After leaving China for America two decades ago, my father only returned to his homeland once. I had turned 18, and I think he wanted to show me something of his youth, of which he spoke little. In the dusty village where he grew up, we met an endless stream of old men who wanted to see the village’s prodigal son. Gifts were offered and extravagant greetings were swapped. Then, after each visitor had departed, my father would tell me, matter-of-factly, what they did to him during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
The harmless-looking retired cadre, now an amiable old man who pinched my cheeks, had been the village party secretary who forced my father to perform manual labour — running after cows with a basket to pick up the droppings — because, as the son of a landlord, he could not be trusted with an education. The local businessman, now on his second wife and third Audi, had belonged to a gang of high school children who beat him for being descended from counter-revolutionaries.
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Some of my father’s tormentors were blood relatives, who were especially keen to display their revolutionary credentials through violence, a situation that was sadly not uncommon: it was rumoured that Bo Xilai, who nearly supplanted Xi Jinping before being imprisoned, had broken his own father’s ribs as a Red Guard. Only the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 saved my father, who took the university entrance examinations a few years later, and never looked back.
Since the beginning of — shall we call it our 2020 cultural moment? — much ink has been spilled on whether there are similarities between the current protests-cum-riots and China’s Cultural Revolution. Even though some of its cheerleaders openly make the comparison, most commentators dismiss the idea, including UnHerd‘s Daniel Kalder.
To my father, and indeed to many of his contemporaries, the answer is clear. They had lived through it, and although they cannot put their finger on the why, they can feel a certain febrility in the air which reminded them of the events of half a century ago. But with their accented English and unfashionable politics (few, for some reason, are especially well-disposed toward the western Left), they have been largely excluded from the conversation. Or they could be biased, as western Marxist academics used to say of the testimonies of eastern European refugees who had been in Communist prisons.
As they say, history rhymes but does not repeat itself. There are a few notable differences between the Cultural Revolution and today’s protest movement. For one thing, the levers of political power in the US and the UK are still in the hands of conservatives, and President Trump hasn’t been shy in using the might of the American state against the protestors.
But no historical analogy is ever perfect, and to seek exactitude over verisimilitude is to miss the point. There are differences, yes, but when it comes to fundamentals, the two moments have much in common.
For instance, the Red Guards of 1968 often came from privileged backgrounds. The first groups emerged from the elite high schools and universities in Beijing and belonged to the generation that had been born immediately after the Communist takeover in 1949. Raised on stories of revolutionary heroism and bitterly disappointed at the fact they had missed their chance to display their Red credentials.
Hence, when Mao Zedong, for reasons of internecine party warfare, decided to claim — absurdly — that the Communist Party was filled with bourgeois counter-revolutionaries, the young students saw their chance to achieve revolutionary greatness. The Red Guards thus went out, seeking to root out imaginary class enemies from within.
Similarly, today’s revolutionary vanguard is also made up of young, well-educated people, a disproportionate number hailing from elite educational institutions and working within elite professions. They grew up at a time of unprecedented progress in race relations, but it meant the main action was already over when they were coming of age.
Thus, the idea that elite Anglo-American institutions are filled with closeted racists, absurd though it is to anyone who has worked in them, became an article of faith overnight. Whether it is in newsrooms, universities or progressive advocacy groups, the hunt for secret racists gives these would-be Selma marchers a sense of purpose.
Then as now, the initial response from the establishment was largely positive. After all, the cause they were asked to endorse was a worthy one, and any excesses could be dismissed as unrepresentative youthful zeal. Were they not simply seeking a better country, a better world? But the initial indulgence would soon backfire, as the movement spiralled outside of their control. Mobs have a logic of their own, and soon the legacy elites found they could no longer exert any control over the crowds they had cheered on.
Eventually, the movement’s slogans make their way downstream to non-elite institutions and popular discourse. In due course, no entity, however remote from the issue at hand, could refuse to make public statements in support of the movement. In China, no book, be it about astronomy or sewing patterns, could fail to contain an introduction with fulsome praise for Chairman Mao, complete with quotations from his collected works. Similarly, today businesses selling anything from teabags to maths degrees feel the need to bend the metaphorical knee to the protesters.
The destruction of the old elite naturally creates opportunities for new ones. Indeed sometimes, the young would-be elites don’t even bother to hide their aims in ousting the old guard. At the Poetry Foundation, which sits on a pot of $250 million, the leadership was overthrown by a group of poets and assorted hangers-on who, in an open letter, called for the redistribution of the endowment to “those whose labor amassed those funds”, namely themselves. In China, meanwhile, Red Guards eventually took over the whole government, kicked out officials from their offices and put themselves in charge.
And there is of course the blatant denial of reality, the constant gaslighting which almost seems designed to ferret out people with any sanity left. In the midst of a global pandemic, thousands of epidemiologists and health scientists signed an open letter claiming that protesting took precedence over disease control. Even there lies a parallel: during the Cultural Revolution, marauding Red Guards created a cerebrospinal meningitis pandemic which killed 160,000 people. Then as now, making revolution trumped public health.
But the Cultural Revolution’s most enduring legacy in China was not the Year Zero-style iconoclasm, nor the systematic persecution of millions of people, but the destruction of the bonds of organic trust which hold together a society. Children denounced their parents, students their teachers, classmates each other. Chinese people today are wont to ascribe their low-trust society to the events of the 1960s, an interpretation with empirical backing.
In America, students aren’t beating their teachers to death yet, as they did in 1960s China. But university students have for some time been cancelling professors who refuse to toe the line on BLM. In high schools, students have set up social media accounts dedicated to exposing classmates guilty of wrong-think. In the casual words of Mx Anamika Arya, a 16-year old leading one such effort, “I don’t want people like that to keep getting jobs”.
On Twitter, Skai Jackson, a child actress with half a million followers, has been doxing teenagers in order to pressure universities to rescind their university admission offers for the same reasons. Meanwhile, on TikTok, Zoomers’ favourite social media platform, users have been posting videos of their unwoke parents, complete with teary denunciations.
Of course, the current folly might well end. People might come to their senses and realise that we live in the least racist society there has ever been, that the way to prevent another George Floyd killing is through reform of qualified immunity, not mindless destruction, and that racism is an indelible by-product of human frailty.
There may still be cause for optimism, eventually. The Red Guards were eventually liquidated and sent down to the countryside for manual labour, their precious university spots taken by worker-peasant-soldier students with better proletarian credentials. The Cultural Revolution ended up lasting for a mere decade and was followed by show trials and lustration of the ringleaders. All revolutions burn out eventually, and the revolutionaries themselves become victims of their own fervour — and with any luck we will see the same thing happen with America’s own cultural revolution.