A Successful Cultural Revolution – In Praise of China

mao cultural revolution

Mao’s Cultural Revolution

What Makes A Successful Cultural Revolution?

A revolution is not a dinner party or writing an essay or painting a picture or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another. – Mao “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” (March 1927), Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 28.

There’s a downside to every revolution. Ask any French ducal family. Do we today regret the passing of the French nobility, or mourn the deaths of that oppressive class of professional parasites? Of course not. We celebrate its success.

Our attention has for so long been drawn to the downside of the Cultural Revolution that we have not attended to its successes. Perhaps that’s because we’ve lost sight of its goals.

If the goals were vast enough, the motives sufficiently noble, and their accomplishment sufficiently obvious…might we not count it a success? Let’s try, shall we?

When the CCP took control of China it appointed cadres to replace the corrupt, oppressive officials from the previous regime. But in less than 20 years those same idealistic cadres were as corrupt and oppressive as their forerunners. Mao’s hard-won revolution would be for naught unless he could break this ancient pattern. But how?

Emperors had inveighed against the corruption and oppression of their own officals since ancient times but the pattern persisted, supported by weaknesses in Confucianism and destroying  dynasties like a hereditary cancer. Mao had exhorted the Party to eradicate the disease to no avail.

His solution to this ancient problem was characteristically big and bold: if you cannot change the officials, change the Chinese people. Teach the people to stand up to their government overlords (as he had done to his harsh father). to a people steeped for millennia in Confucian obedience these were culturally unthinkable thoughts. Getting them to think of themselves and, more importantly, act in a new way would require a huge shock to the entire Han Chinese civilization and every member of it.

The rest, as they say, is history. There was ‘purer than thou’ ideological squabbling, enough injustices to satisfy everyone, and one avoidable disaster (famine) along the way. But much of made the headlines was elite show-business indulged in by university students and senior Government officials.

At the grass roots the Cultural Revolution was going to plan: common villagers (then 78% of Chinese) were taking matters into their own hands: holding collective heart-to-hearts with their former cadre-overlords and, armed and authorized with Mao’s genuinely popular Little Red Book, asserting their democratic rights for the first time in 2,200 years. For a charming memoir of village life I urge everyone to read The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in A Chinese Village.

Today their sons and daughters – like children of 60s feminists – assert their rights loudly and proudly. China’s white-hot social media and even its harmony-at-all-costs mainstream media shine a cauterizing light on official cancers. Soon all officials and their families’ assets  will be public information. A man so upright that Lee Kwan Yew called him “the Chinese Mandela” is running the country. The Taiwanese trust Mr. Xi much more than their own, recently-elected President.

Looking back from today’s heady heights you’d have to say that in this regard the Cultural Revolution succeeded. After thousands of years marked by feudal meekness, Mao instilled in the Chinese people a drive to regularly speak out against oppression and corruption and they’ve been exercising that mandate more vigorously every day. After restoring their independence he gave them something they’d never dreamed of: freedom. Mao’s ‘one-third bad’ may have been very bad. But his ‘two-thirds good’ was very, very good indeed.

Given the importance Western media place on free speech, don’t you wonder why they’re not standing up and cheering the results of the Cultural Revolution?

The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. OUP.

“Self-reliance” was the slogan that guided China’s Cultural Revolution economy, reflecting both China’s isolation as a nation and Maoist desires to substitute abundant human labor for scarce capital as a strategy for economic development. China’s economy fared better than post-Mao reformers admitted, but it did not conform to typical developmental patterns; Chinese had low incomes but much higher literacy and life expectancy than such poverty usually suggests. China’s self-reliance joined an ideological Puritanism to restrict individual consumption for the sake of public investment. The Cultural Revolution initially disrupted the economy. But order returned to China’s cities after 1968, sending millions of Red Guards to work in the countryside, still home to 80 percent of the population. Although the economy grew significantly, the gap between city and countryside remained problematic. The Cultural Revolution was a last hurrah for distinctively Maoist economic initiatives. Yet Maoist investment in infrastructure and human capital provided an indispensible base for China’s subsequent economic opening to the outside world.

