Meet the Southampton Mathematician Livetweeting the Cultural Revolution

Jacob Saxton is as ordinary as they come. He is above average height, has a strong jawline, and wears thick-framed glasses, but yet, while there is nothing about his bearing that may make him stand out, he has undertaken something extraordinary. Under the handle @GPCR50 (Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution 50), this 25-year-old Southampton based mathematician is tweeting out the entire Cultural Revolution, day by day, as it happened exactly fifty years ago. In doing so, he is bringing to life an event that impacted millions of lives in China, but that is becoming lost to the annals of history.

“A few years ago I realised I didn’t know anything about China, so I picked up a few books. I read Roderick MacFaraquhar’s Mao’s Last Revolution, and I was just amazed that this had happened and that I had known nothing about it,” Saxton said.

He realised that the 50th anniversary was coming up, and decided he would memorialise it. He started reading voraciously, logging dates and events in a giant Excel spreadsheet, a process that still consumes a hefty portion of his free time now. He then condenses them into 140 character tweets, and places them into Tweet Deck. They are sent out each day between 6-7pm, when he is on his evening commute.

For example, on the 9th of February 1967, “Leaflets advertise a struggle session at the Beijing Workers’ Stadium tomorrow. Zhu De, father of the PLA is the planned target.” The next day, “Zhou Enlai gets wind of the plans to drag out Zhu De and informs Mao. If Zhu is to be criticized, Zhou pledges to suffer beside him.” On the 10th, we read, “Following Zhou Enlai’s intervention, the struggle session against Marshal Zhu De, which was planned for today, does not materialize.”

We know with hindsight what happened to Zhu De; he was hounded for years, dismissed from the Politburo and sent to exile in Guangzhou in 1969. But to watch the ebb and flow of the attacks on Zhu De is to understand the tension of the period more acutely, and the interplay of personalities fighting for survival at the top of the party.

The tweets can be macro, “In Nanjing, a mass rally is held to celebrate the takeover of Jiangsu’s Provincial Government. The PLA sends 4,000 troops to participate.” They can also be intimate windows into discrete moments, “Li Lishan, once the defacto leader of the CCP, receives a 7am phone call. ‘That’s it,’ he tells his wife. ‘They’re coming for me.’”

Through these tweets, we watch the Cultural Revolution not as a bounded event, that has already concluded, but as it was experienced moment-to-moment.

In May 1966, Mao stood before an expanded session of the Politburo and railed against the ‘representatives of the bourgeoisie that have infiltrated the party.’ His May 16th Notification, as the published documents from this meeting came to be known, stirred up the Chinese populace and launched the Cultural Revolution, a period of ten years of chaos where millions lost their lives, with countless imprisoned or forced from their homes to work in the countryside as ‘sent-down youth’.

The Party itself acknowledges the Cultural Revolution in the 1981 Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party as “responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic.”

Yet fifty years on, the Cultural Revolution goes largely unmarked in China. On the 50th anniversary of the May 16th Notification, state media was conspicuously silent. The following day two small editorials appeared, one buried on page 4 of the People’s Daily, which was titled “Learning lessons from history in order to better move forward.”

There is no official museum to the Cultural Revolution, and a private museum in Shantou, despite being run by a former deputy mayor, had it’s exhibitions closed last year and a wall of victims’ names covered by propaganda posters. In Chongqing, a graveyard for Red Guards killed in factional fighting was repeatedly shuttered by the local government, before eventually being opened to relatives of those buried within. It is still not open to the general public, as the anthropologist Everett Zhang noted in a piece for the China Journal.

Even those who try to apologise for their role in the violence, such as Song Binbin, who famously placed a Red Guard armband on Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square, find themselves criticised on all sides.

By tweeting out the events as they happened in real time, drip-by-drip, Saxton is pushing beyond abstract debates and knee-jerk controversies. To watch the CR unfurl before our eyes again is to see it contextualized as a lived experience.

@GPCR50 has not invented the concept of live-tweeting history. In 2014, former President George W. Bush's press secretary Ari Fleischer commemorated the 13th anniversary of 9/11 with "live" tweets as he experienced that day in 2001. The CIA controversially marked the fifth year anniversary of the Osama Bin Laden raid by live tweeting it. To date however, the most ambitious and successful of these accounts has been @realtimeWWII, which since 2011 has been tweeting the entirety of WW2. The account has 357k followers.

But yet Saxton’s project is unique for the scope. He intends to run it right through to 2026, exactly 50 years on from the arrest of the Gang of Four. “If I think about how many years are to come it’s daunting…” he said, “but it’s important. And, there’s so much that happens in the 70s that is so tied into what we consider to be the CR, that I don’t want to end the project early.”

It’s also unique because Jacob is not a Sinologist. He doesn’t speak Chinese, and he’s never been to China. Alwyn Collinson, who is behind @realtimeWWII is an Oxford graduate who studied history. Ari Fleischer played a key role in shaping the narrative after the 9/11 attacks. The CIA, obviously, is the CIA. Saxton on the other hand does mathematical logistics modelling. “The impetus is that this is hugely important and unique. People outside of China don’t really know anything about it. So I thought I’d at least try.”

His efforts aren’t going unrecognised. The account is followed by a whose-who of China watchers, academics and journalists. Dr. Patricia Thornton, associate professor of Chinese Politics at Oxford and tutor at Merton College, found his account after doing some retroactive tweeting of her own of the August 1966 “red month” in 2016. “I admire how he is able to cover so much ground in such short sentences,” she said, adding that his lack of a sinology background makes his tweets all the more remarkable. “I learn something new from @GPCR50 almost every day.”

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