No official commemorations will mark the anniversary of the May 16, 1966 declaration of what historian Simon Leys called a “gigantic outbreak” of collective frenzy and years “of upheaval, of blood and madness”, when Mao unleashed his shock troops, the Red Guards, on his own party and people.

Henan Mao statue
Henan’s Mao statue, since removed. Photo:

From top cadres to writers and teachers, millions were persecuted during the violent class struggle that ensued, which left China greatly weakened but the personality cult around Mao stronger than ever.

In a backlash against the trauma, shortly after Mao’s death in 1976 his successor Deng Xiaoping — himself a victim of the purges — unravelled his predecessor’s policies.

Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, Qiao Shi and Deng Xiaoping
In order from left: Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, Qiao Shi, Deng Xiaoping. 

Deng’s “Reform and Opening” introduced market forces and foreign capital, paving the way for the country’s stunning rise to become the world’s second-largest economy.

But the party’s official verdict on Mao in 1981 — which declared his ideas 70 percent good and 30 percent bad — has not eliminated his appeal to diehard loyalists or knocked him from his position at the top of the national pantheon, ahead of Deng, and still emblazoned on the country’s banknotes.

The ruling party has sought to sideline resurgent neo-Maoist strains — epitomised by the fall of ambitious high-flyer Bo Xilai, jailed for life in 2014 in a murder and corruption scandal.

But Mao’s influence lingers on — an anniversary concert at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing earlier this month featured revolutionary chants glorifying Mao, prompting online controversy.

mao song

The Global Times, which is close to the ruling party, this week quoted university professor Zhang Hongliang calling for a new national campaign against “traitors” hostile to the party.

“It’s sad that many capitalist entrepreneurs stand against the CPC and betray the nation,” he was quoted as saying.

Mao’s body still lies preserved in a glass case in his mausoleum on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and his admirers flock to pay their respects in his home town of Shaoshan, a major ‘Red Tourism’ site.

Hong Kong-based China expert Jean-Pierre Cabestan told AFP: “Some leftist movements are tempted by the idea of class struggle, fuelled by rising inequality.”

Mao Zedong in Beidaihe
Mao Zedong in Beidaihe. Photo: Xinhua.

It was not official policy, he added: “Quite the reverse.”

Stability at all costs

The driving concept behind the Cultural Revolution — a violent class struggle — is unthinkable in China today, even as rising inequality between the rich and poor grabs global headlines and low-paid factory workers mount tens of thousands of strikes each year, despite an absence of free trade unions.

President Xi Jinping, the first party chief from the generation of the Red Guards, was himself “sent down” to the countryside for six years, and desires stability at all costs.

xi jinping mao
Photo: StandNews.

He has ruthlessly imprisoned critics, and espouses the importance of communist values more regularly than that of economic reforms.

The term “little cultural revolution” (“xiao wenge”) has been used as shorthand for the president’s crackdown on dissent from lawyers, bloggers and other regime critics.

The drive has run in parallel to a rigorous anti-corruption campaign, which critics charge is a thinly veiled political purge.

Top business figures have disappeared into custody for days on end, and wealthy Chinese have been moving money and family members overseas to give themselves a safe haven if they fall foul of authorities.

At the same time, Cabestan said Xi was moving the climate back towards that of Mao, giving the impression he was distancing himself from Deng and wanted to “reestablish some kind of repressive authoritarianism”.

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