5.16 — Sorry, Not Sorry

Spectres & Souls


On 16 May 1966, the Communist Party secretly issued the ‘May Sixteenth Circular’五·一六通知 to party, state and army organisations throughout China. It was circulated down to the level of county party committees, party committees in the cultural organizations, and party committees at regimental level in the army. When the ‘May Sixteenth Circular’ was released publicly a year later, and after a devastating period of what Mao Zedong would  hail as ‘civil war’, the state media hailed it as an ‘historical document’. It remains so today. (For the official English translation of the ‘Circular of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’, 16 May 1966, see here.)

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is generally dated from 16 May 1966, although the theory, as well as much of the practice, of the movement can be traced back to the 1950s and earlier. To sequester the ‘ten years of chaos’ 十年動亂, 1966-1976, from China’s revolutionary twentieth century is a part of Communist Party prestidigitation, a convenience that obfuscates many of the profound systemic issues that lie at the heart of one-party rule in China today.

Below we offer a comment on the Cultural Revolution revivalism of the Communist Party under Xi Jinping followed by some observations on the subject by Liang Hongda (梁宏達, 1972-), a popular story-teller and cultural critic. Liang is one of an extremely small minority of articulate and cannily outspoken public voices of conscience in China today. Their number includes the popular historian Yuan Tengfei (袁騰飛, 1972-) and the now-silenced lawyer Chen Qiushi (陳秋實, 1985-), both of whom have previously featured in China Heritage.

The Xi-era reassessment of the Cultural Revolution era, and the seventeen years that preceded it, was first essayed by remnant Maoist ideologues and those opposed to the market reforms in the wake of the June Fourth Beijing Massacre. They were silenced by Deng Xiaoping and his cohort in 1992, although the ban that Deng placed on ideological debates about socialism and capitalism at the time suppressed substantive, and ultimately unavoidable, conflicts over politics, ideas and social change in China for the sake of short-term economic gain. As we have previously argued, an overemphasis on Deng’s reformist legacy occludes many aspects of the Deng bequest to China that have made Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism not only possible but, in terms of the Communist Party’s history, legitimate.

Among other things, it confounds a clear-eyed appreciation of the true scale of the Party’s Grand Economic Boast — three decades of market-oriented policies indeed allowed hundreds of millions of people to lift themselves out of dire poverty, and millions to enjoy a measure of wealth, but the background to the boast is that the previous two and a-half decades of egregious Party misrule had cast even greater numbers into abject deprivation in the first place. & that’s after having discounted the astronomical numbers of people eliminated during the various purges of 1950-1956 purges; the Anti-Rightist Campaign; the military suppression of the Tibetan revolt; as a result of the Great Leap Forward mass starvation; the Four Cleans Movement and the Cultural Revolution, which included deaths resulting from Party engineered open warfare, as well as state-sanctioned political murders and systemic criminal neglect.

Or, as Barry J. Naughton observed:

‘One is tempted to claim that the socialist system did a fairly good job of providing for basic needs and putting a subsistence floor under its poorest citizens.  The problem is that the terrible famine of 1959-61 makes a mockery of this statement.  What good does it do to provide for your citizens’ basic needs for 27 years if you force on them policies of starvation in the other three years.  In effect, the irrationalities of the system were so profound that they destroyed what could and should have been its proudest achievement.  After December 1978, Chinese leaders struggle to transform a system that they themselves had built over the preceding 30 years.’

The Chinese Economy: Transitions and Growth, 2006, p.82


As Xu Zhangrun (許章潤, 1962-) has argued for years, China is, in effect, now run by people nurtured on what he calls the ‘Politics of the Sent Down Youth’ 知青政治. They might not be exactly the kind of revolutionary successor that Mao Zedong had hoped would be hardened by the Cultural Revolution, but they certainly are the closest China has had to a Maoist leadership clique since the Chairman’s demise in 1976.

We will explore such issues in a series of essays focussed on the 2021 centenary of the Chinese Communist Party in Spectres & Souls and Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium (1 January 2022-).

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
16 May 2021
55th Anniversary of the
May Sixteenth Circular

On the Timescape of China’s New Epoch

Time and space were themselves players, vast lands engulfing the figures a weave of future and past. There was no riverrun of years. The abiding loops of causality ran both forward and back. The timescape rippled with waves, roiled and flexed, a great beast in the dark sea.

