Understanding China’s Cultural Revolution

– I’m here this morning with Dr. Frank Dikotter, the Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong We’re here to discuss his new book “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History” Frank, thanks for joining us – Thank you – The Cultural Revolution, it’s a big, big, notion but it probably is not homogeneous – Exactly – Can you help us clarify what do you perceive as the Cultural Revolution? – Yes, so, the debates about how long it lasted and what it actually was, I think it’s confusing, in the sense that it rediscovered a period of about 10 years If I would have to put it in a nutshell, in terms of, if you wish ideology The notion is that the Soviet Union at the time has somehow betrayed the revolution, after Nikita Khrushchev, denounces Stalin and starts de-Stalinization So the point here is that Mao Zedong believes, that the issue, is not so much the bourgeoisie, in Marxist parlance, but bourgeois culture, the bourgeoisie is gone with the revolution of 1917 under Lenin or the 1949 revolution in China, but bourgeois culture is still there and it allows a number of people to erode and subvert the entire system from the bottom, all the way down to to the ground level So Cultural Revolution is ready to attack bourgeois culture and make sure that is eradicated once and for all, when in fact, the Cultural Revolution is three very different periods 1966 to 1968, when Chairman Mao unleashes the people, in order to attack, the party, in particular those he viewed as revisionists, or capitalist roaders, inside the higher echelons of the party itself That period comes to an end in 1968, when the army moves in, and very much puts in place a military dictatorship So under Lin Biao head of the army from 1968 to 71, this country is turned virtually into a garrison state with soldiers overseeing schools, factories, government units But of course, the army itself, becomes victim of the Cultural Revolution, is purged Lin Biao dies in a mysterious plane accident, from 1971 to 1976 it’s a very very different period there too it’s still the Cultural Revolution but the party has been severely undermined by the Cultural Revolution, the army has gone back to the barracks, ordinary people in the countryside get some sort of leeway, and they very quietly in what I refer to as a silent revolution, reconnect with the past in particular with markets So three very very different periods, one of great chaos if you wish, one of military dictatorship, and one of more or less some leeway being created, by the very fact that the Cultural Revolution has damaged the party under Chairman Mao – Now this is the third of a trilogy of books that you’ve written, one on Mao’s Great Famine, one on the earlier periods from 1949 called The Tragedy of Liberation – Yes – And then back forward to the Cultural Revolution Tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this third book? What sources did you find and how do you differ from what we might call the conventional wisdom that has been imparted to us about the Cultural Revolution? – Right So I published Mao’s Great Famine, which is really about the 10s of millions of people beaten, starved, neglected to death between 1958 and 62 Of course I’d come across documents from the earlier years and it seemed to me that that was really worthwhile investigating But I got a number of colleagues and readers who told me that they wanted to know about what happened after Mao’s great famine, the Cultural Revolution I was dubious at first, but I did manage to find vast amounts of archival material and I think that really persuaded me, to undertake this final last volume in the trilogy, in the sense that what we have heard or read about the Cultural Revolution tends to be generally based either on just ideological statements or on official or semi official publications released by the party itself, whereas by gaining access to the party archives, they gained insights into all sorts of much more grounded sort of episodes of the Cultural Revolution you get detailed investigations into the countryside, you get reports about mass starvation, you get really interesting reports from the Public Security Bureau, in other words there’s a whole wealth of accountable material that allow me to see

what in effect was the effect of the Cultural Revolution on people of all walks of life In other words, I moved the focus away from court politics, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong, towards ordinary people I was trying to rebuild the history of the people, the question was, where are the people in the history of the People’s Republic of China? – That’s the subtitle of your book – [Frank] Indeed – And what did you see in through these archives through these controversies that are with let us just say, we’re not part of the press releases, or marketing or ideological propaganda? What did you uncover about the people? – Well, what really struck me, is that the sort of images that circulate about the Cultural Revolution, tend to stress uniformity conformity, we have images of Red Guards in 1966 on Tiananmen Square cheering Chairman Mao brandishing a little red book, as if there’s some sort of, general madness taking over this whole country And what struck me, thanks to interviews on the one hand, and reading memoirs of people from all walks of life but mainly thanks to the archives of the Communist Party itself I realized, that throughout this entire period if not much earlier on, the vast majority of people offered nothing but outward compliance, signs of outward compliance They would stand up, shout a slogan, denounce a neighbor when they had to, but as soon as it was over, they would go back to, their own lives, they kept the inner thoughts to themselves their personal feelings to themselves In a nutshell, many ordinary people