 Poverty and economic growth

China was poor; the per capita income in 1978 was $859 in 2010 dollars. Yet it was relatively egalitarian. The revolution had diminished differences in wealth by eliminating the classes that lived most extravagantly. Rural landlords had been dispossessed through land reform. The extended lineage organizations that sustained their power were vastly weakened. Private capitalists lost control over their assets in a 1956 nationalization of property, although the state continued to pay off bonds issued in exchange.

[Amazon: ]

The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village by Dongping Han

Monthly Review: “The Unknown Cultural Revolution challenges the established narrative of China’s Cultural Revolution, which assumes that this period of great social upheaval led to economic disaster, the persecution of intellectuals, and senseless violence. Dongping Han offers a powerful account of the dramatic improvements in the living conditions, infrastructure, and agricultural practices of China’s rural population that emerged in this period. Drawing on extensive local interviews and records in rural Jimo County, in Shandong Province, Han shows that the Cultural Revolution helped overthrow local hierarchies, establish participatory democracy and economic planning in the communes, and expand education and public services, especially for the elderly. Han lucidly illustrates how these changes fostered dramatic economic development in rural China. The Unknown Cultural Revolution documents a neglected side of China’s Cultural Revolution, demonstrating the potential of mass education and empowerment for radical political and economic transformation. It is a bold and provocative work, which demands the attention not only of students of contemporary Chinese history but of all who are concerned with poverty and inequality in the world today.”

How the Cultural Revolution Succeeded

Western media often accuse Mao of ‘killing millions’ – just as they’ve accused leaders of every independent country (the Philippines, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria..) on earth. The leaders’ real crime was keeping their countries independent. Western media get away with it because there are no independent media to contradict them and because folks are too busy to look beyond the headlines. (The recent success of RT has scared the daylights out of them, as you see).

Mao didn’t ‘kill millions’. There was a 3-year famine  (Video: Zhang Liangxing) during his administration but  Chinese don’t blame him for it even though he ignored  advice against his ‘great leap forward’.

Why are the Chinese so forgiving? Because in 1949, when Mao took power, average life expectancy was 41 years. Literacy was under 15 percent. Electricity availability was zero outside big cities and dams, roads and railways barely existed. By 1979, beforeDeng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, there was electricity even in the poorest rural areas and access to railroads. Dams and power stations multiplied 1000 percent. Under Mao, literacy rose to 80 percent (which means 100 percent of young people learned to read and write), the population doubled, life expectancy doubled, caloric intake doubled and incomes rose 300%.

Before Mao, China had annual famines for 3,000 years. Mao ended them after hundreds of emperors over thousands of years had failed to do so. That’s what the Chinese remember of Mao.

Did millions die in the Cultural Revolution, as Western media says?  The Cultural Revolution was a real revolution during which people got killed. A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another. – Mao, “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan”, March 1927.

I’m guessing that a few hundred people were killed during the Cultural Revolution, a revolution involving half a billion people and lasting ten years. Indiscriminate bloodshed did  not characterize the Chinese even during the war of liberation (Chiang Kai Shek was pardoned during the war and all but the most evil landlords were spared after it – both on Mao’s orders).

Mao instigated the Cultural Revolution to save the Red Revolution from corrupt Communist officials who were already sliding back into the ways of corrupt Chinese officials throughout history. Mao saw that the Chinese people just bowed their heads and took whatever abuse the officials dished out. It would be better, he reasoned, for them to fight for their rights while he was alive to protect them from the officials than to let matters drift back into semi-feudalism.

Was it worth it?

During the Cultural Revolution, for the first time in 5,000 years, Chinese peasants learned to talk back  (The Little Red Book told literally put the words into their mouths) to government officials and, when necessary, slap them across the face. It was the greatest free speech experiment in history: certainly the longest and rowdiest!

Today the Chinese are calling out corrupt officials on the Internet and demanding swift, honest service from them, just like their cousins in Singapore. It seems that Mao’s experiment paid off. To read more about it from the peasants’ perspective, read The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village: Dongping Han: 9781583671801: Amazon.com: Books.

