WA China Watch Digest Special!

Survey: Is it important to reflect on the Cultural Revolution 50 years later?

Cultural Revolution stamp, Source: Baidu

By Wen Liu   Apr. 28, 2016

May 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the start of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, known as the “ten year catastrophe.” Not much has been written on the topic in China’s official media except one article in March in Global Times (环球时报), which itself has mysteriously become inaccessible. The article warned people not to go extreme in either trying to reevaluate the Cultural Revolution more positively or repudiate it more thoroughly. Considering that the Cultural Revolution was not only a big part of China’s history, but also a big part of U.S. relations with China, as President Nixon as well as Washington state leaders Sen. Warren Magnuson, Sen. Henry Jackson, Governor Dan Evans and others first went to China in the 1970s when the Cultural Revolution was still going on, here is the question:

Do you think it is important to reflect on the Cultural Revolution 50 years later as it helps the understanding of China as well as Xi Jinping’s policies today, and why?

Here are responses from some of our China hands, watchers and scholars, in the order their responses were received:

Pat Davis, former Port of Seattle Commissioner:
Yes. Understanding history and the dynamics of the times always enlightens analysis for current and future times. We should love the past. It is where we all came from.

Mic Dinsmore, former Port of Seattle CEO:
Yes as a lot of our lessons we learn from history... In this case not to repeat mistakes that were made.

Greg Youtz, Professor of Music, Pacific Lutheran University:
After I first read Sidney Rittenberg's book "The Man Who Stayed Behind" back in the mid '90's, I gained a whole new perspective on what many people at the time thought was going on, and how the movement could have been greeted with great excitement as the next "populist" phase of the ongoing creation of a new society. Of course, in retrospect, it is easy to simply acknowledge the consensus- that Mao used it to purge his political rivals. While undoubtedly true, the millions of people who experienced it, for good or for disastrous ill, deserve a more complex historical consideration of what they experienced from the ground level. Like the rise of Nazism, it is always worth looking in detail at ordinary people caught up in historical movements beyond their comprehension and how they viewed and experienced something. Particularly during this unusual political season in the U.S.!

Mike Craig, former president, Seattle Chongqing Sister City Association:
Definitely yes, to better understand today’s U.S./China relationships; perhaps most importantly as a reminder and a warning about radical politics and personality cults.

Carson Tavenner, Executive Director, The Tai Initiative:
It is important information for the Human race, not just for China. Not to understand today's policies better, but to understand the fallibility of humanity.

Bob Royer, Of Counsel, Gallatin Public Affairs:
There is a lovely fiction book in which Madame Mao ends up in prison making little dolls. There is also an account of Mao’s doctor and his relationship with Mao/Madame Mao, and a terrific book about the trial of the Gang of Four. I would be very interested in seeing more material about the Cultural Revolution and its relevance today.

Jon Geiger, Director, Business Integration/Operations, Boeing Commercial Airplanes:
Definitely yes – always important to learn from history, acknowledge our past and move forward with greater wisdom.

Gordon (Guoping) Feng, graduate student, China studies, UW:
Yes, it's important to reflect on the Cultural Revolution, especially so when at present many of Xi Jinping's practices resemble Mao's during the Cultural Revolution, such as personality cult.

Steve Harrell, Professor of Anthropology, UW:
Of course it is always important to reflect on the Cultural Revolution, and the 50th anniversary of the start is as good a time as any to do so. But I think the reflection has to be more than a reflex. In a strange sense, the Global Times is right: it’s too tempting to come out with easy condemnations or nostalgic approvals, and not consider why it happened, who benefitted, who suffered, and whether elements of it are likely to happen again.

Bart Fite, President, China Club of Seattle:
It’s remarkable that it has been 50 years. Absolutely this should be reflected on. A generation was essentially lost. I don’t think the Cultural Revolution will repeat, but the country lacks safety valves under one party rule, so something, as they say, might rhyme.

(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)