How the Chinese Communist Party Manipulates History

By Michael Megarit

When Chinese students ask their families about the Cultural Revolution and what they
remember about the violence and turmoil of that time, there is often confusion. For many, it is
the first time anyone in the family has talked about politics, and the discussions are rarely easy.

With these students, members of China’s Gen Z, the terror is much closer than their relatively
privileged, stable lives might suggest. Like the subjects at the heart of Tania Branigan’s book
Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution (2021), they are living with a
shadowy past that they only partially know. Branigan’s book is not about the Cultural Revolution
itself – a decade of terror and political upheaval and violence from 1966 to 1976 – but about
how that period exists today, as trauma, as nostalgia, as state-enforced amnesia.

Branigan carefully records the power and precariousness of memory in the face of the Chinese
Communist Party’s incessant effort to reshape people’s recollections to the needs of the party of
the moment. President Xi Jinping is a master of such reimagining, recasting the family’s
persecution and his own victimization during the Cultural Revolution into a redemptive tale of
suffering and perseverance. Despite Branigan’s incisive critique, her accounts of individual
violence often lacks mention of the state as an instigator of the violence – first as persecutor and
then as the perpetrator – and so the narrative that emerges is one as familiar as it is chilling: that of
a society turning on itself.

Ten Years of Chaos

By the time Mao Zedong launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966, he was in
his early 70s. He had spent almost three decades in charge of the CCP, 16 of them as China’s
ruler. Mao’s feelings about the party’s power remained ambivalent. The desire for political
control constantly pushed up against the fear that the revolution would be undone by the very
functionaries and bureaucrats on whom he relied. The Great Leap Forward, his four-year
agricultural collectivization experiment in the late 1950s that descended into catastrophic
famine only deepened his paranoia. The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s revenge on the party
leaders he distrusted.

The progress of ‘the decade of chaos’ that is known as the Cultural Revolution went through
distinct phases, each introducing a different style of chaos. The initial phase was urban, when
Mao and his radical supporters mobilized students to attack their elders in power. The Red
Guards were the students who responded to this call, and they targeted local party officials,
teachers and vestiges of the pre-communist order. The violence – a coordinated campaign
instigated by the very top of the government – soon spilled into the workplace, witnessed the
collapse of local political order, and was replaced by revolutionary committees. The final phase
entailed the installation of a military dictatorship under Lin Biao, which brought the fighting to an
end, resumed factory production, and sent students and intellectuals to the countryside for

No Such Thing as a Setback

By the time Branigan arrived in China as a young reporter in 2008, the terror of the Cultural
Revolution was long past, but its search for meaning was not. Her near-decade in China
coincided with the rise of Xi Jinping to power, and his attempts to sanitize the legacy of the
Cultural Revolution. Unlike his predecessors, Xi has reframed his experience of the Cultural
Revolution as one of suffering, if not exactly endurance and service to the party: his rhetoric
inverts the CCP’s early denunciation of the Cultural Revolution as ‘tremendous calamity’, as a
setback from which the country must recover.

In contrast to Xi’s sanitized memory, not all Chinese feel the same way when allowed to speak
freely. Branigan documents moments of relative candor and confession: for example from Song
Binbin, a Red Guard who made a public apology for her part in the murder of a teacher and who
became a symbol of hope for a wider reckoning with the past. That hope was short-lived. As Xi’s
regime cracked down on dissent, bloggers such as Yu Xiangzhen, who tried to process her
past, were silenced.

Blame Game

The most disturbing episodes in Branigan’s personal chronicle of cruelty tend to obscure the
party’s responsibility, instead fixing blame on individual monsters. In contrast, the late US
scholars Andrew Walder, Dong Guoqiang, and James Chu have elucidated the critical role that
political cadres played in terrorizing students and workers in order to ensure that the Cultural
Revolution was both sweeping and violent. Mao’s mechanical purges were less bloody than
Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s – which might explain why cultural nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution
persists, albeit ambiguously, in Branigan’s work.

But it’s hard for people to take responsibility for the party’s role, especially in an era where Xi is
so sensitive about how China is perceived by foreign journalists. Xi wants China to be a great
power by virtue of its eternal destiny. His party doesn’t make mistakes. Discussing the party’s
role in causing the catastrophe is, therefore, taboo. The party’s take on history is one in which
the people are to blame, while the party is largely exculpated. The narrative is that there would
be no possibility for Chinese people to self-govern without the CCP in charge.

