“Sailing the seas depends on the Helmsman,
Life and growth depends on the sun.
Rain and dew nourish the crops,
Making revolution depends on Mao Zedong Thought.
Fish can't leave the water,
Nor melons leave the vines.
The revolutionary masses can't do without the Communist Party.
Mao Zedong Thought is the sun that forever shines.”
The anthem of China’s Cultural Revolution is seldom heard in China these days, at least not in such iconic settings as Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. This is history best left unexamined, at least as far as the Communist Party is concerned.
That’s why a “symphonic concert of socialist classic songs” staged earlier this month has provoked widespread outrage and left Communist Party officials distinctly red-faced.
The official line has long been that Mao Zedong was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong,” but it’s never been a good idea to look too closely at — or talk too loudly about — his “mistakes.”
In China’s schools, in museums and in the media, it’s almost as if the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine of 1959-61 never happened, while the decade-long collective madness of the Cultural Revolution has virtually been airbrushed out of history (or is blamed on Mao's entourage rather than the man himself).
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, a period of almost unimaginable chaos, cruelty and violence — but you would barely know it if you confined yourself to reading Chinese media.
The Great Hall of the People, on one side of Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, hosts the most important mass meetings of China’s Communist Party leadership. On May 2, it was used to stage a concert of “red songs” celebrating the party’s glorious socialist past, entitled “In Fields of Hope.”
Some of the catchy tunes included “Socialism Is Good” and “Without the Communist Party There Would be No New China,” as well as, most controversially, the Cultural Revolution’s anthem: “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman.”
The show also flashed up slogans like “People of the world unite to defeat American invaders and their running dogs,” a quote from Mao during the Korean war. It also featured songs praising China’s current President Xi Jinping and showed huge images of both men.
In an announcement Friday, the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theater disowned the show, claiming that the organizers had duped them into believing they belonged to the party’s propaganda wing. The local government in Beijing’s Xicheng district also claimed not to have given its consent, and threatened legal action.
The nationalist Global Times tabloid also weighed in, arguing that the show could not have had official backing, since the party declared way back in 1981 that the Cultural Revolution was a “serious mistake.” An official event would “follow the right political line” and would not stage such a controversial song, it argued.
But the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post called the denials "disingenuous," since an event in such a politically sensitive location would have been carefully pre-screened by censors and sponsors.
The controversy began when Ma Xiaoli, the daughter of a cadre persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, protested on social media that the organizers were "taking a step back in history." She also argued such a concert must at least have had the backing of a "minister-level" official.
"The performance sent a clear signal that a group of people want the Cultural Revolution back," she said in an interview with Phoenix News website ifeng.com.
The confusion and controversy reflect a broader debate about the direction China is taking under Xi.
China's leader has moved the country in a more nationalistic and repressive direction since taking office, sharply curtailing freedom of speech, jailing scores of activists, and waging a war on “Western values” that he believes could undermine one-party rule. He has also centralized power and allowed something of a personality cult to develop around his leadership, although not on a scale remotely resembling that of Mao.
Commemorating the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth in 2013, Xi hailed him as a "great patriot and national hero," and said the party would forever hold high the banner of Mao Zedong Thought. He has also argued that one of the reasons for the Communist Party’s demise in the Soviet Union was the way it dismissed the legacies of Lenin and Stalin.
A small museum commemorating the Cultural Revolution in the southern Chinese city of Shantou was also shut down earlier this month, according to Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper.
The front door has been plastered over with stickers “promoting the core value of socialism” while a monument recommending that China should “draw on the lessons of history and not repeat the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution,” has been covered with a huge poster advertising Xi Jinping’s slogan of a “Chinese Dream,” Ming Pao reported.
Ironically, state-run Xinhua news agency had written about the museum back in 2013.
Nevertheless, Xi’s crackdown bears no comparison to the Cultural Revolution, and the controversy over the concert in the Great Hall of the People is in some ways a demonstration of how far China has come since those dark days.
Xu Jing contributed to this report.