Sunday, May 15, 2016

The murderous insanity that began fifty years ago

I lucked out with having the radio on when this program was aired.  It was a re-broadcast of a two-decades old interview with the Chinese activist Harry Wu. He died recently at age 79.  I listened to it.  I started tearing up.  Do not read the transcript there--listen to the interview and you, too, will get emotional.

The interview ends with Wu saying this:
My parents, my brother, they are still over there and many, many of my inmates, my friends they are over there. I cannot stop thinking about them. The nightmares always come back to me. I am lucky. I survive. I want to enjoy my life in a peaceful land. I'm a very normal person. I want to be loved. I want to love. But I cannot turn back on these people, these nameless, voiceless, faceless people. Forget means betraying. I cannot do that.
Chairman Mao was one of the worst humans ever in recent memory.  He killed his own people by the millions.  He starved to death tens of millions.  And crushed the spirits of many who lived. 
Fifty years ago, on May 16, Mao Zedong unleashed an attack aimed at smashing his own Communist Party apparatus from top to bottom, having concluded that it was going capitalist. “Bombard the headquarters!” he urged the masses in a famous People’s Daily article. Millions of young zealots responded, becoming Mao’s Red Guards, his fanatical foot-soldiers. Thus began China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a period of murderous insanity that ended only with Mao’s death a decade later, in 1976. 
One of Mao's crazy plans was to "rusticate" the Chinese youth.  The "cultural revolution" features in this essay, whose author, Sheng Yun, is the only child of parents who were sent to the countryside:
Once at a family dinner, my parents were reminiscing about their time among the farmers: six or seven years in my mother’s case, around two in my father’s. I had just read The Lost Generation: The Rustication of China’s Educated Youth (1968-80) by Michel Bonnin. I interrupted: ‘You were sent to the countryside because there were too many of you in the city, and there weren’t enough jobs for you.’ I still remember the expression of shock, disappointment and hurt on their faces.
How do people not get angry at such things?  Am I the only person walking around with a great deal of corked-up anger?  Why don't people yell and scream "fuck you" at Mao's giant portrait at Tianamen Square?  Oh, yeah, that's right--they can't!

The author narrates a part of the family history:
My maternal grandfather was a literary critic and actor. In the 1930s and 1940s he went underground as a member of the Communist Party, writing in support of the cause. He had seen the corruption of the Kuomintang regime, and believed that Mao was the saviour of the Chinese people. In 1954, the famous poet Hu Feng wrote a 300,000-word letter to the Bureau of the Central Committee, describing the difficulties writers faced. Mao saw this as defiance on the part of the intellectuals, and a literary argument rapidly turned into a political purge. More than two thousand people were punished, 78 of whom were described as members of the Hu Feng Counter-Revolution Group, including my grandfather. He was sent to Jia Bian Gou (the labour camp in Wang Bing’s 2010 film, The Ditch), located in the remote province of Gansu. Jia Bian Gou, sometimes called the Chinese Gulag, was probably the worst of the labour camps for dissidents. While he was not close to Hu Feng, and had only met him a few times, he had remained an admirer. 
After 25 years in the Chinese Gulag, the grandfather returned home.  
His mother opened the door to a hump-backed, pigeon-chested old man whom she failed for a moment to recognise as the handsome young man she’d last seen in the 1950s.
Seriously, how come people aren't angrily shouting "fuck you" and defacing Mao's portrait?  Oh, yeah, that's right--they can't!  Especially when the current leader embraces Mao's radical legacy:
China’s current leader, Mr. Xi, will not stand to see Mao denigrated, even though his own father, Xi Zhongxun, one of Mao’s top lieutenants, was purged in the Cultural Revolution and a half-sister killed herself. Mr. Xi himself was one of 18 million urban youths banished to the countryside to learn from the peasants.
He has declared that it is just as unacceptable to negate Mao’s 30 years in power as it is to speak critically of the 30 years that followed under Deng. He has set side-by-side, on equal footing, a period marked by spasms of mass killing and destruction and an overwhelmingly peaceful era that saw the greatest economic progress in human history.
Xi is on a mission:
Mr. Xi’s “China Dream” depends to a large degree on silence, secrecy and propaganda about the Cultural Revolution, which traumatized some 100 million Chinese. Authorities won’t allow open discussion of that era for fear that it would discredit Mao and undermine the party’s legitimacy.
That Wall Street Journal report ends on this note:
The Cultural Revolution lives on.

How awful!


Ramesh said...

There was perhaps no greater human tragedy of the 20th century than the Cultural Revolution. As bad as the Second World War. Mao was a clear nut case.

But the way Deng handled Mao's legacy immediately after his death was a masterpiece of political brilliance. If he had denounced Mao (as for example Khrushchev did after Stalin), China , at that time, would have seen another civil war. Instead, he neatly deflected the problem by saying Mao was 70% right, but 30% wrong. China's policy of the future was then completely in the opposite direction to Mao. Do a few symbolic things like hanging Mao's portrait at Tiananmen, pay obeisance to Mao Zedong Thought and do whatever was best for China. Brilliant.

Over time, Mao's legacy will be rightly understood in China for its awfulness. Even now, to paint Mao as the tyrant he was will unleash bloodshed in China. Why go there ? Let a generation or two pass.

Xi Jinping's actions are a bit different. He is no more an admirer of the Cultural Revolution than Deng was. This is pure politics. There is a power struggle going on in China and all these are chess moves in the political game. The average Chinese cares two hoots for these. Mr Li and Mrs Zhang are simply going about trying to make a better life.

Sriram Khé said...

How terrible that leaders do not address the truth and only play politics, right? That is the story everywhere--China, the US, India, ... While the "damage" done varies, the MO is no different. It is almost as if the more benign leaders operate under the "spirit is willing, flesh is weak" approach!

It is even worse that most people--whether in China, the US, India, or anywhere--do not care as long as their individual lives are getting better.

We have students from China even in our small little campus. A few years ago, I asked one of them what she thought about the Tianamen incidents. She had no idea what I was talking about. I then briefed her about it and encouraged her to find out more from the internet. The successful and efficient information scrubbing campaign in China means that in a couple of generations, Mao's atrocities could also be erased from the public consciousness and he could easily be remembered as the ultimate hero :(

Sriram Khé said...

Hey, I recall you writing at one point that you read the NY Times ... in case you missed this in today's paper:
Voices From China’s Cultural Revolution

Ramesh said...

Yes, I read the NYT every day, thanks to the wonders of the internet. I did see that article. The BBC is also featuring items about the Cultural revolution too.

Sriram Khé said...

The friend passed along to me an essay in the NYRB by one of my favorite living polymaths. In the essay, he referred to another essay that was published 25 years ago in the NYRB

So, of course, I googled and read that piece from 25 years ago, by the physicist and political dissident Fang Lizhi. Fang wrote there--and keep in mind that this was 25 years ago:
"about once each decade, the true face of history is thoroughly erased from the memory of Chinese society. This is the objective of the Chinese Communist policy of “Forgetting History.” In an effort to coerce all of society into a continuing forgetfulness, the policy requires that any detail of history that is not in the interests of the Chinese Communists cannot be expressed in any speech, book, document, or other medium."
Fang predicted that Tiananmen would become pretty much unknown in China, and it has ... :(
Fang also writes there:
"The Communists’ nefarious record of human rights violations is not only banned from memory and discussion inside China, but has also been largely overlooked by the rest of the world, which never condemned its repression with the urgency and rigor that would have been appropriate."

Read that entire essay ... again, remarkable that it is from 1990:

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