Q. and A.: Roderick MacFarquhar on the Cultural Revolution and China Today

New York Times reporter and RSEA student, Helen Gao, interviews Former Fairbank Center Director Roderick MacFarquhar for the NYT’s Sinosphere.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times’ Sinosphere section.

Souvenirs depicting President Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong on display in a shop in Beijing. Credit: Adam Dean for The New York Times

The chaos and brutality of the Cultural Revolution, unleashed by Mao Zedong 50 years ago, have received little public examination in China. After the fall of the Gang of Four, the Communist Party and much of the Chinese public chose to move on, as market-oriented policy changes took root. In recent years, however, interest in revisiting this time has grown. Some Chinese have perceived echoes of the Cultural Revolution in the “red culture” campaign in Chongqing under the since-disgraced Bo Xilai or in President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign and have argued that history must be confronted more openly to avoid repeating its mistakes.

Roderick MacFarquhar, a scholar of elite Chinese politics at Harvard University, is a leading expert on the Cultural Revolution. He is the author of the trilogy “The Origins of the Cultural Revolution” and, with Michael Schoenhals, of “Mao’s Last Revolution.” In an interview, he discussed the relevance of that era for contemporary China.

Advance Victoriously Along Chairman Mao’s Revolutionary Line in Literature and the Arts (1968).

Q. How are Chinese leaders dealing with the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution?

A. I don’t think the party will be bothered much about the 50th anniversary. If I were Xi Jinping, I would probably say to my colleagues: Just make sure no one celebrates this or marks this.

Q. How has the Cultural Revolution shaped the thinking of Xi and other Chinese leaders who came of age then?

A. It’s difficult to answer that. Xi Jinping is clearly a very confident and risk-taking leader, but that does not necessarily come from the fact that he participated in the Cultural Revolution. It may come from the fact that he is a princeling, and therefore has a certain self-confidence born of how he was brought up before the Cultural Revolution.

“I believe 20 years down the road the party will have opened up, if the party is still there.”

I don’t think we could say anything particular about the Cultural Revolution generation either, because what we see in charge at the moment is not the whole generation. It is Xi Jinping. He is a one-man leader.

Xi Jinping said that we can’t write off the Mao era, but we don’t know what element of the Mao era he doesn’t want to write off. We know one thing: He does not like the Cultural Revolution’s spontaneity. The one thing he doesn’t want is chaos. Mao had a feeling that he could control things by his Thought. He gave people the umbrella of his Thought and let them do whatever they wanted. He believed they would come to the right conclusion. But post-Mao leaders don’t want this kind of disruption.

Mao’s Last Revolution, published by Harvard University Press.

Q. Some people have drawn comparisons between Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign and the Cultural Revolution.

A. Xi Jinping knows if he were to actually unleash the chaos that was the Cultural Revolution, he would be out of office very quickly, because no Chinese leader or many Chinese at all would like that to happen. Besides, Xi Jinping is very much a control freak. He wants things to develop in the way he wants them to develop. Chairman Mao was very different. He believed that if you unleash the people, they would do the right thing by following his Thought and it would all be very good.

However, there is a strong resemblance with the Cultural Revolution in Xi’s anticorruption drive. Mao tried to make the country revolutionary by unleashing the Red Guards. Xi Jinping tries to make the people good, to purify them, by the anticorruption campaign. Both Mao and Xi wish to change the Chinese people.

Q. How is the Cultural Revolution remembered by the broader society?

A. No one talks about the Cultural Revolution in China today. People have got far more important things to think about than what happened 50 years ago. They’ve got to find better jobs, earn more money and send their kids to better schools. I know there is a Cultural Revolution museum in Sichuan, and there is a place in Shanghai where you can see Cultural Revolution posters. People have not forgotten the Cultural Revolution completely, but I don’t think it’s on top of their minds.

Q. There are leftists in China who argue that certain social policies of that era, like the “people’s communes,” were not entirely without merit.

You can’t have Mao’s policies for 25 years without having people who feel there is something good about them.

A. You can’t have Mao’s policies for 25 years without having people who feel there is something good about them. The leftists can see everything that turns people off about the Cultural Revolution, but they believe it was a great leftist surge muddied by the violence. They argue that China should get back to leftism, pure and simple, with its schools and communes. For people who are real leftists, even open discussion of the Cultural Revolution wouldn’t change their minds.

Vendors sell posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping and late leader Mao Zedong on a street of Gujiao in northern China’s Shanxi province last month. Image credit: AP

Q. What are some the biggest misconceptions of the Cultural Revolution?

A. Within China, it’s very difficult to tell, because there are so few people who talk about it. In my book [“Mao’s Last Revolution”] I try to show that the Cultural Revolution wasn’t a power struggle. If it were, Chairman Mao would have stopped the Cultural Revolution in February 1967, because it was finished. Liu Shaoqi [China’s president and Mao’s presumed successor] was gone.

But the Cultural Revolution was really only starting in 1967, when it spread to the provinces. Mao took advantage of the Cultural Revolution to get rid of people he thought were not revolutionary enough among the leadership. But the fact that he continued the revolution after the leaders were gone showed that he genuinely wished to carry out this crazy idea of making the whole country revolutionary.

Q. Do you think there will still be pressure on the party to open up about this period, say, 20 years down the road?

A. I believe 20 years down the road the party will have opened up, if the party is still there. It depends on how successful Xi Jinping is in the immediate future. I think it will still matter enormously to the Chinese, for a very simple reason: The essence of the Cultural Revolution is not just that Mao unleashed it and caused the chaos. The essence is that the Chinese, without direct orders, were so cruel to each other. They killed each other, fought each other and tortured each other. Mao did not go down the streets and say: “You are licensed to torture. Go torture.” It just happened.

I think what the Cultural Revolution had shown was that the violence, with which the Communist Party had ruled China until that time — the various campaigns, the land reforms, the campaigns against counter-revolutionaries, the Anti-Rightist campaign — all that had been injected into the body politic, so the young people almost absorbed it through their skin. Mao fired the starting gun, and gave them the signal, “It’s O.K. to make revolution, all sorts of things can be done.”