When we first came to China in 2000, we lived in the northeast, the heartland of what used to be called Manchuria. While most Americans find it difficult if not impossible to travel to North Korea, we knew several Chinese people who had gone over the nearby border as tourists or on business, and at least one who had actually lived there. Among the Chinese we knew, there were a few common themes when it came to North Korea.
First was that in North Korea people everywhere looked like they were starving and the markets were nearly devoid of food, and that everywhere our friends went people could see that they were wearing nice clothes and so they were asking them for food or money.
This agreed with what we had heard from western news reports at the time, so it was not at all surprising. However, the second theme was surprising: Everyone–even Chinese people whom we respected and who should have known better–agreed that somehow North Korea was better than China, as it resembled China during and right after the Cultural Revolution, and was therefore purer. They all waxed nostalgic for a simpler time, when everyone in China was equal, when everyone spoke with one voice, and when corruption, greed, and selfishness were seemingly nonexistent.
The only possible explanation for such a phenomenon was that the Chinese people we knew had been mislead by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as to the nature of the Cultural Revolution, and were picking and choosing facts about North Korea to fit the established CCP narrative.
Since our friends either had not lived through the Cultural Revolution or had very dim memories of it, it was easy for the CCP–through its control of the press and education system–to convince them that somehow, even though the Cultural Revolution had its bad points, it was not all negative and was in fact a net plus for the country.
Our friends’ visits to North Korea had been either as tourists or as VIPs. They did not suffer hunger, they had plenty of money, and they were not being tortured or thrown into prison during those visits, so it was easy for them to minimize the negative aspects of life in North Korea, and somehow imagine that it was a communist paradise because they saw no evidence of the corrupting influence of western materialism.
Against this backdrop, the New York Times has an article by Yu Hua, called “China Waits for an Apology”. As usual, you should read the whole thing. In the article, Yu Hua discusses the Cultural Revolution and modern Chinese attitudes towards it. He begins with this particularly poignant anecdote:
In 1970, when China was in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Hongbing, a 16-year-old in Guzhen, a county in Anhui Province, made a fateful decision. During a family debate that year, his mother, Fang Zhongmou, had criticized Mao Zedong for his cult of personality. Her son and his father, believing her views to be counterrevolutionary, decided to inform on her. She was arrested that same day.
Mr. Zhang still recalls how his mother’s shoulder joints gave a grating creak as her captors pulled the cord tight. Two months later, she was shot to death.
In 1980, four years after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the verdict on Fang Zhongmou was reversed. A local court declared her innocent.
In the months and years that followed, Zhang Hongbing and his father scrupulously avoided all reference to this episode. Only in retirement did his father raise the subject: As an adult at the time, he took responsibility for what they had done.
In 2013, the Chinese media reported the lifelong regrets of Mr. Zhang, then 59 years old. For years he would often break down in tears, howling and wailing. “I see her in my dreams,” he said, “just as young as she was then. I kneel on the floor, clutching her hands, for fear she will disappear. ‘Mom,’ I cry, ‘I beg your forgiveness!’ But she doesn’t respond. Never once has she answered me. This is my punishment.”
Yet, as Yu Hua notes, the CCP is still trying to whitewash history:
[T]he Communist Party has never had trouble forgiving itself for the appalling blunders it has committed during its 64 years in power, and it tries hard to erase from the historical record all traces of those errors. In the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, many sought to repudiate it, but when our leaders realized that this kind of critique detracted from their own authority, they immediately suppressed such criticisms — quashing them so thoroughly it was as though they had never been voiced.
Essentially, China has been waiting for an apology from the CCP for its crimes against the Chinese people, but this apology has never come. Meanwhile, in order to divert attention from its own crimes, many of which are quite recent and ongoing, the CCP has it made a crusade of daily reminding the Chinese people of crimes committed more than 70 years ago by a Japanese government and army that no longer exist, and by Japanese individuals that were in fact tried and punished at war crimes tribunals and who for the most part have long since passed away.
Nothing Japan ever did in its illegal occupation of China comes even close–in scale or by degree–to matching the pain, the bloodshed, and the oppression the CCP has inflicted on the Chinese people by its illegal occupation of China. Yet, the CCP has done a very good job in convincing the Chinese people to forget that fact.
As a result, instead of demanding an apology for the Cultural Revolution and other past transgressions, as Yu Hua notes, many Chinese people actually wax nostalgic for that era.
There are those who maintain that the CCP would never turn back the clock, that it would never kill the goose that laid the golden egg by reverting back to its policies from before the era of Reform and Opening Up. Such people are blind. Most of the Chinese party cadres I have met look wistfully back to the Cultural Revolution, or even to the 1950s and the Great Leap Forward. Indeed, Wen Jiabao warned that there were elements in the party advocating a return to the Cultural Revolution. Further, Bo Xilai is among this group (even though his parents were victimized by the Cultural Revolution) and apparently came close to toppling the current leadership in the CCP. That Bo Xilai does not now have a bullet in the back of his head, and was in fact smirking when they led him off to prison, shows that he is far from alone in such sentiments, and that even in prison he is a threat to the Chinese people. For those who think this is absurd, consider the fact that Deng Xiaoping was in prison just before he was was rehabilitated and then made Party Chairman.
Through its lies and manipulation, the CCP has boxed itself in: It cannot allow democratic reforms and still survive. Yet, it will do anything–anything–to maintain power, even if it means shooting unarmed civilians in the street. If, to stay in charge, it believes another Cultural Revolution is necessary or that the country should follow the North Korean model, the CCP will make it happen. The people been have conditioned and their consciousnesses have been raised. It all comes down to what the CCP thinks is necessary for survival.
What will happen after that is anyone’s guess.