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China barely notes start of Cultural Revolution 50 years ago

BEIJING — Fifty years ago, China embarked on what was formally known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a decade of tumult launched by Mao Zedong to revive communist goals and enforce a radical egalitarianism.

The milestone was largely ignored Monday in the Chinese media, reflecting continuing sensitivities about a period that was later declared a ‘‘catastrophe.’’

Authorities have generally suppressed discussion of the violent events, now a couple of generations removed from the lives of young Chinese focused on pursuing their own interests in an increasingly capitalistic society.

On May 16, 1966, the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo met to purge a quartet of top officials who had fallen out of favor with Mao. It also produced a document announcing the start of the decade-long Cultural Revolution to pursue class warfare and enlist the population in mass political movements.


The start of the Cultural Revolution was not widely known or understood at the time, but soon took on an agenda characterized by extreme violence, leading to the downfall of leading officials, factional battles, mass rallies, and the exile of educated youths to the countryside.

It wound up severely threatening the Communist Party’s legitimacy to rule.

Despite the party’s formal repudiation of the movement five years after it ended, vestiges of the Cultural Revolution continue to echo in China’s authoritarian political system, the intolerance of dissent and uncritical support for the leadership, said veteran journalist Gao Yu, who was a university student in 1966.

Gao said her initial enthusiasm for the Cultural Revolution faded after fanatical young Red Guards raided her home and accused her father, a former ranking party cadre, of disloyalty to Mao.

‘‘I saw so many respected teachers in universities and high schools get beaten up,’’ Gao said. ‘‘The movement wasn’t so much a high-profile political struggle as a massive campaign against humanity.’’


A longtime party critic, Gao, now 72, was allowed to return home last year on medical parole after being imprisoned on a state secrets charge.

No official events were held to commemorate Monday’s anniversary, although neo-Maoists have been staging private commemorations.

Many are motivated by nostalgia for a simpler time and alienated by a growing wealth gap brought about by the government’s pursuit of market economics and abandonment of the former command economy that provided jobs and welfare to its citizens, even amid widespread poverty.

Egged on by vague pronouncements from Mao, students and young workers clutching their leader’s ‘‘Little Red Book’’ of sayings formed rival Red Guard factions starting in 1966 that battled each other over ideological purity, sometimes using heavy weapons taken from the military.

Rising violence later compelled party leaders to send in the People’s Liberation Army to reassert control as many government functions were suspended and long-standing party leaders sent to work in farms and factories or detained in makeshift jails.

The Cultural Revolution finally came to a close with Mao’s death on Sept. 9, 1976. In the aftermath, Deng Xiaoping emerged as the country’s paramount leader, initiating four decades of economic development and a gradual repudiation of orthodox Marxism.