Mao Zedong’s elevation to demigod, and the ensuing chaos, showed how the dark side of human nature can become a destructive force
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 December, 2015, 4:43pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 December, 2015, 4:47pm
Male and female coal miners recite passages from Mao’s Little Red Book in 1968 during the Cultural Revolution. Photo: AFP
Half a century ago, in 1966, a huge political storm gathered in Beijing. It grew so rapidly that within a few months, almost the entire Chinese Communist Party ruling elite was sucked in, with near-catastrophic consequences for the party, the economy, and the populace, most of whom had no idea what was going on in the power corridors of Zhongnanhai.
Feeling vulnerable for being sidelined as a result of his role in advancing the Great Leap Forward movement which led to a big famine that killed no less than 30 million poor farmers, and fearing that he might eventually lose his prestige in history after Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev quickly denounced Stalin’s policies upon the latter’s death, Chairman Mao Zedong毛 decided to plot against the party’s pragmatists so he might take charge again.
His first offensive was to purge the leading officials of the Propaganda Department in early 1966 so he might take direct control of the propaganda machinery. He then pushed through his ideological justification for what he labelled as the Cultural Revolution in an expanded session of the Politburo on May 16. The so-called May 16 Notification called for renewed class struggle, but against enemies from within the party this time. The party’s core cadres were understandably lukewarm to Mao’s radical agenda despite his hard push.
As a last resort, Mao unleashed the destructive energy of the innocent young by personally signing a big-character poster, entitled Bombard the Headquarters, on July 26. It called upon the youngsters to overthrow the party’s bourgeois enemies hidden within the bureaucracy. Heeding the call of their iconic leader, millions of students formed themselves into Red Guards and took to the streets to “safeguard the revolution”.
For more than the following decade, the bulk of the nation was in near-anarchy, with millions of officials and intellectuals jailed, humiliated to suicide, or tortured to death. Even more families were broken as members reported on each other in order to clear themselves of political guilt. The economy degenerated to breaking point. During the worst period, the country was at the brink of viability and only managed to hang on through the hard balancing act of Premier Zhou Enlai.
Mao was not the only leader to have caused chaos to his nation and his people. What marks the horror of the Cultural Revolution out from the other political turmoils in history was how the dark side of human nature could have been unleashed by one man alone, through mass propaganda and officially endorsed distortion of history.
The lesson is that, once a leader is deified into a demigod, his personal ambition could easily be sanctioned as the nation’s mission, with disastrous consequences.
Chinese or not, we should all learn from this unprecedented lesson in human history. We are still witnessing how the dark side of human nature continues to lurk in the name of religious and political beliefs. We must remain vigilant to avoid the return of another “cultural revolution” under any guise.