There’s a downside to every revolution. Ask any French ducal family.

Our attention has for so long been drawn to the downside of the Cultural Revolution that we have not attended to its successes. Perhaps that’s because we’ve forgotten its goals.

If its goals were vast enough, its motives noble, and its accomplishement sufficiently obvious – might we not count it a success?

When the CCP took control of China it appointed cadres to replace the previous regime’s corrupt, oppressive officials. But in less than 20 years those same idealistic cadres were as corrupt and oppressive as their forerunners. Mao’s hard-won revolution would be for naught unless he could break this ancient pattern. But how?

Emperors had inveighed against the corruption and oppression of their own officals since ancient times but the pattern persisted, destroying  dynasties like a hereditary cancer. Mao had exhorted the Party to eradicate the disease to no avail.

His solution to this ancient problem was breathtakingly bold: if you cannot change the officials, change the Chinese people. Teach them to stand up to their government overlords. To a people steeped for millennia in Confucian obedience these were culturally unthinkable thoughts. Getting them to act in new ways would require a huge shock to the entire Han Chinese civilization and every member of it.

The rest, as they say, is history. There was ‘purer than thou’ ideological squabbling, enough injustices to satisfy everyone, and one avoidable disaster along the way. But while the headlines trumpeted elite students’ and officials’ disagreements, at the grass roots the Cultural Revolution was going to plan

Common villagers (then 78% of Chinese) were taking matters into their own hands: holding collective heart-to-hearts with their former cadre-overlords and, authorized by Mao’s Little Red Book, asserting their democratic rights for the first time in 2,200 years. For a charming memoir of this period read The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in A Chinese Village.

Today their sons and daughters – like children of ’60s feminists – assert their rights loudly and proudly. China’s white-hot social media and even its harmony-at-all-costs mainstream media shine a cauterizing light on official cancers. Soon all officials’ assets  will be public information. The country is run by man so upright that Lee Kwan Yew called him “the Chinese Mandela. The Taiwanese trust Mr. Xi much more than their own, recently-elected President.

Looking back from today’s heady heights you’d have to say that the Cultural Revolution succeeded. After thousands of years marked by feudal meekness, Mao instilled in the Chinese people a drive to regularly speak out against oppression and corruption and they’ve been exercising that mandate more vigorously ever since. After restoring their independence he gave them freedom of expression. Mao’s ‘one-third bad’ may have been bad. But his ‘two-thirds good’ was very good indeed.

Given the importance Western media place on free speech, don’t you wonder why they’re not standing up and cheering the results of the Cultural Revolution?

THIS JUST IN

I asked a statistician friend to examine China’s birth/population/mortality rates during the Cultural Revolution. Here is his response (my emphasis added):

I went back to look at the figures and here are some of my observations:

(1) the 30 million death figure is over-hyped.  The crude death rate in China was around 22 per 1000 in 1950, and declined to about 10 per 1000 around 1955, and then rose to 21 per 1000 around 1960, (and then declined back to 10 per 1000around 1963).

Overall, the deaths during the Great Famine was on the average not particularly unusual, because the average crude death rate in that period was running about the same.  In comparison, India was actually running at higher crude death rate of 25 per 1000 in 1950 to 20 per 1000 in 1965.

(2) Crude Death Rate is highly dependent upon the age group of the population.  Older people are more likely to die.  That’s why most statisticians also use “Age adjusted death rate” as a comparison.  But this data is generally not discussed for China, probably because it would likely show that the age adjusted death rate for China at the time was not that significantly different from prior years.

This link offers a glimpse of the deaths during the Great Famine years.  However, the conclusion in this should be taken with a grain of salt.  Because the USA in 1990 has a similar curve for its population age pyramid with a dent in the 50 year age group, similar to China.

I would attribute these dents to WWII, because fertility rate and birth rate during 1940-1950 would have been low (and infant morality rate high) due to WWII.

(3) “30 million deaths” is meaningless unless compared to other death rates in other nations, as seen above.

The Great Famine was historically significant for China, because it was another turning point for modern Chinese policy reforms.  Chinese media and books do cover the topic, but not in the isolated “30 million deaths” context, because that context is devoid of meaning and background.

