Tag: cultural revolution

Fifty Years after the Cultural Revolution

May 16, 1966, is regarded as the beginning of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China. Post-Maoist China has never quite come to terms with Mao’s legacy and especially the disastrous Cultural Revolution

Many countries have a founding myth that inspires and sustains a national culture. South Africa celebrates the accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, the founder of that nation’s modern, multi-racial democracy. In the United States, we look to the American Revolution and especially to the ideas in the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. 

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is the most eloquent libertarian essay in history, especially its philosophical core:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The ideas of the Declaration, given legal form in the Constitution, took the United States of America from a small frontier outpost on the edge of the developed world to the richest country in the world in scarcely a century. The country failed in many ways to live up to the vision of the Declaration, notably in the institution of chattel slavery. But over the next two centuries, that vision inspired Americans to extend the promises of the Declaration—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to more and more people.

China, of course, followed a different vision, the vision of Mao Zedong. Take Mao’s speech on July 1, 1949, as his Communist armies neared victory. The speech was titled, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.” Instead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it spoke of “the extinction of classes, state power and parties,” of “a socialist and communist society,” of the nationalization of private enterprise and the socialization of agriculture, of a “great and splendid socialist state” in Russia, and especially of “a powerful state apparatus” in the hands of a “people’s democratic dictatorship.”

China Old and New

The developing scandal and opaque power struggle surrounding fall princeling Bo Xiali, once thought to be a shoe-in for a top party position, reminds us of the old China. The fate of a nation of 1.3 billion people has been decided by relatively few men in Zhongnanhai, Beijing’s leadership compound. Bo’s ouster appears more likely to strengthen those dedicated to maintaining a system of stable authoritarianism than those hoping to promote political liberalism, but the outcome may still be better than the alternative.

Although in this way the “new” China doesn’t look very different from the perpetual back room machinations under Mao Zedong, the communist Humpty Dumpty really has fallen off the wall, never to be put back together again. After all, during the Cultural Revolution no one looked to citizens of the People’s Republic of China to enhance the profits of upscale New York City retailers. Today, Chinese travelers are spending some of their country’s expansive export earnings in America.

Reports the New York Times:

Over five days in January, a group of visitors to New York was treated to a private concert with the pianist Lang Lang at the Montblanc store, cocktails and a fashion show attended by the designers Oscar de la Renta and Diane Von Furstenberg, and a tour of Estée Lauder’s original office.

They were not celebrities. They were not government officials. They were Chinese tourists with a lot of money.

The most important relationship of the 21st century is likely to be that between the United States and China. Both countries have a big stake in emphasizing cooperation over confrontation. But a prosperous, even democratic PRC still could pose a significant geopolitical challenge to America. After all, nationalism knows no ideological bounds, wealth enhances military potential, and vote-seeking politicians have been known to harness the whirlwind of demagoguery to win. Nevertheless, a China where the majority of citizens are still desperate to climb the income ladder and the elite are enjoying their privileges is far less likely to intentionally blow up the international system that has moved their nation from poverty to prosperity.

Whether out of ideological conviction or political convenience, Bo was seen as pushing for a return to Maoist values. However, most Chinese seem to believe “Been there, done that” during the not so Great Leap Forward and the catastrophic Cultural Revolution. For a lucky few in the new China, it’s now even time to shop at Bergdorf Goodman!

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Spirit of Nien Cheng (1915-2009)

Nien ChengNien Cheng, author of best-seller Life and Death in Shanghai and one of the greatest Chinese voices of humanity to have opposed communism, passed away in Washington yesterday. To read her account of the cruelty and madness of the Cultural Revolution, during which she was imprisoned for six-and-a-half years and her daughter killed, is to come away inspired by Nien Cheng’s sheer strength of character and the dignity and power of the individual even in the face of totalitarianism. Her refusal to accept dogmas, her deep understanding and love of Chinese culture and history, her capacity for self-reflection, the way in which she used her learning and sharp wit to confront her oppressors and expose their incoherent views, and her ability to survive persecution—all was truly a triumph of the human spirit.

I had the great good fortune to have known Nien Cheng both through Cato and because she coincidentally lived in the same Washington condominium building as I did for many years until I recently moved. (It was the same building in which she typed her book manuscript once she lived here in exile, never thinking that many people would read it.)

To know Nien Cheng was to confirm the impressions one forms of her from reading her book, and more. As neighbors, we chatted from time to time, and on several occasions my now-wife Lesley and I enjoyed tea and lively discussion in her apartment. Mrs. Cheng was generous and polite, and she was curious about the opinions of others. But she was also very well read, kept up on current affairs, and was opinionated, honest and transparent. She was always insightful. The trappings of political power never impressed her. She was regularly invited as a guest to White House functions by several administrations, but although she was honored, she had long been turning them down because, as she told me, she was too old for such things and it was too much time standing around.

Nien Cheng never liked to waste time and so maintained the habits of an industrious person. Perhaps that was partly a strategy to keep her mind at ease since the death of her daughter tormented her all of her life. I’m sure, however, that she ultimately died in peace. Never displaying an air of self-importance, she was ready and happy to pass on, as she told me and others on more than one occasion. For testifying to the world about the realities of Chinese communism and for living a courageous life, Nien Cheng holds a special place in the hearts and minds of all advocates of the free society, especially the Chinese.

May her spirit live on.