On March 14, in what many in China have termed his “farewell speech”, Premier Wen Jiabao fielded questions at a press conference closing the annual session of the National People’s Congress. Answering two separate questions, one on political reform and the other on the Wang Lijun incident, Wen Jiabao emphasized the importance of reform as a turn away from the tragedies of the Party’s past, most importantly the Cultural Revolution.

Wen Jiabao’s remarks, and the announced removal the following day of Bo Xilai (薄熙来) as the top Party leader in Chongqing, seem to mark a concerted move against China’s left ahead of the leadership transition this fall. Bo Xilai was seen to have been carving out his own populist enclave in Chongqing through his “red songs” movement and his robust anti-corruption campaign spearhead by Wang Lijun.

The apparent unraveling of Bo’s political standing and prospects through the Wang Lijun incident has come with a renewed pro-reform discourse cast against the evils of extreme, Maoist populism.

In some ways, this is not unlike the carving out of the original consensus on reform and opening in the early 1980s over and against the political extremes of the Cultural Revolution. So it’s not surprising, perhaps, that we see Wen Jiabao (and now many media) returning to the issue of the 1981 Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the Republic, which made the link between sustained reform (including political reform), forward development and the avoiding of another calamity like the Cultural Revolution.

Just like then, this is not a real reckoning of the painful past. It is — at the moment, at least — the political exploitation of the past to gather consensus toward a political future, specifically continued and perhaps deepened reform.

A number of Chinese media have seized on Wen Jiabao’s remarks to throw the Cultural Revolution under the spotlight in a general sense. On March 16, the day after Wen Jiabao’s remarks, The Beijing News ran an editorial called “China Can Only Rely on Further Reforms, Not On a Return to the Cultural Revolution” (中国只能靠向前改革不能回文革). The editorial concluded:

The Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the Republic has already pointed out that intra-party democracy and the institutionalization and legalization of democracy in the politics, society and life of the nation are the only path to avoiding the recurrence of a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution. Only reform on the basis of democracy and rule of law can guarantee that momentum is kept and the objective is not lost. China can only move forward, we cannot move back or stand still. Moving forward can only depend on opening and reform.

In an editorial in today’s Economic Observer, Lei Yi (雷颐雷颐), a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, writes that a truthful reckoning of the Cultural Revolution is important, but cautions that rising social problems are also a factor driving sympathy toward China’s Maoist past:

In order to avoid the Cultural Revolution becoming a choice for China’s future, we must of course face history head on, honestly facing the truth and dealing with the problem of collective forgetting. But even more important is to deal with ever more serious social problems.

Finally, we turn to a piece in the March 18 edition of Southern Metropolis Daily, which repeats the argument that moving ahead into the future demands a reckoning of the past, but adds the insistence that this be a full reckoning — that victims and persecutors must all speak out with their stories of the Cultural Revolution.

Those Who Experienced the Cultural Revolution Must Speak Out About Their Guilt
Southern Metropolis Daily
March 18, 2012
Gu Zexu (顾则徐)

At a press conference after the closing of the Fifth Session of the Eleventh National People’s Congress, Premier Wen Jiabao (温总理) said: “After the breaking up of the Gang of Four (四人帮), our Party made a resolution concerning problems in its history and carried out economic reform and opening, but the impact of the errors of the Cultural Revolution and of feudalism have never been eliminated.” “Without successful political reform,” he added, “historical tragedies like the Cultural Revolution could possibly be repeated.” In my view, there are many reasons why there is a danger of again experiencing a Cultural Revolution, and one reason is that we lack “frank and honest” (坦白) from those who experienced [the Cultural Revolution] — a fair and factual account of the absurdity they personally experienced. Without “frankness and honesty” no lessons can be drawn. And if we do not draw lessons [from the past], absurd events become intriguing events, and there is a desire to play them out again.

