CSC two new directors commented on Bo Xilai's downfall to South China Morning Post

29 March 2012

South China Morning Post
Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Painful history

Kerry Brown and David Goodman say Bo Xilai's downfall shows the emotive power of the Cultural Revolution decades after it ended, and that cannot change until China comes to terms with its past

One of the more mysterious angles to the continuing drama of the apparent felling last week of Bo Xilai as party secretary of Chongqing is the accusation by some - inside and outside China - that his greatest sin was trying to restart a "cultural revolution" in China. Wen Jiabao was credited with making the coup de grâce on this when he declared on the closing day of the National People's Congress that a return to this period in Chinese history was untenable, with observers making the link between this and the red-song campaigns Bo had famously been promoting in the municipality.

The Cultural Revolution has become distorted in the decades since it ended in 1976. These days, it figures in contemporary Chinese political discourse like "Nazi" does in English - carrying powerful emotions of fear and incomprehension.

For someone of Wen's generation, this is part of their most formative years - a moment of confusion, perhaps exhilaration and struggle, that has left a deep mark. Wen and Hu Jintao , along with Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang , all have highly specific memories from this period, despite their differences in age. None have talked about it publicly. The subject has the air of taboo.

For Bo, there is even more complexity. He was a fierce activist in one of the elite rebellious factions in Beijing. Because of his father's status, he was felled and jailed for four years. His mother died in mysterious circumstances during this period. Bo is typical of many who were young firebrands over the Cultural Revolution's fiercest period from 1966 to 1969. He started as a victimiser, but ended up a victim. Why would he want to resurrect the memory of this traumatic time?

The current elite language on the Cultural Revolution shows clearly that contemporary China has still not come to terms with the confusion over what it was, why it happened, and what its final impact has been. Nostalgia and revulsion mix in equal measure. Some look back to a time of idealistic striving for utopian dreams. Others, like Wen, regard it as something akin to a Holocaust. Since the 1990s, writing about the Cultural Revolution as it happened historically has become tougher. These days, it seems there is a huge signboard posted on the boundaries of the Cultural Revolution era saying, "Keep out".

Is there any sense at all in saying that Bo was trying to revive this time? Did he start encouraging university students to rebel, as Mao did in 1966? Did we see the smashing of historic artefacts as happened throughout the country from 1967 onwards? Did high-level cadres get dragged in front of halls of screaming people to be humiliated and attacked? Was Chongqing daubed in big-character posters ripping into enemies? None of this happened, nor was it ever even remotely likely to happen. But that doesn't blunt the sharp weapon of labelling people these days as Cultural Revolution supporters. Kicking off campaigns that even started to sniff around this area was highly risky for Bo. To declare that someone is trying to "restart the Cultural Revolution" in modern Chinese parlance means standing accused of tearing society apart and returning to the bad old days of class war, poverty and extremism. It is a great emotional hammer to hit someone with. And Wen used it to good effect when he spoke in Beijing last week.

The context for the contemporary criticism of the Cultural Revolution is far wider than events in Chongqing and Bo's lack of a political future. With the upcoming change of leadership, the party is debating the agenda for the next decade. The key questions not only include the extent of state involvement in economic development, as well as the provision of social welfare, but also importantly the nature of political change, as Wen's comments in his final NPC speech made clear. For Wen, political reform may be improving the current system rather than radically changing it, but the party is all too well aware of the need to demonstrate its claim to deliver responsible and responsive government.

Bo's personal political style, first in Dalian and then more recently in Chongqing, sits uneasily with many in the leadership in that debate about political reform. But Bo no more advocates a return to the processes and politics of the Cultural Revolution than did his father, Bo Yibo , favour the "capitalist road" during the 1950s and 1960s, as was claimed during the Cultural Revolution. The one trick Bo Xilai does borrow from that period is the notion of Maoist charismatic leadership, something the party now instinctively shies away from. After the Cultural Revolution, the party learnt the lesson that obedience to the party as an organisation must be paramount. That was one of Deng Xiaoping's key contributions to the reform era.

Bo's challenge to the party's organisational authority was also about the way issues in Chongqing were sometimes solved. Rumours of excesses in dealing with corrupt officials abounded. There were apparently reverberations in Beijing about how some former senior local leaders had been handled. The lesson is simple: by all means, get results, but be careful whose toes you step on. And always keep the Organisation Department and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (the guardians of party norms) on side. Criticism of Bo, and especially obliquely in terms of the Cultural Revolution, would presumably never have surfaced without Wang Lijun's trip to Chengdu . Nonetheless, as ever in China's politics, random events may have more significant consequences.

Wen's invocation of the Cultural Revolution when he covertly attacked Bo last week was designed to rally support once the decision on his future had been taken, and it worked. But the notion that China might slip back to that time is wrong. China won't have another Cultural Revolution, as the devastating accusation of support for it on Bo's career makes patently clear. It remains, as it has done for over three decades, the very worst label you can hang on someone. The more profound question is when Chinese politicians and the public will come to terms with the trauma and contention that the memory of this tumultuous time still brings. In that sense, Mao's final revolution lives on, at least for this generation.

Kerry Brown will take up appointment as director of the China Studies Centre, University of Sydney, later this year. Professor David S.G.Goodman is the academic director there.