in most one party states not just China, are extraordinary, gifted actors So take for instance, if I may elaborate, Red Guards, young people standing on Tiananment Square, cheering the chairman, if you actually get much closer to the pulse of life if you interview some of them if you read some of the material compiled at the time you find out that not all of them, who were shouting slogans actually believed in it There was one young man for instance, who had never been able to go to school because his family was classified as class enemies couldn’t go to school, his parents, elder brother in particular, at school and at home taught him to respect human rights and democracy He managed to somehow infiltrate the Red Guard movement, stood on Tiananmen Square, felt nothing but dread when he saw Chairman Mao a mere 30 meters away from him One young woman in there, was a student of German, she wrote to Chairman Mao, to say that it reminded her of the rallies held under Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany in the 1930s Needless to say she got arrested and sent to a labor camp So once you really, look at it in much greater detail you realize that this image of uniformity just vanishes This is sorry – And then you look at this, what you might call actor or actress on stage, creating the space for their emotional and personal life And then you have the interaction between the authorities, and how the society and economy functions in the regions It’s a very large country very decentralized, the top can’t monitor each and everything So what’s evolving what’s morphing underneath the surface in this system of control and what you might call cultural purification, that’s a bit of a theatrical dance it’s not really heartfelt – Exactly, if you could describe the years after 1949 the moment the red flag goes up in Beijing, the moment the new regime takes place, you could describe the decades that follow as a game of cat and mouse a deadly game But nonetheless a game of cat and mouse, the moment that the one party state in the early 1950s starts eliminating most basic freedoms, political freedoms of assembly, of religion, of movement, but also basic economic freedoms by setting up a planned economy, where people in the countryside are reduced to the status of pretty much bonded servants by the time we are at 1957 to 58 nevermind a great leap forward The moment that happens, villages try to still maintain some connection with the market with the past, though in this game, during for instance, Mao’s great famine, when the structures of the state are close to collapse and ordinary people have to sell have to set a black markets,

have to trade in order to survive the famine, there’s a resurgence of this past so to speak There’s a clamp down during the Cultural Revolution, but the point must be that in 1971, when the army itself falls victim to the Cultural Revolution and is purged, when the soldiers who oversee factories and schools and government units are sent back to the barracks, ordinary people in particular in the countryside realize that the party comes out of the Cultural Revolution badly damaged from 1971, onwards five years before the death of Chairman Mao 1976, In a myriad of acts of defiance People in the countryside stop redistributing the land they open underground factories, they start traveling this country, they recreate the market from the bottom up, and frequently they manage to include beyond local candidates, either by giving them a share of the benefits that come from the market You could call it an act of corruption, am allowed to have two chicken I will have 10 instead I give you an egg every week you are the local cadre bit by bit, this whole economy becomes much freer, much more open despite the planned economy In other words, by the time that Chairman died, millions upon millions of people have already, undermined the planned economy and replaced the dead hand of the state with their own ingenuity So if I had to put it in a nutshell, I would say that well before Deng Xiaoping even arrived to power in 1979 The economic reforms had already started, the true architects of economic reforms are the people not Deng Xiaoping – It reminds me in my own life, at around the year 2000 I spent some time in Kontraka, Russia, all along the coastline, there were local salmon fishermen And the salmon fishermen, and their families, were policed by the KGB, except for the fact that KGB got extra salmon, and they were allowed to fish far beyond their quotas, and the local community was very happy But the orders coming from Moscow, were to clamp down on the salmon fisherman, so that the big net intensive, we might call capital intensive fishing industry would capture more and more of the fish stock, but it didn’t work that way in practice because the local officials bonded with the community, or were bribed to be part of the community, and we’re much better off working with the bottom up – I think it’s a very interesting example and it brings to mind a report I read in the archives, to an investigation teams sent to the countryside in Guangdong Province not far away from Hong Kong This is 1972, a year after the death of Lin Biao And they noticed that in the countryside, there are markets everywhere, and there are local cars who actually connive with local villages and making sure that this black market actually flourishes And then inspectors say we can clamp down, we can try, to make sure that the planned economy is actually implemented, but the local cadres will no longer have anything to eat (laughs) In other words, the very food that ended up on the table, of local cadres came from the black market – And in the early 90s, when I worked in the financial industry, I often went to China 92, 93 And at that time, many of the officials in Beijing were most concerned that whenever they’d send somebody out to be a tax collector, all of their brothers and sisters and their children ended up on the boards of the local companies And lo and behold, there was never any tax, to be collected no one reported profits but everybody’s family was doing fine – Exactly, that’s what I call reform from the law – Yes – Rather than the image we’ve been given, of a paramount leader like Deng Xiaoping who institutes reform from above What is so interesting about Deng Xiaoping, is that even as late as 1979 three years after the death of Chairman Mao in April 79 he still insists that people in the countryside who have left the people’s communes, returned to the collectives, that already in parts of say, Zhejiang province the size of a country like France, by 1972 the regions were up to two thirds of all the villages work on their own, they’ve left the collectives

