Ask Mei

Charlottesville stirs awkward memories

Is China still grappling with its Cultural Revolution?

To many Chinese like myself who grew up during the relatively open and liberal era that followed China’s Cultural Revolution – and who have fond memories of spending part of our youth in America – the growing sense of racial tension and political polarisation in the “beautiful country” (as the US is called in Chinese) is disappointing and worrisome.

However, to those who hold anti-US and anti-Western views, the American woes are like a god-sent gift which is perceived to be weakening China’s economic rival and long-term strategic foe.

Following the recent turmoil in Charlottesville, an article titled “Study Report of America’s Cultural Revolution” went viral on China’s social media platforms. By proclaiming that “a spectacular Cultural Revolution has broken out in America”, it caught attention and triggered a slew of articles and comments in response. Many gloated at America’s social discord, including a long article penned by the self-proclaimed “leftist” (a pro Mao-style communist) Yin Guoming. Yin thanked “Comrade Trump” for smashing the myth of America as a beacon of freedom and democracy with his statement that most of America’s founding fathers were slave owners. He hopes that Trump turns out to be an American version of Khrushchev and that his “honesty” and “political incorrectness” will dispel the “lies” of American history and undermine the nation’s confidence in its history and its culture.

Most of the comments at the bottom of the article echoed this sentiment. Some asked: “How can the Westerners claim a moral high-ground when their ideology and prosperity were built on slavery and genocide (of the native American Indians and the aboriginals in today’s Australia and New Zealand)?” Others predicted gleefully that communism and Maoism would win the ideological war across the globe.

Interestingly, there seems to be no official comment on Charlottesville from the Chinese government. Although a few of the state media outlets reported on events there and cited the “Cultural Revolution” analogy, they refrained from gloating outright. For instance, the People’s Daily confined itself to expressing the hope that “America will be able to break out of this dangerous spiral of chaos”.

Although it’s hard to refute the allegations of slavery and genocide in American history, I don’t see its current instability as resembling Mao’s decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). First of all, the Cultural Revolution was a power struggle put in motion by a paranoid and manipulative dictator who enjoyed a cult-like following. Trump is not and never will be as powerful as Mao due to the constraints of the democratic system. Secondly, the turmoil in the US can never match the devastating destruction caused by China’s Cultural Revolution, during which millions of people were killed and many more were persecuted (mostly intellectuals and artists). Much of the country’s ancient relics and cultural heritages were destroyed too in a period in which a whole generation of young Chinese lost access to a proper education. Families were torn apart both physically and emotionally and the nation’s economy was brought to the brink of collapse.

I think the Chinese Communist Party understands the devastation that the Cultural Revolution wrought and hence actively discourages any revisiting of this dark period of its history.

Maybe that’s why the article “Study Report of America’s Cultural Revolution” was deleted from the internet a few days after it started going viral. Indeed, the Cultural Revolution remains sufficiently sensitive that last month the government even asked the Cambridge University Press to block online access to its articles discussing that topic (see WiC377).

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at askmei@weekinchina.com


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