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editorial

A tourist poses in front of a giant portrait of Mao Zedong at the gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing on May 16, 2016.Fred Dufour/AFP / Getty Images

It's understandable, if historically contemptible, that China prefers to ignore the 50th anniversary of the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

The Chinese Communist Party has found a way to survive in a constant state of denial and selective ignorance. It retains power in a controlled system where individual dissent is routinely punished in the name of collective forward progress. The present is defined according to the Party's needs and the future is perpetually malleable. This is the essence of one-party, authoritarian regimes, that they always get to dictate the terms of what is and will be in their own interests.

But the messiness of the past is a different matter. What's done can't be undone, only suppressed and ignored – and that is why the self-proclaimed heirs to Mao Zedong are looking the other way as the anniversary of all that torture and tumult slinks by so shamefully. China's leaders clearly have no interest in celebrating their connection and complicity with the murderous Red Guard purification program that saw a million people killed and the country torn apart.

Even to raise the issue is to burst the bubble of the progress narrative. How could anyone in China safely and rationally critique the bloody purges orchestrated by Mao and carried out by dutiful student militants with inhuman zeal? As proof of China's long-term refusal to learn from its darkest moments, the man who ordered his country's descent into ideological insanity is now revered as the patron figure of President's Xi Jinping's regime, providing a reassuring continuity to China's founding principles just as they're being eclipsed by the gratifications of the market economy.

For how long can a country that aspires to be great treat its history, and the abject suffering of its citizens, with such contempt?

At the heart of the Chinese Communist system, as its own experience 50 years ago revealed to the rest of the world, is a dark, dangerous and ever-available force of superiority and hatred that thrives in a system where beliefs go unquestioned and power is in the hands of a few.

"History always advances," said a contented commentator in Beijing's People's Daily this week, as if that were that. But of course this is untrue – history recurs, and a China that can't confront its demons may be doomed to face them again.