A VOCAL concert was held on May 2 in the auditorium of the Great Hall of the People, one of China’s most potent symbols of political power. The extravagant affair, which organisers later described as “an event to get the blood of the Chinese people boiling with righteousness,” featured 30 “red songs,” or hong ge (红歌) — a term that refers generally to the patriotic hymns of the Maoist era through to the end of the Cultural Revolution.
This was, in other words, a Maoist revival.
As an all-female choir belted out the words of one red classic, “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman,” the video backdrop showed an image of Mao Zedong beaming from a sunburst, followed by the deep red of an undulating national flag. Then came images of President Xi Jinping on an inspection trip to the countryside, greeting ecstatically happy farmers.
The round face of one helmsman juxtaposed with the round face of another, each promising glory and prosperity.
In sailing the seas we depend on the helmsman,
Just as all living things depend on the sun.
Wet with rain and dew the crops will thrive,
Just as Mao Zedong Thought keeps the revolution alive.
Fish cannot live away from the water,
Melons must stay on their vines.
The revolutionary masses must cleave to the Party.
Mao Zedong Thought is the sun that ever shines.
This extravaganza, nostalgically called “On the Field of Hope” — after another Communist Party anthem popularised by celebrity singer and now first lady Peng Liyuan — — had been organised by the Central Propaganda Department’s Socialist Core Values Publicity and Education Office (中央宣传部社会主义核心价值观宣传教育办公室), apparently a senior propaganda office with substantial clout. As such, the event seemed to indicate a worrisome shift to the ideological left as China marked the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution.
But all of this was about to unwind.
On May 5, an open letter emerged on the internet from Ma Xiaoli (马晓力), the daughter of former minister of labour Ma Wenrui (马文瑞) — and a “princeling” who in the past has spoken out on the Chinese Communist Party’s legacy and future. Addressed to Li Zhanshu (栗战书), director of the General Office of the CCP, the letter called the recent concert in the Great Hall of the People “a reproduction of the Cultural Revolution.”
“For them to use this means to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution is entirely in defiance of the political discipline of the Party,” Ma wrote.
Internet photo of Ma Xiaoli, posted by Phoenix Online to an interview with Ma since removed from the web.
Soon after news of Ma’s open letter surfaced through online posts and discussions on WeChat, Zhang Hongliang (张宏良), a writer and social commentator who has earned some renown as a pundit on the extreme left, went on the attack, suggesting those who criticised the May 2 event were “traitors.”
This matter once again demonstrates the truth of the basic assessment we have had for years: that the thorough rejection of the Cultural Revolution has already become a political dagger with which traitors and the extreme right seek to slay our Party and our nation . . . Their demonisation of China’s Cultural Revolution has already entirely surpassed the demonisation of Nazi Germany and Japanese militarism, and these who have submitted a letter to the central Party leadership all say the Cultural Revolution was “inhumane and anti-human, a great disaster and a great regression in Chinese history; it left behind an unprecedented historical scar.” Any such denunciation of the Cultural Revolution is entirely making public opinion preparations for the United States and other Western nations in [plotting the] extinction of the Chinese nation!
Things took an unexpected turn on May 6, when the China National Opera & Dance Drama Theatre, one of the event’s hosts, announced in a formal statement posted to its website that the group with which it had cooperated for the “On the Field of Hope” event — the so-called Central Propaganda Department Socialist Core Values Publicity and Education Office — was a “fake organisation” that had “provided fake materials swindling the trust of our theatre.” The theatre pledged that it would “pursue the responsibility of “relevant persons.”
China’s National Opera & Dance Theatre posts a notice on its official website saying it was deceived by an organisation identified as a sub-office of the Central Propaganda Department.]
How is this possible? How could a “fake” education office portray itself as attached to the Central Propaganda Department and manage to hold a major propaganda event lauding Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People?
This is very curious indeed. Even more curious is the fact that the event hosted by the Socialist Core Values Publicity and Education Office certainly did seem to have an official imprimatur as it was pre-announced earlier this month. However, Xinhua News Agency coverage of the “On the Field of Hope” event, posted on May 3, has now vanished. See the China Digital Times for an archived version of the Xinhua article.
What cracks are these we are witnessing?
For the moment, allow me to set aside these complicated questions. At the very least, we can say that the upshot of this unexpected controversy is that the Cultural Revolution — generally a taboo topic inside China — is now the subject of some level of discussion on the eve of the 50th anniversary.
For now, I’ll just share Mao Xiaoli’s response on WeChat to the counter-attack by Zhang Hongliang.
What is Zhang Hongliang Trying to Do?
Mao Xiaoli (马晓力) / May 6, 2016 / WeChat
I thank Zhang Hongliang for showing his cards concerning his support for the Cultural Revolution. He says that “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman” is not a Cultural Revolution song. Well then, I’d like to ask Zhang Hongliang, did you not hear this song at all during the Cultural Revolution, as it was blasted daily through the loudspeakers, or did you just not hear it enough?
On May 2, 2016, a performance troupe performs “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman” in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
You frequently brand others as traitors on the extreme right, and what evidence do you have? Please present it! Such an accusation is enough to sentence others to death. A traitor, after all, is one who has committed the grave crime of betraying his country. And to be on the extreme right once meant being sent of to a labour camp, or to prison! What exactly is it you are plotting by casting these malicious words about with such conceit? If you can present no evidence these are just false charges! They are spurious accusations! This is no longer the Cultural Revolution, a time when you can wildly curse and insult others, when you can wantonly pin a crime on any person. When you open your mouth and harm others like this, issuing false charges, it’s entirely possible you’ll be sued for defamation, don’t you know! Perhaps this has become a habit of yours, to violate the reputations of others so casually!
You say foreign journalists have interviewed me. I’m sorry, but can you be specific about when and where the interview with this supposed foreign journalist took place? Without bothering to get the most basic of facts straight, you launch right into the labelling, striking out with your club and spraying poison willy nilly. It seems to me you must be crazy! What, I wonder, can you possibly want? I truly have no idea. I heard long ago about you, this key figure at Utopia [a leftist website in China], but only now do I understand your viciousness and arrogance. In my view, you truly are an insane person left behind by the “Gang of Four.” Your mouth is packed full of Cultural Revolution language. I suppose this must be a personal skill the Cultural Revolution bequeathed to you, and perhaps you feel disappointed that such and such a person never secretly made you propaganda chief. You are truly insane!
You even raise a hue and cry saying that: “For China today, which has already reached the edge of crisis and war, the quickest and most effective way to bring our whole people together is to sing red songs to whip up the ideals, emotions and hopes of the people.” So were you perhaps especially active back in Chongqing those days [during Bo Xilai’s singing red campaigns], having gained insights for certain people. And you go so far as to offer your brave reading to incite others, suggesting that we have “already reached the edge of crisis.” Is this the spirit of the central Party, do you think? What exactly is your intention with this shameless clamour about crisis and war? What is it you want? And most laughably: Why are you in such a hurry? You imagine that singing red songs is “quickest and most effective” in mobilising and stimulating the public, and that if the people are without ideals or ideas, red songs alone can spark their ideals, emotions and hopes? You woefully underestimate the people, I think! The end of the Cultural Revolution happened 40 years ago. How is it you have borne the “Gang of Four” in mind so faithfully ever since, brooding over their fall? What exactly is in that heart of yours?! What were you doing during the Cultural Revolution? What role did you play? Please, show us your face!
May 6, 2016