Tom Watkins: China’s Cultural Revolution turns 50

Tom Watkins: China’s Cultural Revolution turns 50
May 17, 2016 By Tom Watkins

“A revolution is not a dinner party, it is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” It was with these words the then leader of China, Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed the “Cutural Revolution” on his own people in 1966.

It was an epic, violent, internal, insurrection in China’s history. It stalled the fortunes of the country for a decade, creating chaos, even as hundreds of thousands, if not millions of his own people were killed and physically and psychologically wounded. It is a silent scar on the nation that still oozes to this day. It was a time when a nation went collectively mad.

The Cultural Revolution certainly reminds us of Mao’s proclamation that “Even the smallest spark can create a raging forest fire.” He was responsible for lighting China a blaze during this tumultuous era.

Aided by his closest sycophants, including his wife, Jiang Qing, and defense minister Lin Biao, Mao wrought havoc on the party leadership and his fellow Chinese citizens as a means of asserting his authority and to appeal to “the masses.”

Mao Zedong came to believe that the party leadership in China was moving too far in a “revisionist” direction, with an emphasis on knowledge/expertise rather than on communist ideological purity. The Cultural Revolution set out to change the direction of the nation.

The stated goal was to reinforce communism in China by removing any traces of capitalist, traditional and cultural elements from Chinese society. But by Mao imposing his Maoist orthodoxy within the party and on the nation, he created instead pure bedlam, chaos and destruction.

Yet, like much of Chinese internal bitterness, today’s communist leaders ignore and cover up this stain.

China Today
Like many young people in the ’60s during the Cultural Revolution, teenager Xi Jinping, now president of China suffered, his education interrupted for seven years when he was sent to the countryside. Part of the fifth generation of Chinese leaders, Xi was born in 1953 — and sent to Shaanxi province, a poor region in northwestern China as part of his Cultural Revolution “experience.”

Like Deng Xiaoping, the “paramount leader of China” in 1978 credited with opening the world to China after Mao’s death, Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was purged three times by Mao, serving as deputy prime minister from 1959 until 1962, when he fell out with Mao for the first time. The elder Xi is credited with the creation of the first Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen, which grew from a small fishing village near Hong Kong to a bustling super modern city and manufacturing center.

As a “Chinese princeling” and the son of revolutionary hero and former Mao Zedong comrade, Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping has become the first princeling to lead China.

President Xi was described in a 2011 Washington Post column as “pragmatic, serious, cautious, hard-working, down to earth and low-key” and “a problem-solver and a leader.” He has needed all these skills and more to manage and lead modern day China, maintain a mandate from heaven and not allow his country to slip back into the nightmare of the 60’s.

Power to the People
Like other leaders before him, China’s President Xi Jinping understands the biggest problem for himself and the Communist Party is to become divorced from the people. As president of a country that is home to one-fifth of all humanity, Xi currently presides over ethnic unrest, official corruption, environmental degradation, an aging society, unstable neighbors and a slowing economy. Certainly Xi’s hands are full of challenges.

President Xi is pulling the reins of power tighter than anyone since Mao, trying to jerk the country into yet another change paradigm in his quest for fuqiang, “wealth and power,” for his nation.

It remains to be seen whether Xi pulls a Mao in order to maintain power. I think not.
Chinese society is vastly different today than in the Mao era — the group-think psychosis of the turbulent ’60’s seems unfathomable today.

One Cultural Revolution in China was one too many.

As the civilized world reminds us about the Holocaust, we must “never forget” the 10-year reign of terror, the Cultural Revolution, that Mao unleashed on his Chinese people.

What happens in China, does not stay in China.

Tom Watkins serves on the University of Michigan Confucius Institute Board of Advisors and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation International Advisory Board. He is the former Michigan state superintendent of schools, president and CEO of the economic council of Palm Beach County, FL. Watkins has a lifelong interest in China and has worked for over three decades building educational, cultural and economic ties between our two countries. Read more by Watkins on China at the prestigious

Contact Tom Watkins at

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Keywords: Cultural Revolution


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The 60's set China back a hundred years. this shows us why the teachers are very worried about teaching. Back then a lot of them ... This was about maintaining control, not renewing something.

Jan 18, 2017 10:10 Report Abuse



The Cultural Revolution brought this country to the brink of starvation killing millions of young minds in the process. In short, it was a disaster of epic proportions.

Jun 10, 2016 17:26 Report Abuse



Ok, we seem to all agree that the 10 year cultural revolution set China back immensely so why the forced Mao worship?

May 18, 2016 12:37 Report Abuse



This man really made a history for Chinese Nation

May 17, 2016 17:37 Report Abuse



Uncle Xi, my hero! (f##king ballbag)

May 17, 2016 09:32 Report Abuse



where there's sycophants, there's psychopaths

May 17, 2016 05:29 Report Abuse



key word: "psychosis."

May 17, 2016 05:27 Report Abuse