For China, 2016 is a year of anniversaries. It’s been 95 years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), 50 years since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and 40 years since the death of Mao Zedong, Communist China’s founding father.

More than ever, the CCP is fighting for control over its historical narrative. This struggle is perhaps manifested most acutely in the treatment of Mao; the CCP continues to walk a tightrope of being unable to refute Mao’s legacy (given Mao’s role in legitimising the CCP), yet wanting to prevent the resurrection of his cult of personality status.

As long as the CCP continues to conveniently distort the truth about the extent of destruction enacted at the hands of Mao and silence scholarly inquiry, it risks giving ultra-nationalists license to monopolise the interpretation of Communist China’s history and glorify Mao’s legacy, including the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This would ultimately threaten the CCP's current mandate of maintaining social stability and developing a so-called ‘moderately prosperous society’.

Despite wishing to act as the final arbiter of its history, the CCP has never completely clarified what constitutes ‘accurate’ or ‘inaccurate’ interpretations of Mao’s legacy. ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ remains enshrined in China’s constitution. The famous 1981 Resolution on Party Historical Issues, released five years after Mao’s death, states that he ‘made gross mistakes during the “cultural revolution”, but, if we judge his activities as a whole… his merits are primary and his errors secondary’.

Speaking in December 2013 to mark Mao’s 120th birthday, President Xi Jinping remarked that simply ‘because leaders made mistakes, one cannot use these mistakes to completely negate their legacies, wipe out historical successes, and descend into the quagmire of historical nihilism’. 

Over the past few years, several neo-Maoist websites have attracted strong followings. The most popular of these, Utopia, is home to daily commentary from public figures extolling the virtues of Mao Zedong Thought. 

In April 2015, Bi Fujian, TV personality and former host of CCTV's annual Chinese New Year Gala, was secretly filmed mocking Mao in a sarcastic rendition of a Cultural Revolution-era song at a private dinner function. He was subsequently shamed and sacked for ‘serious violation of political discipline’.

On 2 May, a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution was staged in the iconic Great Hall of the People, where Chinese leaders deliver important addresses, political meetings are held, and foreign dignitaries are hosted as guests of the state. The concert featured a selection of 30 'red’ songs performed by girl group 56 Flowers. The songs included ‘Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman’, an ode to the power of Mao Zedong Thought, and were set against a backdrop of propagandistic imagery and slogans from the era.

Following public outrage at the celebration of the Cultural Revolution's ‘ten years of turmoil’, the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre issued a statement claiming its management was duped by an organisation fraudulently using the name of a CCP propaganda office to stage the performance. However, state media in fact actively promoted the concert in advance. Indeed, it would have been impossible for the performance to go ahead (especially at such a significant venue at such a politically sensitive time) without the express approval of relevant CCP organs.

This struggle over history extends beyond China’s shores and directly affects overseas Chinese communities, many of whom experienced the devastation of Mao’s policies first hand. In response to planned Mao tribute concerts at the Sydney and Melbourne Town Halls, almost 3000 people signed an online petition to stop it from going ahead. At a small media event held by the concert’s organisers on 25 May, several angry members of the Australian Chinese community turned up in protest. The performances have since been cancelled, with the City of Sydney citing ‘concerns regarding the potential for civil disturbance’.

While Xi has warned against society’s descent into ‘the quagmire of historical nihilism’, the CCP should perhaps be more concerned about extricating itself from the quagmire of neo-Maoism. Extensive measures are taken to silence advocates of democratic reform, but conservative voices could potentially become China’s most destabilising force. The CCP is currently ill-equipped to address this possibility.

Simone van Nieuwenhuizen is co-author of China and the New Maoists, available in Australia from 15 September.

Photo: Getty Images/VCG