This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) (1966–76), a political and cultural watershed for China. Chinese rock star and pop culture icon Cui Jian spoke for many when he said that the Cultural Revolution is still not finished as long as Mao’s portrait continues to loom over Tiananmen Square (Hong Kong Economic Journal, February 12, 2015; VOA Chinese, February 9, 2014). Though China has undergone a massive economic and social transformation since the Cultural Revolution, recent developments are leading intellectuals and even some liberal-minded Chinese officials to reflect on whether it is possible for the Cultural Revolution to return in some form.
Even Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elders are chiming in. Last December, Yu Youjun, a former governor of Shanxi Province and party secretary of the Ministry of Culture argued that “the soil for the Cultural Revolution is still fertile, especially when the people have no reasonable and profound knowledge of it.” He added: “It may partially recur, under certain historical conditions” (South China Morning Post, December 15, 2015; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], December 14, 2015). His comments stem, in part, from the fact that China’s leaders are exerting an ever-greater influence in people’s cultural and spiritual lives. These efforts to close the Chinese mind are also linked to a feverish personality cult that is being erected around President Xi Jinping.
Reviving and Re-Envisioning Culture
Modern Chinese authoritarian figures from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping have seen “culture” as a means to impose the proverbial yiyantang (一言堂) or “one-voice chamber” particularly on the nation’s intelligentsia and civil society. Silencing other voices means ensuring that a “monoculture” holds sway. It was not accidental that during the GPCR, untold quantities of rare and foreign books, as well as objets d’art, were burnt and destroyed. Not only disgraced cadres but world-renowned men of letters, such as the great novelist Lao Shi, committed suicide.
Since taking power three years ago, President and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi has begun a campaign to “revive Chinese culture.” Inherent in Xi’s best-known mantra—the “Chinese dream”—is the concept of “the great renaissance of the Chinese people.” The cultural revival plays a big role in this super-nationalistic goal of a spectacular rebirth of Chinese values and worldviews (People’s Daily, September 25, 2014). Visiting the shrine of Confucius in Qufu, Shandong Province, Xi explicitly linked culture and national power, noting that “The strength of a country and a people is underpinned by a vigorous culture,” and “the prerequisite of the great renaissance of the Chinese people requires the development and prosperity of Chinese culture” (Xinhua, November 26, 2013).
For Xi and his colleagues working in the Ministry of Culture and the CCP Propaganda Department, culture serves the utilitarian and politically expedient purpose of boosting the people’s faith in “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—and CCP rule. As Xi has reiterated, “the most critical core of a country’s comprehensive strength is cultural soft power.” “We must firm up our self-confidence in the theory, path and institutions [of Chinese-style socialism],” he indicated. “Fundamentally, we also need to have cultural self-confidence” (Xinhua, June 25, 2015; People’s Daily, November 15, 2014). Highlighting “cultural self-confidence,” of course, presupposes that unwholesome, vulgar, and particularly Westernized culture—what Chairman Mao dismissed as “poisonous weeds”—can have no place in socialist China.
Partly to stoke the flames of nationalism and partly to justify Beijing’s rejection of Western or universal values, Xi has cast himself out as an avid champion of traditional Chinese culture. He said in a 2014 Politburo meeting that “nurturing and developing core socialist values must be anchored upon superior traditional Chinese culture.” “Giving up traditions and losing our foundations are equivalent to cutting off our spiritual lifeblood,” the supreme leader added (Xinhua, February 26, 2014). Xi’s emphasis on purifying culture has a direct impact on the party-state apparatus’s effort to banish so-called Western thoughts and ideology from campuses.
While it would be an exaggeration to say that the leadership wants to reinstate the Red Guards, Xi has, compared to former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, paid more attention to saturating the “battleground” of higher education with orthodox ideals. Within a year of his ascent to power, Xi approved the notorious Document No. 9, which forbids college teachers from discussing seven taboo areas in class, including Western democratic ideas, freedom of the media, civil society and independence of the judiciary (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], May 9, 2014; BBC Chinese, August 19, 2013). Ultra-conservative Minister of Culture Yuan Guiren added last year that Party and educational authorities would “definitely not allow views and opinions that attack and libel party leaders or that smear socialism to appear in the classroom” (Xinhua, January 29, 2015; Ming Pao, January 31, 2015). While the Cultural Revolution-era practice of the “rustication” of high-school and college students was abolished in the late 1970s, individual colleges nationwide have in the past few years encouraged students to spend summer and winter vacations in the countryside to get close to the peasants and learn socialist values (Hainan Daily, November 5, 2015; Beijing Youth Daily, March 27, 2015).
Last year, the General Office of the Central Leading Group on Cyberspace Affairs (CLGCA) and the Communist Youth League raised eyebrows when they announced plans to recruit nationwide 10.5 million “Youth Volunteers for Internet Civilization.” Each major university was assigned quotas of several thousand such volunteers whose job is to ensure that politically incorrect and “Westernized” materials are banished from the Internet and the social media (South China Morning Post, April 7, 2015; BBC Chinese, April 7, 2015). CLGCA Secretary-General Lu Wei, who is also a Deputy Director of the Propaganda Department, called upon the volunteers to build up “self-confidence in the theory, path and institutions of socialism.” Lu, who is regarded as one of President Xi’s protégés, specifically instructed the young censors and monitors to “boldly struggle against cacophonous noises as well as evil trends and spirits on the Internet” (Xinhua, March 4, 2015; China Youth Daily, March 3, 2015). As Xi likes to say, the building up of spiritual civilization “must start with children and schools.” “We must ensure that the seeds of our core value systems sprout and grow in the hearts of youths” (Xinhua, February 28, 2015).