they thrive on their own, just imagine them being forced to return to the people’s communes – So, in the, we might call Western parable, there is this discontinuity between the time of Mao, and the time of Deng Xiaoping, and obviously in the West, we tend to favor Deng Xiaoping mode of organization It sounds as if you say there’s a lot more continuity there that our simple story has to tell, that these formations from the bottom up and these returned to markets and the incapacity of the top to monitor and maintain all the quotas and controls was a precursor to the kind of structure Deng Xiaoping inherited in and amplified – Very much, as if, I mean this is the propaganda in China, but it’s taken on a life of its own outside of China in the West It is as if history doesn’t exist, it is as if there was a vague decade of chaos under Mao, where China is really waiting for Deng Xiaoping to arrive as if the history of the People’s Republic really starts in 1978 or 79 with so called Economic Reforms These are being implemented from the top down Whereas in reality, all of this is already happening from the bottom up from 1971 onwards, Deng Xiaoping has no alternative but to go along with the flow, there’s no alternative but to accept, the economic freedoms that had been that have been seized by villages from 1971 onwards is too late to go back Deng Xiaoping is very pragmatic and goes along, but here’s another continuity, 1979 climbed down in Beijing, 1989 climbed down in Beijing The point surely must be, that Deng Xiaoping and others, including of course Xi Jinping, live in fear of the people, ever since the Cultural Revolution, ever since Mao allowed in 1966 and 67 ordinary people to voice criticisms, of party members Leading officials have viewed democracy, as the equivalent of the Cultural Revolution, which is the equivalent of chaos In other words, they are very much determined to, repress any political aspirations that ordinary people may have, and they will not hesitate to do so as Deng Xiaoping demonstrated, of course, by sending in tanks on to Tiananmen Square in 1989 But that impulse is still there, with us in the People’s Republic to this very day, economic freedoms okay But there will be no sharing of the monopoly of a power of the one party state – This is fascinating because, when we’re talking about democracy, people have a quick association with quality representation and authoritarian governments not But I sense it’s a bit grayer here in that, you’re telling me that the leadership in suppressing democracy is also very responsive because of their fears – Exactly – And that’s a kind of representation doesn’t fit them all particularly well – Very much so, what Deng Xiaoping sees, when there are pro-democracy demonstrators on Tiananmen Square 1989, what he sees, is the Cultural Revolution During the Cultural Revolution 1966 there were students, sitting, in hunger strike in front of Provincial Party Committees For instance, Xi’an, there were demonstrations by students and ordinary people, against party members, in Beijing and elsewhere That image, of people Somehow taking on the party is what is right behind that fear of democracy In other words, unfortunately, because of the Cultural Revolution, there is an equation between democracy and chaos in the minds of leading party officials – And the economic development, is a way to satisfy the yearnings of the people, So they don’t resort to democracy – Indeed – Or don’t feel the need to – Indeed So these economic reforms have been wrenched by ordinary people from the party and Deng Xiaoping to give them some credit and indeed, once he realized he had to go with the flow made the very best of it by using whatever economic growth there was, to consolidate the organization of the one party state And that very sort of jewelistic approach, is very much the foundation of the party to this very day, use whether the economic growth that might be, to consolidate the one party state and never ever allow

ordinary people to have a say in politics – I used to work in the US Senate, and I once asked the men I was working for, on the budget committee, what makes a great politician, a great leader? He says, what makes a great politician or leader is an element of courage and really pushing for change that’s healthy that would be resisted, but what appears to create a great leader is someone who gets in front of parades that other people started (laughs) I always remembered that and it sounds as if you could attribute both things to Deng Xiaoping There was a sense in which he recognized, the flow got in front of the parade, but he also understand how to enlarge it and increase the benefit – Yes, he saw what was happening, he realized that he would have to face literary, a peasant rebellion if he insisted on the planned economy and on maintaining these people’s communes These people’s communes collapsed in 1982, Deng Xiaoping harnessed that vast potential by ordinary people, allow basic economic freedoms to flourish to some