FOR SEVERAL big reasons it is misleading, even morally indecent, when commentators assert that China is embarking on a new Cultural Revolution. It is true that the Communist Party is today more visible and assertive than at any time since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. After Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012, he unblushingly re-emphasised the party’s authority over everything from the machinery of state and the armed forces to the judiciary, universities and news media.
It is also true that the rich and famous are under harsher scrutiny than they have known for decades. Tycoons and film stars have received painful reminders that they enjoy their success at the party’s pleasure. Some have lost fortunes or seen careers ended for defying China’s leaders, or for provoking public opinion with displays of swaggering privilege. Others have hastened to donate money and time to patriotic causes. New rules ban effeminate actors from television and curb how many hours youngsters spend on video games. State power is now invested in one man, Mr Xi, in a way not seen since the Mao era. Whether issuing textbooks in Xi Jinping Thought to six-year-old children or using smartphone apps to ensure that officials study Mr Xi’s wisdom, the leader’s sternly paternal presence is felt in every corner of life.
Yet this is not a return of the Cultural Revolution. Most simply, between 1966 and 1976 Mao and his inner circle unleashed such horrors on China that it dishonours their victims to take that decade’s name in vain. Scholars outside China, drawing on often-secret official reports from the 1980s, estimate that 1.6m died, with the lives of many millions more ruined. Much attention has been paid to the youngest Red Guards: Mao-revering students or youths who persecuted everyone from ex-landlords to intellectuals and artists, religious believers and, not least, officials accused of being reactionary. But more casualties died in fighting between rival, adult Red Guard factions or with army units. The violence at times resembled a civil war, set in motion after Mao came to doubt the loyalty and revolutionary fervour of the ruling establishment. In contrast, Mr Xi and his inner circle are iron-fisted party-builders, not friends to rebels. They have purged internal rivals, dissenters and the corrupt. The party is now attacking what it deems the excesses of capitalism. The goal is stability and conformity, with all China marching in lockstep towards national greatness.
Those are large reasons to avoid miscasting Mr Xi as a second Mao. But there are myriad smaller ones, too. By way of a case study, consider an ongoing campaign against “superstitious” ways of mourning the dead, specifically by burning imitation banknotes and paper models of goods that loved-ones might need in the afterlife. In addition to funeral offerings, goods are burned for the dead at various annual holidays. One coming soon is Hanyi Jie, or the Winter Clothing Festival, when paper replicas of warm clothes may be seen burning on city pavements or in village courtyards. In August nationwide debate was sparked by news reports that Shanxi, a northern province, had drafted rules banning the making or selling of funeral supplies, such as paper models of people, horses and houses; or imitation money. This was not the first such online uproar. Other provinces, cities and counties have tried to stop or restrict the burning of paper offerings several times. Officials call the practice superstitious, a source of air pollution, a fire hazard and extravagant, scolding citizens to spend money on caring for the old, not when burying them.
China’s best-known paper funeral-goods come from one place. Mibeizhuang, an unlovely village in Hebei province 120km south of Beijing, was famed for silk flowers as far back the Qing dynasty. Locals boast that wreaths at Mao’s funeral came from Mibeizhuang. The village became a nationwide hub for funeral-goods when market reforms began in the 1980s. When Chaguan visited on a recent weekday, shopkeepers had bundles of paper suits and fur-collared coats ready for Hanyi Jie. A group of four men, funeral organisers from Wu’an, a rural town 400km to the south-west, loaded a small truck with cardboard models of trees covered in gold coins, food-stuffed fridges, televisions and pink, colonnaded mansions. A set of such models sells for less than 50 yuan ($7.76).
For centuries in China, honouring the dead lay at the heart of codes of virtuous behaviour. In imperial times, children studied models of filial piety including Dong Yong, a man so poor that he sold himself into servitude to bury his father properly. During the Cultural Revolution, ancestral and clan temples were ransacked, while family altars in Chinese homes were smashed by Red Guards or hidden for safety by their owners. When victims of Maoist violence were burned or buried without ceremony, the lack of proper rites was an extra stab of agony for grieving families.
The party will not admit it, but Mao traumatised China
Today, once-cherished customs have a markedly weaker grip. Asked whether customers believe that burned funeral-goods reach relatives in the afterlife, traders in Mibeizhuang are incredulous. “What day and age is this? It is just a tradition,” says one. A third-generation seller of paper offerings scoffs: “I don’t even believe in it. Spending money on this stuff is like throwing it away.”
The traders have watched injunctions against their industry tightening for years, especially in cities. They are cynical, saying that officials who oppose burning funeral-goods will sneak home to burn paper models for their own parents. But they are resigned to the possibility that their trade may end one day. “We set off firecrackers for thousands of years. Now it is not allowed and has stopped,” explains one, calling modern-day Chinese “obedient”.
It is hard to start new rows about feudal superstition, precisely because the Cultural Revolution tore up so many roots that tied Chinese to the past. Today’s China is bossy, socially conservative and relentlessly controlling. Its rise as an authoritarian giant is disruptive enough without mistaking it for Maoist fanaticism.■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “How Xi’s China differs from Mao’s”