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Eric Margolis Headshot

The Cultural Revolution Still Haunts China

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Two major events in China are sure to shape the world's newest superpower: the sensational murder trial of Madame Gu Kailai, and the top secret leadership conclave at the seaside resort of Beidaihe.

Madame Gu, as widely reported, was charged with poisoning Neil Heywood, a British businessman, fixer and possibly her former lover. Gu is the wife of the recently disgraced powerful Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, who, until the scandal, appeared set to be elevated to a senior role in China's leadership. Bo was regarded -- and feared -- by many as a dangerous opportunist bent on reviving Maoism.

Gu's trial was the biggest sensation in China since the trial of Mao's shrewish, scheming wife Jiang Qing, leader of the notorious Gang of Four. Reviled as "the white-boned demon," she and her leftist allies were blamed for the ghastly Cultural Revolution.

Beidaihe, along with the lovely northern port of Dalian, are traditional summer venues for the pampered Communist Party leadership. This year's meeting is extremely important as it will likely determine the shape of China's next round of leaders at this fall's 18th party congress, a once-in-a-decade seismic event. President Hu Jintao will step down and is likely to be replaced by rising star Xi Jinping.

A peaceful, choreographed change is key to the Communist Party's hold on power.

The trial of Gu raised memories of the Cultural Revolution that still haunt China. In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong had been kicked upstairs by more pragmatic comrades after his calamitous Great Leap Forward starved to death some 30 million Chinese and wrecked the economy.

The aging revolutionary was determined to regain full power. He unleashed armies of credulous students known as Red Guards to tear down the government and purge the party. China's president, Liu Shaoqi, and senior leader Deng Xiaoping, were denounced as "capitalist roaders" and "bourgeois revisionists." Liu died in jail; Deng was sent to forced labor.

Mao declared war on all remnants of China's glorious past and any foreign influences. Mao's new revolution began, oddly, with posters at Beijing University, and Jiang Qing's attacks on "deviant" intellectuals, writers and playwrights. These obscure attacks were harbingers of the coming tempest.

At the time, hardly anyone could understand what was going on in China. Chaos and anarchy swept China as rival armies of Red Guards waving Mao's Little Red Book battled one another and publicly humiliated and assaulted former leaders and scholars. I was in China in 1975 and vividly recall the gangs of Red Guards rampaging, burning and smashing. Watching a great nation run amok was a terrifying experience. Mao's China looked like a vast concentration camp filled with demented inmates.

In one of history's worst acts of vandalism, much of China's glorious art and ancient temples were destroyed as remnants of "feudalism" by mobs of fanatical teenagers. China was virtually paralyzed from 1966-1976: the economy broke down, education ceased, millions starved or were thrown into grim labor camps. A failed coup against Mao in 1971 by Marshall Lin Biao furthered the chaos and tumult.

After a decade of civil strife and national madness, in 1976 the People's Liberation Army and centrist reformers like Deng Xioping and the dying Zhou Enlai managed to wrest power away from the aging Mao, who was showing increasing signs of dementia and paranoia, and broke the Gang of Four.

The arrest and isolation of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai suggests the party leaders feared he might have planned to ignite another wave of Maoism among China's youth. His failure to follow the party line was a major heresy.

The old adage about standing together or hanging separately surely applies to China. All its miraculous economic and social progress, and its rock-hard political stability since 1976 could be swept away by power struggles within the party leadership and challenges from the military.

Madame Gu's trial and the sacking of her ambitious husband will sharply remind the Communist brass that they must keep a united front or else China's ancient curse -- separatism, regionalism, warlordism -- could rise from the grave.

For Chinese, who have a good grasp of their turbulent history, instability is the greatest of all dangers.