Tania Branigan (2023)

It’s unusual to read a book that probably couldn’t have been written before or after it actually was: the political environment of China thawed just enough to give people confidence to speak to a foreign author about the events of the Cultural Revolution.

The horrors shine through, in the memories of the young Red Guards and their victims. But so too do the current sensitivities, not least in the rather farcical museums and monuments that can be found across China – but that can’t be visited, because the custodians race to close them up “for maintenance” as soon as a visitor arrives. It’s a different approach to that described in Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia, where museums are re-assigned to new curators who subtly change their message, but it reinforces the fears that authoritarian regimes have of their own histories and those who might actually remember them.

China has never had a public reckoning with the Cultural Revolution – and it doesn’t look that it will have one for a long time. The message of this book is that this hiding of the past continues to do damage to the present, not least because it provides a vague and unexamined fear of disorder that can be used to justify repression “in case it happens again”. But the fact is that it didn’t just “happen”: it was commanded, by a regime that’s the linear predecessor of the current leadership who seem to want to both disown it and levarage it for their own ends.

4/5. Finished Saturday 30 March, 2024.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)