Gregory Benford, Timescape (1980)

Long ago, writers like Simon Leys pointed out that in Communist societies a utopian future is immutable, but it’s the past that constantly changes. At the dawn of the Xi Jinping New Epoch (2012-), the ‘conciliation of history’ that had been underway in the People’s Republic since the 1990s continued, with a variation. Elsewhere I have discussed this historical conciliation as a long-term rapprochement between the dynastic, the Republican and the People’s Republican eras of China, one that became particularly evident during and after the post-1989 Patriotic Education Campaign. This multiyear, billion-yuan propaganda offensive is still aimed at instilling a spirit of national pride and political consciousness in a population, in particular young people, that the Communist Party deems to be too readily distracted by the material pleasures, and possibilities, of economic reform. It is a campaign that affirms a tightly controlled ‘China Story’ unencumbered by historical, political and cultural complexity.

Under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party’s ‘conciliation of history’ has consciously embraced a new element: there has been a deliberate effort to elide the differences between the Maoist and the Reformist eras. This effort emphasises that what is called the ‘Former Thirty Years’ 前三十年 of the People’s Republic under Mao (along with his cabal of supporters that, for the most part, also included leaders such as Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and others) from 1949 to 1978, despite certain ‘policy missteps’, laid the basis for the grand social engineering and economic achievements of the ‘Latter Thirty Years’ 後三十年 (1978-2008) of the Economic Reforms and Opening to the World. The two should not be juxtaposed, Xi and his message-engineers like Wang Huning would now claim, rather they should be seen as a continuum. Indeed, in newly edited middle-school textbooks released in 2018, the six decades of the Mao-Deng era were euphemistically recast under the heading ‘Painstaking Explorations and the Achievements of Construction’ 艱辛探索與建設成就.

16 May 2021 Update: In the Concise History of the Chinese Communist Party released ahead of the formal celebration of the centenary of the Party on 1 July 2021, one of the most noteworthy passages reiterated Xi Jinping’s formulation about the Mao era, which he had articulated in early 2018:

‘From the founding of New China up until the end of the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ constitute an historical era during which Our Party led the People to undertake painstaking explorations in the pursuit of our socialist revolution and the building of socialism. Even though we have travelled a profoundly tortuous path, the Party has, nonetheless, evolved a unique body of political theory while achieving monumental results.’ [my translation]


Part of a larger narrative that built on the Party’s historical vision of China that dates from the 1840s to the present day, Xi’s View of the Thirty Years was coupled with the forward trajectory of the Two Centenaries (1921-2021 and 1949-2049) that frame the New Epoch. The peerless leadership of Xi Jinping is supposed to be that of a Grand Unifier, one with a particular historical vision and mission. For the victims of the Former Thirty Years, and their descendants, such unity imposes a nearly unbearable emotional and intellectual toll.

This leads us to recall Simon Leys’s comments on purges, politics and legal reform in China:

Since Mao’s death, the pathetic reformist efforts of the leaders have actually demonstrated that Maoism is consubstantial with the regime. What happened to the Maoists in China reminds us of the fate of the cannibals in a certain tropical republic, as described by Alexandre Vialatte: ‘There are no more cannibals in that country since the local authorities ate the last ones.’

— Human Rights in China, 1978, revised and updated in 1983

For aficionados of the how the Chinese Communist Party’s has its way with history, allow me to recommend the speech delivered by Xi Jinping to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the birth of former state president Liu Shaoqi on 23 November 2018. It is a masterful example of Communist historical doublethink. Xi extols a man persecuted and murdered by Mao Zedong without ever mentioning, let alone criticising, the Great Leader (something in keeping with the line scripted by Deng Liqun in 1980 and articulated at the time by Deng Xiaoping when Liu was rehabilitated). In it Xi also lauded the invaluable contributions that the long-dead State President made to the post-1978 era of Reform and the Open Door without uttering the name of its architect, and Liu’s (and Mao’s) former associate, Deng Xiaoping. (See 習近平, 在紀念劉少奇同志誕辰120週年座談會上的講話)

a revised version of Geremie R. Barmé,
translator’s introduction to
Xu Zhangrun, To Summon a Wandering Soul
China Heritage, 28 November 2018


— 梁宏達

In Loving Memory of

Yang Xianyi, Gladys Yang, Wu Zuguang, Xin Fengxia,
Huang Miaozi, Yu Feng, Ding Cong & Shen Jun