The Cultural Revolution: Why is China Viewed So Negatively When the West is Dictatorial? (Part 3)


Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

The following explains the reasons why China is viewed so negatively given the West’s authoritarianism as explained in part 1. Part 2 covered the Great Leap Forward famine and this final part will cover the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution (CR), with examples showing the selection of knowledge that benefits Western dominance.

Just like in my previous Socialism’s death-tolls and Mao era famine articles, the CR is another phenomenon alongside the GLF considered “proof” that alternatives to capitalism produce catastrophe. To see how fallacious these beliefs are, and whose interests they favour, the selective ‘facts’ that construct these perceptions have to be exposed.

A common view of the CR like the above video, was expressed by Roderick MaqFarquhar, who claims “that due to the disastrous failure of the GLF during the late 1950’s, […] Mao was forced to retreat from the centre of power […and] the CR was Mao’s way of getting his power back by knocking down his opponents” (Gao, 2018, p. 137). This view has numerous issues:

  1. As early as 1954, long before the GLF, Mao himself proposed to give up the position of chairman of the PRC so he had time to think about larger matters (Xinhua Wang 2013)
  2. Chairman of the PRC was and still is a largely ceremonial position
  3. Nobody did or could take over the ultimate power from Mao who retained the two most powerful positions in the system; the Chairman of the Military Commission (without whose permission military action cannot be mobilised) and the most important of all, Chairman of the CCP. An important role because according to PRC constitution, every institution exists under its leadership.
  4. Because Mao set the discourse for the CCP and PRC up until the 1970’s, he didn’t have to do much to take-down his opponents (all pp. 137-138).

The CR is commonly remembered for its violence rather than its purpose and Mao’s intention. The concept grew out of Mao’s unhappiness with operas and the performing arts, as he thought it did not reflect contemporary society or include working-class roles, and so Peng Zhen created “The Cultural Revolution Group of Five People” in 1964, to reform literature and the arts (p. 116). We can therefore suggest the CR effectively began 2 years earlier without the mass-violence commonly associated.

Nevertheless, the main official-CR document “Sixteen Articles” promoted reliance on the masses, bombarding capitalist headquarters, and struggle through words not fighting. It included breaking with the “Four Olds” (old ideas, culture, habits, customs) to engender (as this video omits) the “Four Big Freedoms”: (erecting posters, free debates, protest and criticism), written into the constitution in 1969 but abolished after Mao’s death (p. 118-119).

Thus, came the CR experiment: abolition of academic exams with paper exams as reference-only, years in education reduced for practical application alongside new contemporary text books issued. Teachers had to be re-educated to accommodate this revolution where “old practices would need to stop first, hence the shutdown of schools”. State-sector beauracrats and intelligensia sent to the rural-countryside to May Seventh Cadre School was later condemned as being ‘cowsheds’ and ‘labour camps’, ignoring its purpose to connect the elites with the rural-masses who, in this comparison, had been in ‘labour camps’ for generations (p. 140). Mao and his radicals called for the masses to “liberate themselves”,“to rebel is justified”, something almost too inspiring as young people eventually rebelled against Mao himself; something contradictory if the CR was about personal power.

In reality, the CR was always about ideas where, in 1966 Mao wrote to Jiang Qing expressing scepticism over the promotion of a personality cult. Later, on December 6th 1969, “On Several Issues Concerning the Propaganda of the Mao Image” was published, calling to abolish “loyalty” practices like Mao-quotes before meals that had developed. Mao resisted personality cult precisley because the aims of the CR were not about personal power but ideas and culture, not physical violence or personal power struggles.

Thus, by constructing the CR as a personal power struggle, conceptual and ideological differences between Mao, Liu, Deng, and the whole CCP hierarchy are excluded from the discussion.

The ideas of Mao and the contents of the CR that are profoundly culturally revolutionary, in areas such as education, healthcare and the arts, are hollowed out and ignored (p. 131).

In fact, “From evidence that has emerged […] such as the ruthless crackdown on students by the work team sent by Liu and Deng (Wang Li 2008, Qi Benyu 2016) and, […] his decision to invade Vietnam in 1979 and his […] bloody put-down of protesting students and citizens in 1989, one could argue that Deng Xioping was a more ruthless political leader than Mao” (p. 134).

Deng Xiaoping / Credit: Schumacher, Karl H. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
However, this is rarely mentioned as “whether one conceptualizes international relations as […] co-operation […], or as a law of the jungle overwhelmed by the dominant powers which dictate the so-called “rule-based international community,” predetermines ones’ constructing of China’s foreign policies. If one’s conceptualization is the latter then China cannot but be assertive and aggressive as a later developer from a weaker position when the “rule-based international community” was already established; whatever China does is still breaking the status quo” (p. 214).

We should thus be sceptical and consider in whose interests is the knowledge we consume, who produced it, why and in what context. We cannot afford to make generalised and unsubstantiated claims about history that restrict the possibilities for intervening in humanity’s global future. Our current politics are underpinned by all prior history and the spectre of ‘communism killed millions’ needs to be contested for its mistruths so we lose the sense of restriction, of repeating history even though we exist in situations far removed from Mao’s era.

From understanding complex history like this, it’s clear this restriction supports policies that take over save lives. No more ‘forced-free’ choices away from the tactics of the 20th century, it’s humanity’s legacy and ours to discover, correct the lies and utilize in building a desirable future for all.


Radical journalist interested in Art, Politics, and other creative disciplines.

Leave A Reply