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Cultural Devolution?


Readers and traditional media outlets in China may ask the same questions being asked in the U.S. about bloggers – “How have the blogs become a trash dump?” read a recent China Newsweek headline. But the background against which that question is posed leads, at least in the magazine’s case to a provocative analogy: China’s Cultural Revolution. It’s a lesson in history and free speech that Westerners may find instructive – and familiar.

The main subject of the article in China Newsweek (not related to its U.S. counterpart) was a sixty-something film director, Lu Tianming. Lu recalled witnessing, as a youth sent-down to the countryside, his home in the hinterlands besieged by 1,000 Red Guards, the young radicals unleashed by Chairman Mao in 1966 to struggle mercilessly – often murderously – against Maoism’s class enemies. Forty years on, that China seemed a distant memory. Lu, once a volunteer farmer, had become a celebrity blogger. In March, he waded into a tempestuous online debate with a young literary prodigy on the state of Chinese literature. Yet after joining the fray, deja vu struck Lu: his site was bombarded with profanities. One posting relayed little except the message, uttered 50 times in Chinese, to “Fxxx your mother!”

“I felt it was just like a second Cultural Revolution,” Lu told the magazine. “They made it so that there was absolutely nothing you could say. Now I’ve experienced the pain and helplessness of those old people back then.” But, it seems in even larger numbers. Blogging is China’s new fad, projected to grow from 15 million blogs this year to an estimated 28 million in 2007.

Today’s China, to be certain, offers scant reminder of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which was launched 40 years ago this May. Students bludgeoned their teachers, sons denounced their fathers, and party cadres jailed and executed their comrades – for the sake of their own political survival. The tilt-a-whirl of witch hunts and gangland violence only ceased after Mao’s death a decade later, when, fittingly enough, it ensnared those blamed for masterminding it all – the Gang of Four (Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, included). They were soon locked up, the Cultural Revolution was repudiated, and Mao’s rehabilitated successor, Deng Xiaoping, launched market reforms. Ever since, the party has eschewed Revolutionary fundamentalism. Instead, it has proceeded according to Mao’s exhortation to “seek truth from facts” – the elastic clause of Chinese Marxism. And Thus a generation brought up on slim rations and little red books now has kids and grandkids bred, in the best of worlds, on Big Macs and blogs.

But has China forgotten its history? It seems incredible, particularly to Western visitors, that such recent history – events well within the lifetime of older Chinese – can go unexamined. A visit to Xian’s collection of ancient stone tablets – their beautiful calligraphy cracked and fractured by the crowbars and sledgehammers of the Red Guards and not noted in any way by official guides – should give anyone pause.

Communist Party orthodoxy has made it easier to gloss over the past, of course. Beijing does not commemorate the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in any official way. Schoolchildren learn little about it; tour guides gloss over the physical destruction, referring obliquely to the enthusiasms of misguided youth. In the aftermath, masterworks of 1980’s “scar literature” were banned. Even in the past couple years, censors have been working hard to suppress the memories from publication.

Why is it still so sensitive to study it today? Generally, it’s a legitimacy issue: the party’s hold on power is partly predicated on covering up its most damning misdeeds. But the Cultural Revolution, in particular, casts a pall of suspicion on the present-day political elite. The Red Guards who first resorted to violence in 1966 were students at Beijing’s top middle schools, including the children of top cadres at the time – some of whom are top cadres themselves today. Several of China’s current leaders were getting degrees at Tsinghua University, where the violence soon spread. Little wonder, then, that while much is known about the victims of the Cultural Revolution, comparatively little is known about the victimizers. In a recent feature China Newsweek ran on a famous psychiatrist, the woman said a large number of her patients are people who suffered physical or mental abuse during the Cultural Revolution. But, she said, she hasn’t a single patient who admits to causing it.

The contemporary reincarnation of the Red Guards, in the eyes of some observers, are China’s so-called fen qing, or “angry youth”. Defining this group is much trickier, though. Most are products of the state’s educational system post-1989, the year of Tiananmen Square massacre, which turned ultra-nationalist in light of the bankruptcy of socialist values. The most extreme fen qing may hack American government Web sites or stone Japanese businesses. Yet at the same time, they may curse the Communist Party. Conflict is at the core of their identity. There are even “real fen qing” and “fake fen qing”. What defines them best, perhaps, is their sensibilities. Emotionally, according to Jin Liping, the managing editor of China Newsweek, they share the “same blood” with the Red Guards. “They don’t really know about politics and economics. They just do things and make judgements based on what they feel. They have no beliefs of their own,” she tells me. “This is the reason they can be tools of the government.”

They seemed to make their presence felt in the war of words chronicled in China Newsweek. It broke out in March on the nation’s biggest Web portal,, after veteran literary critic Bai Ye smeared the generation of writers born since the 1980’s. Twenty-four-year-old Han Han fired back, calling the literary establishment “asses” and “posers”. Every time a new elder jumped in to duel with Han, Han’s peers pelted the challenger’s site with foul language. By the time it was over, Bai, songwriter Gao Xiaosong and the director Lu Chuan (Lu Tianming’s son) all were forced to shutter their own blogs. If the debate was to be regarded “as a public experiment in democracy,” Lu Tianming later told the magazine, then “under the guidance of certain media, the right to freedom of speech on the Internet became twisted into a tool to recklessly violate the human rights of others.”

Of course, the magazine neglects the (unmentionable) fact that China does not guarantee free speech. Given that fact, is the mass cynicism being expressed today all that different from the ideological hysteria that reigned four decades ago? It is worth remembering, in this regard, that the framers of the U.S. Constitution made it their mission to check not only despotic rule, but mob rule as well. In China, to an important extent and often under-apprecaited sense, these two negative forces still feed off one another.

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