Sunday, May 15, 2016

China’s Cultural Revolution and Today’s Cult of Personality

Cult of Personality: Hitler, Stalin, Mao
May 16, 1966: “Bombard the Headquarters!”

Chairman Mao Zedong launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution 50 years ago today, telling China his Communist Party was corrupt to the core and must be overthrown.

The Cultural Revolution convulsed China until Mao’s death 10 years later. It was Mao’s often out-of-control response to the humiliation Mao’s party colleagues inflicted on him, following the “Great Helmsman’s” disastrous “Great Leap Forward” (1958-61).

One Mao (1893-1976). One New China (1949), followed by Two Spectacular Failures.

After Mao died, Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatic leadership produced what the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Browne calls “the greatest economic progress in human history.”

Chairmen Xi & Mao--Wall Street Journal
But technocrat Deng’s success isn’t enough for China’s current leader Xi Jinping. Xi, concerned about the emptiness of China today -- material progress without belief, without faith -- is responding by partially restoring Mao’s Cultural Revolution cult of personality.

Following the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution disasters, the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre became China’s third political earthquake. In that year, Deng’s reform effort came close to bringing democracy as well as capitalism to China. Democracy is a belief system that undergirds capitalism. Faith in democracy is faith in the people’s ability to rule. Democracy parallels capitalism’s faith in people’s ability to create wealth. Both democracy and capitalism need the oxygen freedom provides.

Democracy, however, threatened many Chinese leaders, even though the leading political reformers were themselves Communists. Popular support for democracy spun out of control, recalling the Cultural Revolution’s disorder. The Soviet Union in 1989 was itself pushing political reform and threatening its status quo elements. It was too much for most Chinese leaders. But by suppressing the Tiananmen democracy movement, the Party left China soulless.

So now Xi is falling back on 20th century dictators’ favorite path to mass communication-generated popular support: the cult of personality. Xi doesn’t center the cult on himself, but rather deflects it toward a cleaned-up image of Mao, scrubbed free of Mao’s blemishes.

Given the Cultural Revolution’s continued unpopularity in China, Xi’s effort contains a hint of desperation. Xi has to know that in the end, personality cults didn’t work for Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.

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