The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution roiled mainland China from 1966 to 1976. Inspired, perhaps even triggered, by Chairman Mao, it was a violent reaction to perceived capitalist, counter-revolutionary forces infiltrating governmental and cultural institutions.
Its costs were incalculable. Millions of people were tortured, imprisoned and killed. Untold treasures, most from the Imperial age, were looted or destroyed. Economic expansion, even agricultural self-sufficiency, was all but halted for a generation. It can be argued that it was the normalization of relations with the West (leading to contemporary China’s status as an economic superpower), that finally began to heal the Cultural Revolution’s wounds.
This history is instructive, perhaps cautionary, because China stands today on the brink of another reactionary convulsion. Only time will tell if it’s as momentous and ruinous as Mao’s great class struggle.
Its impetus is playing out, even now, in Western media as well as Chinese state television. It’s the ongoing downfall of Bo Xilai, former mayor of Chongqing and, at one time, a rising star of the communist party.
The scandal reads like cheap fiction in its tawdriness and improbability. It began to unravel on February 6, when Bo’s deputy mayor and chief of police, Wang Lijun, sought asylum at Chongqing’s U.S. consulate. As hundreds of Chinese troops began surrounding the consulate, Wang spun a tale for the incredulous Americans: breathtaking corruption, hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes, and the murder of a British citizen, Neil Heywood.
Within 24 hours the consular officials rejected Wang’s petition, citing the impossibility of spiriting him out of the country. He was turned over to the Chinese and promptly disappeared into a prison system controlled by Bo.
The damage was done, however, and the story was out. Within weeks Bo Xilai was suspended from all party and governmental positions. Shortly thereafter his wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested and formally charged with poisoning Heywood.
Chinese authorities promise full accountability, and the story thus far is attracting extraordinary coverage in the state-controlled news media. It’s this uncharacteristic openness, compounded by a widespread revulsion at the illicit wealth accumulated by Bo and his family, that might yet lead to something like a second Cultural Revolution.
The targets will likely be the so-called Red Aristocracy: party apparatchiks who have parlayed position into riches. They have taken to heart former premier Deng Xiaoping‘s era-defining slogan: “To be rich is glorious.” They prove, once and for all, that this is not their fathers’ communist party.
Consider the “princeling” Bo Guagua, son of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai. His life of excess was legendary even before his parents’ scandal broke. His father, in better times, once attempted to deflect criticism by scornfully relaying some of the charges against him, which he called preposterous: “They say my son goes to Oxford and drives a Ferrari.” Well, no. By that time Bo Guagua had transferred from Oxford to Harvard. And he drives a Porsche.
In a nominally classless society, the privileges of the Red Aristocracy must surely rankle. The question is, how much do they rankle, and what’s to be done about it?
The original Cultural Revolution was implemented, and its worst atrocities committed, by the Red Guard, a Maoist youth movement. Today’s Chinese youth are far different; much more likely to agitate for progressive reform than for communist orthodoxy. They are more educated, more worldly, and much more interested in China’s future on the international stage.
Still, they must be as susceptible as anyone to class jealousy and to the glaring inequalities that pervades their society. And their society’s leaders must surely know this.
The Bo backlash is coming, of that there can be no doubt. Whether it comes as bloodshed or meaningful reform, remains to be seen.