A Selective Memory

Ever since Xi Jinping became China’s paramount leader, he has waged a relentless campaign
to recast China’s past, most notably its Cultural Revolution, in a way that supports the CCP
agenda of ‘national unity’ and ‘continuous progress’ under the party’s leadership. In Xi’s
revisionist history, the epoch of communist rule has been one of progress, rather than one of
upheaval, disruption, trauma and wasted years.

Another CCP tactic is the promotion of so-called ‘positive energy’ stories underscoring the
achievements and resilience of the Chinese people while casting shade on or outright omitting
accounts of the country’s more darker periods of history. The party’s official take on the Cultural
Revolution, which is no longer the frank condemnation of Deng Xiaoping years, has shifted to a
more vague recognition of ‘mistakes’, with a focus on putting them in the past. This approach,
matched with Xi’s larger-scale political strategy, is aimed at conveying messages of stability,
pride in the nation, and the CCP’s legitimacy.

The Impact on Contemporary China

The ramifications are sweeping. Aside from writing a dominant and authoritative narrative that
imprints its own version of history on public memory, the CCP’s historical revisionism helps to
influence policy and define the limits of acceptable societal behavior. If it is true that, as the
saying goes, those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, then China’s
younger generations might be destined to repeat not only the failings of their predecessors but
even the crimes committed during the Cultural Revolution and other disasters in China’s past.
The scarcity of a mainstream discourse that allows open and critical discussion of these events
means that a distorted understanding of China’s development and the CCP’s role in this
process could be inadvertently passed on to younger generations.

The Party’s demand for a cheerful and united historical narrative can suppress independent
thought and dissent. Those who try to study and discuss the darker side of China’s past are
censored, harassed and imprisoned. Many are afraid to ask questions because doing so is seen
as a threat to national unity and development.

The Personal Toll

Red Memory is Branigan’s poignant portrait of one family caught in the maelstrom of the
Cultural Revolution, and of her own subsequent effort to reckon with its legacy. Her case studies
of people who lived through the years feature psychic injuries and a complex relationship with
the past. Some, such as Song Binbin, have sought out public penitence for their actions, while
others, such as Yu Xiangzhen, have turned to writing or psychoanalysis to make sense of their

Such stories of personal betrayal and violence – of the son Zhang Hongbing denouncing his
own mother – bring alive the ravaging effects of the Cultural Revolution on families and
communities and the difficulty of personal absolution in a society where state responsibility for
the violence is often obscured or denied.

The Party’s Culpability

In recent years, scholars have studied how CCP elites manipulated the Cultural Revolution’s
violence so that, by harnessing the energy of students and workers, they could achieve their
own agendas. What are the origins of this violence, animosity, fear, and exhilaration? This was
the question that the Nationalist Party deputies asked Mao and his comrades, and it is the
question that scholars must answer to understand the Cultural Revolution.

Determining the party’s complicity in the violence is central to coming to terms with the past.
The Cultural Revolution was more than a chain of spontaneous, grassroots outbursts of
violence. It was a state-sponsored, top-down campaign of terror that mobilised ideological
enthusiasm to consolidate power and eliminate its enemies. Without coming to terms with this
reality, any attempt at genuine reconciliation will be impossible, and power-abusing tendencies
will rear their ugly head again.

The Road Ahead

If China doesn’t confront its past, it will only repeat it. The global ascendance of China will
hinge, to a large extent, on how the country deals with its past. It is imperative that the CCP
abandon an approach to the past that is geared primarily towards maintaining stability and
control, and adopt one that is oriented toward the pursuit of truth and reconciliation.

If students can empathize with the struggles of their ancestors and see the role that the CCP
has played in the formation of modern China, they might gain a more sophisticated sense of
their past and where they are headed. By putting people’s stories within the context of larger
historical narratives, students can begin to see individual experiences of the past connecting to
broader forces.

In the face of such state-sponsored forgetting, the bravery of those who speak out, write, and
remember becomes vital. Their stories commemorate the power of the human spirit and
underscore the continuing quest for truth and justice.

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