China asks me as I pay a visit. "Of course, who hasn't?" Later I ask why she had asked this particular question, but she is evasive and says she can't remember having posed the question.

Her forgetfulness struck me as somewhat ironic given that some 50 years after the Cultural Revolution was declared China is studiously ignoring the anniversary.

Indeed, fifty years after Chairman Mao sent a quarter of the world's population hurtling into a decade of chaos, there is virtually no mention of the anniversary. There appears to be collective amnesia with few if any newspapers making mention of the date.

While there is none of the censorship associated with contentious subjects such as Tiananmen Square, there is little if any enthusiasm to mention it. Indeed, China's microblogging service Weibo has yet to block the Chinese term for "cultural revolution", be it the shortened [文化大革命] or long version [无产阶级文化大革命].

The Beijing Times shunned the anniversary dedicating its front page to a story about police efforts to find missing children. And there have been no official memorial events reported by China's heavily controlled media. Meanwhile Chinese academics have been forbidden from talking about the sensitive period. "Researchers cannot accept any interviews related to the Cultural Revolution," one scholar told Canada's The Globe and Mail.

But there has been no shortage of news and commentary in western media. While not prominent in the schedule the story has been reported on the BBC News and CNN while most traditional print media has reported extensively on the anniversary [BBC / France 24 / Guardian / Daily Mail / ABC / Straits Times / NYT / SCMP]. 

For good or bad the Cultural Revolution has left a mark with rather kitcsh tourist memorabilia. And there are also serious collectors who seek out original items from that turbulent part of China's history.

From badges and Little Red Books to original posters some items can fetch a tidy sum. And then there's the tourist tat on sale in many towns and cities, from tacky Mao medallions and T-shirts to large brass and even gold busts of the former Chairman [Daily Mail / Telegraph].

Some memorabilia tells a story in itself. One example is Mao's so-called Little Red Book, or "Quotations from Chairman Mao". Find an original copy and one may find the page containing Lin Biao's foreword either ripped out or defaced with his name scrubbed out. Marshall Lin Biao was Mao's right hand man and played a pivotal role in promoting the red book. But after Lin Biao fell out of favour with Mao, many people were obliged to cross out his name in order to show their allegiance. Lin died on September 13, 1971 when a Hawker Siddeley Trident he was aboard crashed in Mongolia. The exact events of this "Lin Biao incident" have been a source of speculation ever since [BBC].

Lin was only one victim of the Cultural Revolution. There were countless purges and much of China's rich cultural heritage was destroyed forever from books to ancient Buddhist temples. It was a time when China essentially went mad and there were even so-called fresh banquets where people indulged in cannibalism, eating the victims murdered during the violent purges [Time / Daily Mail].  

President Xi Jinping will be wary of anyone attempting to use Monday's anniversary to bring up uncomfortable facts about the party's past. He himself has been likened to Chairman Mao as he consolidates power and weeds out opponents. And any criticism has been met with censorship. Only last month Time magazine became another victim of China's censorship machine after it suggested Xi was following in Mao's footsteps [NYT].

Xi may not have declared a Cultural Revolution but there are strong similarities as he sets out his own vision for China's future with his own cult of personality [Time].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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