Creating a Chinese Spiritual Civilization
Other “foreign” influences are now in the party’s crosshairs. The Xi administration is also trying to render alien creeds such as Christianity more compatible with Chinese values. This seems to be behind the much harsher tactics that Beijing has employed since 2014 against both official and house churches in Zhejiang and other provinces. The CCP leadership, who sees Christianity as an example of the “collusion” between destabilizing domestic elements and foreign anti-China forces, wants to promote a kind of “counter-infiltration” by injecting Chinese culture into the activities of fast-growing Christian congregations (China Christian Net [Beijing], November 23, 2015). As one Guangdong-based house church activist put it: “President Xi is a keen promoter of Chinese culture.” “He wants to change the nature of the Christian church by introducing elements of Chinese civilization and the Chinese way of doing things.” 
It is true that the CCP has, since the 1950s, put pressure on Christian churches to submit themselves to the leadership and control of the state-sponsored Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.  Yet the main purpose of the so-called lianghui (or “the two official Protestant organizations”) is to ensure that Christian activities will not undermine the authority of the party-state apparatus. Except during the Cultural Revolution, “official” churches—as distinguished by house churches, which refuse to be ruled by the lianghui —have not been directly subjected to the party’s ideological or doctrinal intervention. The aggressive Sinicization of Christianity, which started in 2013, is evidenced by the new policy of the so-called wujin (五进; literally “five penetrations” or “five introductions”) and wuhua (五化; literally “five transformations”), which was initiated in Zhejiang Province. Xi, who was Party Secretary of Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007, apparently wanted to start this experiment in a region which has centuries of interaction with Christian organizations in the West (Initium.com [Hong Kong], September 1, 2015; Christiantoday.com [London], August 14, 2014). Wujin consists of the following: “Policies, laws and regulation [of the party-state] must be introduced into churches; health and medical treatment should be introduced into churches; the culture of popular science should go inside churches; [the concept of] supporting people in need should be introduced to churches” and “[the idea of] the construction of harmony must go inside churches.” Wuhua includes “the localization of churches: the regularization of the management of churches; the bendihua [本地化; indigenization] of theology; rendering transparent the finances of churches and rendering church doctrines shiying [‘compatible’]” (VOA Chinese, November 27, 2015; Radio Free Asia, July 31, 2015).
The wording of the new regulations seems loaded. For example, the promotion of “popular science” presupposes that churches are spreading “unscientific” creeds or even cults. The concept of “harmony” has since the days of the ex-president Hu been interpreted as values that are in sync with CCP doctrines and the party’s ideals about social stability. The wuhua has even more far-reaching consequences for the development of Christianity in China. “Localizing and indigenizing” church doctrines and activities means they should be rendered compatible with the values—including both traditional Chinese norms and socialism with Chinese characteristics—that the Xi leadership is ferociously spreading in Chinese society.
During the Cultural Revolution, churches, temples, monasteries and religious monuments all over China suffered various degrees of damage. Since Xi took over three years ago, restrictions on the religious activities of Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists in Xinjiang and Tibet have been tightened. Even the more populous eastern provinces have seen crackdowns. In Zhejiang alone, some 1,200 crosses have been removed from both officially recognized and unsanctioned churches, even as thousands of Christian protesters have been beaten up by police or put under 24-hour surveillance (Radio Free Asia, January 7; Hongkongfp.com, July 27, 2015).
The drastic diminution of the public space of intellectuals, NGOs and religious organizations in China lends credence to the views of the recently deceased Du Runsheng about the Cultural Revolution. An acclaimed reformer whose disciples once included Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, Du had this to say about the GPCR and similar ideological campaigns waged by Mao: “Without independent thinking, one billion brains are equivalent to just one brain. Mistakes made [by one person] are duplicated by everybody. We must take heed from these horrendous lessons of history” (Financial Times Chinese, November 5, 2015; Finance.sina, November 4, 2015).
Xi’s Cult of Personality
A personality cult around Xi is being feverishly constructed as the ultra-ambitious leader arrogates more and more power to himself (China Brief, May 5, 2015). Since late 2015, state media has given Xi the title of “core of the CCP leadership.”  In a ritual reminiscent of the Maoist era, senior cadres repeatedly declared their fealty to the 62-year-old princeling. Since last December, the party bosses of Tianjin, Sichuan, Anhui, Hubei, Guangxi, and Inner Mongolia have pledged unquestioned loyalty to “General Secretary Xi Jinping as the core” of the CCP leadership (Apple Daily, February 1; Phoenix TV, January 31).
Accompanying Xi’s consolidation of power, his influence over the cultural, spiritual and personal lives of his countrymen has greatly expanded. Unlike his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who were products of compromise—technocrats with limited power—Xi has the political capital to take center stage in way no leader has in a generation. Given these developments, the possibility cannot be ruled out that Xi might, in the footsteps of Mao, unleash an ideological movement somewhat akin to the Cultural Revolution so as to impose uniformity of thinking and further consolidate his power.
Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression?,” which is available for purchase now.
1. Author’s interview with house church activist, January 5, 2016.
2. For a discussion of the role of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council, see, for example, the official website of the lianghui, https://www.ccctspm.org/.
3. While ex-president Jiang was widely recognized as the “core of the Third-Generation Leadership,” former president Hu never gained a similar status.