At the New Yorker, "The Cost of the Cultural Revolution, Fifty Years Later":
In 1979, three years after the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping visited the United States. At a state banquet, he was seated near the actress Shirley MacLaine, who told Deng how impressed she had been on a trip to China some years earlier. She recalled her conversation with a scientist who said that he was grateful to Mao Zedong for removing him from his campus and sending him, as Mao did millions of other intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, to toil on a farm. Deng replied, “He was lying.”What a terrible country.
May 16th marks the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, when Chairman Mao launched China on a campaign to purify itself of saboteurs and apostates, to find the “representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various spheres of culture” and drive them out with “the telescope and microscope of Mao Zedong Thought.” By the time the Cultural Revolution sputtered to a halt, there were many ways to tally its effects: about two hundred million people in the countryside suffered from chronic malnutrition, because the economy had been crippled; up to twenty million people had been uprooted and sent to the countryside; and up to one and a half million had been executed or driven to suicide. The taint of foreign ideas, real or imagined, was often the basis for an accusation; libraries of foreign texts were destroyed, and the British embassy was burned. When Xi Zhongxun—the father of China’s current President, Xi Jinping—was dragged before a crowd, he was accused, among other things, of having gazed at West Berlin through binoculars during a visit to East Germany.
In examining the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, the most difficult measurement cannot be quantified so precisely: What effect did the Cultural Revolution have on China’s soul? This is still not a subject that can be openly debated, at least not easily. The Communist Party strictly constrains discussion of the period for fear that it will lead to a full-scale reëxamination of Mao’s legacy, and of the Party’s role in Chinese history. In March, in anticipation of the anniversary, an editorial in the Global Times, a Party tabloid, warned against “small groups” seeking to create “a totally chaotic misunderstanding of the cultural revolution.” The editorial reminded people that “discussions strictly should not depart from the party’s decided politics or thinking.”
Nonetheless, in recent years, individuals have tried to reckon with the history and their roles in it. In January, 2014, alumni of the Experimental Middle School of Beijing Normal University apologized to their former teachers for their part in a surge of violence in August, 1966, when Bian Zhongyun, the deputy principal, was beaten to death. But such gestures are rare, and outsiders often find it hard to understand why survivors of the Cultural Revolution are loath to revisit an experience that shaped their lives so profoundly. One explanation is that the events of that period were so convoluted that many people feel the dual burdens of being both perpetrators and victims. Earlier this year, Bao Pu, a book publisher raised in Beijing and now based in Hong Kong, said, “Everyone feels he was a victim. If you look at them, you wonder, What the fuck were you doing in that situation? It was everyone else’s fault? You can’t blame everything on Mao. He was responsible, he was the mastermind, but in order to reach that level of social destruction—an entire generation has to reflect.”
China today is in the midst of another political fever, in the form of an anti-corruption crackdown and a harsh stifling of dissenting views. But it should not be mistaken for a replay of the Cultural Revolution. Even with thousands under arrest, the scale of suffering is of a different order, and shorthand comparisons run the risk of relieving the Cultural Revolution of its full horror. There are tactical differences as well: instead of unleashing the population to attack the Party, as Mao did in his call to “bombard the headquarters,” Xi Jinping has swung in the direction of tighter control, seeking to fortify the Party and his own grip on power. He has reorganized the top leadership to put himself at the center, suffocated liberal thinking and the media, and, for the first time, pursued critics of his government even when they are living outside mainland China. In recent months, Chinese security services have abducted opponents from Thailand, Myanmar, and Hong Kong...
Still more, FWIW.