After the Cultural Revolution ended, [the Party] established the complete rejection of the Cultural Revolution as a political principle. But this complete rejection was handled only in a simplistic manner (简单否定), and the facts [of the Cultural Revolution] were obscured. With the passage of time the question of exactly what the Cultural Revolution had been became increasingly muddled. The writer Ba Jin (巴金) raised the issue of creating a Cultural Revolution museum with the hope that those who came after would understand the real Cultural Revolution, draw lessons from it, and ensure that a Cultural Revolution could never happen again. But to this day China has not officially recognized museum to the Cultural Revolution.

But a museum to the Cultural Revolution is a material matter, and even more important than this is the question of language — an honest reckoning by those who experienced it.

The Cultural Revolution swept up every Chinese person at the time, whether man or woman, old or young — no one could escape it. Aside from a very few who could be said to have been either persecutors or victims, the majority of people were both. In the relating of events after the Cultural Revolution, victims spoke out more, but as the Cultural Revolution was only simplistically rejected (简单否定), both accounts were extremely limited, persecutors even more so than victims. Up to now, only a precious few who experienced the Cultural Revolution have had the courage to speak out about their experiences persecuting others.

In my view, while the experiences of victims are important to hear, the experiences of persecutors are even more important. Otherwise, the history of the Cultural Revolution will be about only victims, with persecutors missing from the picture. There would be no supporting testimony for the accounts of the victims, and subsequent generations might believe that these accounts were false. The more dangerous inclination is for the cover up the factual accounts of persecutors, for those who experienced [the Cultural Revolution] to be reluctant to talk about their past words and deeds, or even in the process of covering up [the truth] to portray themselves as heroes, twisting absurd events into happy ones and leaving those who come after with the impression that the Cultural Revolution had its beautiful side. For example, that beating, smashing, looting and public denunciation (批斗) might be characterized as the expression of ideals . . .

Indeed, there is no shortage of people who advocate greater reflection on the Cultural Revolution. But reflection in the absence of a reckoning of the facts has little meaning. Catholicism emphasizes confession, obtaining the forgiveness of God by owning up to one’s sins. [The idea is that] God will surely forgive one’s sins, but on the condition that one speaks them and owns up to them. The vast majority of those today who are around 50 years old and older all in fact have their own histories of sin [during the Cultural Revolution].

When the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, I was just finishing primary school. And although I was only a child, and although I seldom did wrong because I was not a “good student”, I still managed to do wrong [against others]. I participated in the shouting of slogans at public denunciations (批斗会). I threw stones at the “four types” (四类分子) [of enemies in the class struggle, namely landlords, wealthy farmers, counterrevolutionaries and bad types]. I walked behind a widow racked with madness and heckled, “Wife of a landlord! Wife of a landlord!” When “educational revolution” (复课闹革命) was carried out, I wrote out my first character poster according to the directions of my head teacher. Perhaps I wrote mine quite smoothly, and she read it aloud before the class. I saw that as she was persecuted by my words, tears sparkled in her eyes, and to this day I cannot forget her trembling sound.

Of those who experienced the Cultural Revolution, even those who were only children then, how many did no wrong? Of course, many can brush aside their crimes by pointing to the vagaries of the times. People can say they had no way of resisting, and that they were just following orders. People might say that when all are guilty all are guiltless. But the precondition is that we speak, that we tell our children, that we tell the youth was the truth is. If we do not speak, if we don’t let those who come after understand the true Cultural Revolution, if we use florid recollections to talk about our own morals and ideals, making [the young] believe those were passionate and pure times, this is not just justifying one’s own conduct, it is committing another unforgivable sin.

It is largely because we’ve never had a reckoning, and because today some young people are “suffused with sunlight” [hearing only positive accounts], being deceived about the passions [of that era], that the conditions exist for a repeat of the Cultural Revolution. Those who experienced the Cultural Revolution have already grown old, or are nearing old age. For the sake of our future, speak out and say: I have done wrong.