extent, but used it in order to make sure that the one party state would not share any of its power, to this very day To that extent, he’s been very successful – I remember in my travels to Beijing, there was an exhibit I believe it’s still there at the National Museum, and it spends a great deal of time, talking about the Opium Wars, imperialists, the Japanese invasion, and then it moves forward – [Frank] Quickly – And jumps right over the Cultural Revolution, and then talks about the technological developments, Deng Xiaoping to the present, modernization of the economy, and what I knew from our conversations that you were writing this book, I was quite enthusiastic because I remembered that I did not think it was coincidence, that exhibit which is I believe Deng Xiaoping gave one of his very first speeches, and it was about national identity – Indeed – The national identity was not confronting – Indeed – The themes that you’ve explored here – The myth here is, of course, the foundation myth of Chinese nationalism is of course, opium Imperialist uses opium to poison the Chinese people, it created chaos, Mao Zedong came and liberated this country in 1949 Then we fast forward very quickly (laughs) over what is really three decades of horror And out of this horror emerges Deng Xiaoping to start economic reforms that is very much the image projected by the propaganda – In our conversations, you’ve talked about the Cultural Revolution, not as murderous, in the physical sense of exterminating numbers of people so much as devastating to the emotion to the mind – Describe or characterize that distinction how do you come to that? – In a nutshell, from 1949 to 1957 when this regime has to establish itself there is really killing by quota in literally from October 1950 to October 1951 Mao Zedong has a one per 1000 killing rate that millions are deliberately eliminated 1958 to 62 is Mao’s great famine this is if you wish, murder through neglect when 10s of millions of people are starved to death, but the Cultural Revolution in total, probably only has about 2 million people were hounded to their deaths it’s a big number but it doesn’t compare even to October 1950 to October 1951 In other words, it seems to me that it is important to highlight that the effect of the Cultural Revolution the point of the Cultural Revolution was to really bend and break millions upon millions it’s the trauma, which is at the heart of the Cultural Revolution, not so much more than or loss of life – It’s emotional devastation – Exactly, emotional devastation is loss of faith, there’s loss of trust in human beings and their relationships The fact that people were pitted against each other with foster denounce family members, colleagues, friends, and had to live with that burden, for years afterwards, there’s an attempt to cow the population, it is an attempt to regiment the greatest number of people possible, it’s not about death – And what was it that you will attribute to Mao as

motivation for this calling in this emotional pressure? – If you are a dictator, you will have to constantly look over your shoulders And not just during your lifetime there’s also the threat that somebody later on might denounce you The biggest model for Mao is Stalin, Stalin managed to die in his own bed, but he was denounced by Nikita Khrushchev three years later in 1956 So the Cultural Revolution is also an attempt by an aging dictator, to divide and rule to keep everybody on their toes Frequently, in the past it was set that the real target of the Cultural Revolution was Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi But this is not so, Mao was smart enough to realize that the dagger could come from anywhere, in other words, he doesn’t know who the Chinese Khrushchev will be The Culture Revolution really keeps everybody on their toes makes it impossible for anybody to somehow come up with a clique that is critical of chairman Mao – So this is kind of King Lear, in China – It is King Lear in China With all the madness that comes with that attempt to consolidate and hold on to power at any cost – Yeah have read the Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Denial of Death,” which is all about immortality yearnings and the violence that great people will go to and he culminates in how he’s a psychologist in Sigmund Freud, turns on his disciples young and particularly auto rank, because he contracts cancer, he doesn’t want to face the notion that anybody would take the discipline beyond where he took it in his own life – So Mao turns against his erstwhile colleagues, long standing comrades in arms, but the word you use immortality is very important, and that it is not just court politics, and try to eliminate all those around you at least keep them on their toes It’s also a man who is there to consolidate his own standing in world history The Cultural Revolution is also an attempt by Mao to become the one, who has led the revolution against revisionism, that will make sure that the rule will go towards socialism without ever having to going back like the Soviet Union To put it in a nutshell, in Mao’s view Lenin was the one who displaced the bourgeoisie in 1917 He will be the one to displace bourgeois culture once and forever with the Cultural Revolution, he’s the one who inherits and develops Marxism-Leninism into Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought, just also about consolidating his own legacy To some extent, you could say it’s worked rather well (laughing) There are still people who do believe and read Moa Zedong Thought – Well, this is a fantastic trilogy, and formidable third, I hope not final dimension of your writings on China, but thank you very much for joining us today – Thank you – And thank you for all the work you do to illuminate this ever so important part of the world – Thank you, thank you very much