It’s like saying, “Lots of People died in China”.

Well, yes. Lots of people die in big nations every year.

We know, lots of people died in China, and we know there was a FAMINE. (We also know that the USA place an embargo on grain exports to China. But that’s another story.)

Here’s yet another perspective on the Cultural Revolution:

Science Innovation during the Cultural Revolution:

Notes from the Peking Review

© 2009 Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies

DARRYL E. BROCK, Fordham University

The story of the Cultural Revolution is well known. Chairman Mao (1893– 1976) and the “Gang of Four” shut down universities, dismantled scientific institutes, and punished intellectuals for elitist, bourgeois inclinations. Millions of scientists and students suffered banishment to the countryside to spend wasted years being re-educated by peasants. The death of Chairman Mao ushered in an era of modernization by Deng Xiaoping (1904–97) and the new leadership. They focused not only on repealing the strictures of the Cultural Revolution but also on undoing its damage and implementing new, enlightened policies to support innovation, with a goal of eventually rejoin- ing the world as a leading scientific nation.

That may be a familiar account, but it is an incomplete one. The “mass line” of the Cultural Revolution in fact catalyzed surprising levels of scien- tific innovation, particularly as revealed in the pages of Peking Review (later renamed the Beijing Review), a weekly English-language news magazine es- tablished in 1958 to communicate economic, political, and cultural news and developments with the rest of the world.

Science under Siege?

Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution moved swiftly to establish control of Chinese institutions. By 1967 “Revolutionary committees” composed of student Red Guards, members of the People’s Liberation Army, and party cadres assumed governmental authority in manufacturing, scientific insti- tutions, and elsewhere. As 1968 commenced, universities had already been closed. That fall Mao relocated to the countryside over ten million intellectuals, city cadres, and students, including Red Guards (Simon and Gold- man 1989). One of those sent down to the countryside proved to be the future Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao (b. 1942), who had studied geology before his February 1968 exile to the deserts of Gansu province (Solomone 2006).

Scientists initially seemed protected from the Cultural Revolution. The Peking Review in 1966 encouraged the “soaring revolutionary enthusiasm” of the masses, but it also urged caution at scientific research establishments lest it “affect the normal progress of production” (Peking Review 1966; Wang, Chia, and Li 1966). Despite the Review’s assurances, the fact is that of the four hundred technical journals extant in 1965, most soon ceased publication, with only twenty journals remaining in 1969 (Jia 2006).

Joseph Needham (1900–1995), the eminent biologist and sinologist, commented in Nature on the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, based on a trip he took to China in April 1978. Needham branded the Gang of Four as “fundamentally anti-intellectual, and inimical to scientists and technolo- gists in particular,” adding they had added to the list of eight evil kinds of people a “stinking ninth category” of intellectuals and scientists. An in- credulous Needham cites various atrocities, including torture of scientists. In one case an esteemed pathology professor was required to “lecture on carcinogenesis to medical students while they were picking cotton” (Need- ham 1978, 832, 833).

Notwithstanding Needham’s sober assessment of the excesses, one should not overlook the achievements of the Cultural Revolution. China launched its first earth satellite in 1970 as a result of Mao-era innovation, followed by a scientific satellite in the subsequent year. There was also pro- gress in lasers, semiconductors, electronics, and computing technology. Even in theoretical research there was the breakthrough of synthesizing the world’s first biologically active protein, crystalline pig insulin, using the method of X-ray diffraction. This development laid the groundwork for Shanghai becoming the cradle for biotechnology in China (Sigurdson 1980).

The Peking Review: A Chronicle of Innovation

Those are not isolated occurrences of scientific innovation; in fact, the Communist news publication Peking Review reveals high levels of technical innovation. During the 1966–70 period alone, which covers the early, most radical years of the Cultural Revolution, I have identified ninety-four indi- vidual articles that focus primarily on scientific and technological innova- tion. These cover agriculture, industry, military defense, and broad areas of science and technology such as chemistry, geology, and paleontology. Read more

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