People sometimes say that China fails to confront their mistakes. It hushes them up. The truth does not come out. And there is something in this and it raises questions about the style and substance of democracy in China. Are things pushed under the carpet? Are things always only “very good? If the mistakes are not addressed, doesn’t that mean that silence is at work? Isn’t a nation’s strength best shown when it is able to examine what went wrong – dispassionately, truthfully, objectively?
This is an important question and democratic countries at first sight often do a better job than autocratic countries at exposing mistakes and calling their leaders to account. It is part of the long evolution of Western societies from dictatorship by Emperors or Kings or, as China would understand – Dynasties. It is also a question of free speech and the protections in place to protect individuals who challenge the status quo and question the existing government.
It is also to do with long-established legal principles especially habeas corpus and the rights of individuals to be heard. Certainly, democracy has been used as a protection against tyrannies and is to be praised. But democracy also comes at a cost – consider an increasingly repeated set of figures – the deaths from Covid. China is at about 10,000. The UK is nearing 120,000 and the USA is 400,000 and rising. Democracy is as much to do with the credibility of government as it is to do with “one man one vote”. Has China served its people better re Covid than the USA or the UK and what does that say about governance and democracy?
Democracy is not just about elections every five years and a free press. It is also about the quality of government and the record of achievement. And China has achieved and that achievement is a reflection of its method of governance. If the people of China have never enjoyed more prosperity than today, that is a positive comment on the style and method of government in China. Equally, if the lower 50% of US citizens have seen a fall in living standards over the last thirty years, as is the case, that too is a reflection of democracy not working for the people as a whole?
So, democracy is not just a word or a political slogan but a measure of progress – social, economic and political. Did China have democracy during the Cultural Revolution? The people did take to the streets and expressed their political views. They had flags and slogans and the little red book to guide them. They stopped going to school and university and instead travelled the length and breadth of the country in order to achieve a revival of the political spirit, so they thought, that would secure the permanence of the revolutionary goals that had brought China into existence in 1949. They met with workers and peasants and teachers and scientists but they did not just talk. They became interrogators and, in some instances, murderers. Life became violent. Political purity led to vandalism and the destruction of life and property.
If the Cultural Revolution had started with honourable intentions, it ended with chaos, economic hardship and loss of life. And how does China deal with this dark period in the nation’s history?
In a word – internally. China did not set up a Commission of Inquiry. No witnesses were called to the Great Hall of the People to give evidence – like the Grenfell Tower Inquiry in London when 176 people burned to death because of the absence of the use of fire-resistant materials. Unlike the public investigation in London, there were no reports on television in Beijing. No leaders were publicly grilled. To the outside world, the Cultural Revolution has seemingly been hushed up as if it never happened.
Well not quite. There is a different process at work. There are examination, evaluation and investigation. Something went very wrong and the Party, which was responsible for the dark period in China’s history, has been looking deeply into the 10 year period. But the problem is that this has been done behind close doors. There is no Report as such. No publication of Findings. No Document of Truth and that is troubling to Western democrats used to having official investigations with conclusions and recommendations and consequences. By our UK standards, China does have a democratic deficit. But China does things according to a different rhythm.
The Party – now 87m members – recognises that its leadership was responsible for the chaos that was the Cultural Revolution. What may have started as a bold strategy to reignite the flame of rebellion by infusing young Reg Guards with the revolutionary spirit of Yenan, itself became corrupted by a powerful faction within the Party who wrought havoc and chaos in pursuit of Far Left Marxist fundamentalism. The Party was divided.
Mao Tsetung presided over the rupture and young people followed his exhortations and called many good people to account for the misplaced belief that China needed change and not continuity. In due course, the Left overreached themselves and failed. They were removed from power and China changed direction and embarked on a policy of Reform and development that has led the country to a level of achievement that has confounded the West.
So how does China evaluate this most unsuccessful decade in the history of the People’s Republic of China? Is it sidelined, forgotten and consigned to history? No, it has been the subject of searching re-examination for two reasons; first, to record what actually happened, and, second, to prevent any repetition. But what is the process? How is it handled? It is a question of political analysis and a question of recording the actual facts. Research Institutes will be amassing statements, reports and information about the period and their conclusions will be much discussed to ensure there is no second Cultural Revolution. Much of the blame is attached to Mao.
His stature was used to promote a challenge to the Party and disorder, death and destruction resulted. Was Mao simply wrong in his thinking or did he intentionally lead a challenge to break the power of the very Party he had led for many years? The judgment on Mao was made soon after the arrest of the Gang of Four when the hitherto unqualified adulation of Mao yielded to a more sober assessment of “70% good and 30% bad”.
Today, such is the sense of abject failure about the ten year period (1966-1976), that the judgment is more likely to be “30% good and 70% bad”. Often these matters are seen more clearly in perspective and the overall role of Mao is much bigger than his failings in the Cultural Revolution – considerable though they were. Without Mao, there would be no new China and that is why his picture continues to dominate Tiananmen Square at the centre of Beijing but in due course, a more comprehensive of the good and bad of Mao will be made.
Now is not the time for a pronounced judgment and this is where China’s style of leadership is quite different from that of the West. The leadership is focused on developing China and it has been successful – it does not want to deflect attention into a pronounced countrywide re-examination of What Went Wrong. China is now on a quite different path. It is stable where it had been unstable. It is prosperous where it had been poor. It is secure where it had been vulnerable. Its leadership is unified where it had been divided.
This is not the time to bring out the magnifying glass and pore over all the gross mistakes of 1966-76. Some will say this is a matter of convenience and the reality is that China is too frail to permit such a thoroughgoing collective self-examination. Certainly, it is the case that wounds still exist. There is resentment at what happened – many good people died. Some must yearn for revenge. But the time is not right to allow such passions to be re-expressed. It will lead to internal division and confrontation when the Party knows that China needs to stay focused on achieving more prosperity and stability.
The country is poised to become the biggest economic power in the world and the route is set for China to achieve win-win prosperity for itself and for the world at large. The time is not right to flush open the raw wounds of China’s most divisive past. That time will come but not for another 20 years at least.