Trust us, they say, the past is in the past.
Two newspapers linked to the Communist Party have broken the silence on the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, publishing editorials meant to assure readers that the party has granted the country “immunity” from political chaos and social unrest.
The editorials, published by the state-owned People’s Daily and the Global Times, were rare public comments on a decade-long disaster that former party chairman Mao Zedong unleashed and that his party now prefers to play down, recast or ignore.
But the articles broke no new ground, rehashing the official line determined by a clutch of cadres in a 1981 resolution. In it, they condemned the violence of the era, blamed Mao and his close associates, and advised everyone to move on. The Chinese people never got a say.
In a piece published Tuesday, the People’s Daily hewed closely to the old line, noting that “history always advances.”
“There will not be re-enactment of a mistake like the Cultural Revolution,” it said.
An editorial in the Global Times, a newspaper known for its nationalist tone, hit at the same theme more forcefully: “We have bid farewell to the Cultural Revolution. We can say it once again today that the Cultural Revolution cannot and will not come back.”
The papers aim to instill confidence. They tell readers that what was decided in 1981 was not contingency or compromise but “unshakably scientific and authoritative” fact. They emphasize that the Chinese people have decided, unequivocally, to push ahead.
This is standard policy on several historical questions, from the Great Famine to the Tiananmen Square protests. As a result, when party papers write boldly about eyes fixed forward, it casts our gaze back, reminding us of how China’s past is shaping the present — and spooking the ruling party along the way.
Over the years, some survivors of that brutal decade have come forward to tell their stories, calling for truth and accountability, wanting to address old wounds. Under President Xi Jinping, though, the space for reflection has narrowed.
Xi has moved in many ways to bolster Mao’s reputation, drawing a single line between revolutionary struggle, World War II and the era of “national rejuvenation” that he says is underway.
But Xi, a survivor of the Cultural Revolution, knows well that marshaling Mao is dangerous business; when you invite people to rally around the party’s founder, you risk overshadowing the party itself.
The truth is that the party’s stance on the Cultural Revolution is not accepted as fact.
It is questioned by survivors who want their trauma acknowledged and by neo-Maoists who think talk of “calamity” is overblown. Some see shades of Mao in Xi's moves to consolidate power; others dismiss the comparison outright.
In an editorial published in the run-up to the anniversary, even the Global Times acknowledged the split, saying the Cultural Revolution “remains divisive” and has become a “proxy” for clashes between “rightists” and “leftists” debating “China’s political route."
Which is why Tuesday's twin editorials seem to open, not close, the question of what the Cultural Revolution means and what that, in turn, means for the party.
The party asks for faith. Its papers beg the question: Does it yet trust itself?