The Good Old Days in China

by Russ Roberts on May 28, 2008

in History

In the most recent New York Times Sunday Book Review, Dongping Han, a teacher of history and political science at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, had a letter defending the Cultural Revolution:

Today more and more Chinese working-class people look back at the
Cultural Revolution years with fond memories. Despite some shortcomings
of the Cultural Revolution, China was a socialist society that was
overcoming inequality with full employment, free medical care and free
education for its citizens. It was a country that had largely
eradicated deeply rooted problems of homelessness, prostitution,
bandits and drug abuse.

Yes, those were the good old days. Han makes the Cultural Revolution sounds like a cross between the New Deal and the best of Scandinavia–plentiful health care, full employment, no drug abuse. Who could ask for anything more?

But is it true? Was the Cultural Revolution really the paradise that Han portrays? I don’t know, but I keep thinking about the opening sentence of the paragraph:

Today more and more Chinese working-class people look back at the
Cultural Revolution years with fond memories.

It could be true. But it’s a little misleading. To look back fondly on something, you have to be alive. Han does not mention how many eggs were broken in the name of making an omelet that may or may not have really existed. Here are a few quotes from the Wikipedia article on the Cultural Revolution for estimates of how many people are unable to look back fondly on the Cultural Revolution:

Estimates of the death toll, civilians and Red Guards, from various Western and Eastern sources[6]Deng Xiaoping‘s son Deng Pufang who jumped/was thrown from a four-story building during that time. Instead of dying, he became a paraplegic. In the trial of the so-called Gang of Four, a Chinese court stated that 729,511 people had been persecuted of which 34,800 were said to have died.[25]
However, the true figure may never be known since many deaths went
unreported or were actively covered up by the police or local
authorities. Other reasons are the state of Chinese demographics at the
time, as well as the reluctance of the PRC to allow serious research
into the period.[26]
One recent scholarly account asserts that in rural China alone some 36
million people were persecuted, of whom between 750,000 and 1.5 million
were killed, with roughly the same number permanently injured.[27] In Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday claim that as many as 3 million people died in the violence of the Cultural Revolution.[28]

n the meantime, chaos in the collectives and unfortunate climatic conditions resulted in widespread famine, while Mao continued to export grain to "save face" with the outside world. According to various sources,[6] the death toll due to famine may have been as high as 20 to 30 million.

During the Destruction of Four Olds campaign, religious affairs of all types were persecuted and discouraged by the Red Guards. Many religious buildings such as temples, churches, mosques, monasteries and cemeteries were closed down and sometimes looted and destroyed.[9]
The most gruesome aspects of the campaign were the torture and killing
of innocent people and the suicides that were the final options of many
who suffered beatings and humiliation. In August and September, there
were 1,772 people murdered in Beijing alone. In Shanghai in September
there were 704 suicides and 534 deaths related to the Cultural
Revolution. In Wuhan during this time there were 62 suicides and 32
murders.[10] The authorities were discouraged from stopping the violence of the Red Guards. Said Xie Fu-zhi, national police chief: "If
people are beaten to death . . . its none of our business. If you
detain those who beat people to death . . . you will be making a big

The Cultural Revolution was particularly devastating for minority cultures in China. In Tibet, over 6,000 monasteries were destroyed, often with the complicity of local ethnic Tibetan Red Guards. In Inner Mongolia, some 790,000 people were persecuted, of these 22,900 were beaten to death and 120,000 were maimed,[20] during a ruthless witchhunt to find members of the allegedly "separatist" Inner Mongolian People’s Party, which had actually been disbanded decades before. According to Jung Chang in her book Mao: The Unknown Story, cases included a Muslim
woman having her teeth pulled out with pliers, then her nose and ears
twisted off, before being hacked to death. Another woman was raped with
a pole (she then committed suicide). One man had nails driven into his
skull. Another had his tongue cut out and then his eyes gouged out.
Another was beaten with clubs on the genitals before having gunpowder
forced up his nostrils and set alight.[21] In Xinjiang, copies of the Quran and other books of the Uyghur people were burned and Muslim imams were reportedly paraded around with paint splashed on their persons. In the ethnic Korean areas of northeast China, language schools were destroyed. In Yunnan Province, the palace of the Dai people‘s king was torched, and an infamous massacre of Hui Muslim people at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, called the "Shadian Incident", claimed over 1,600 lives in 1975.

What is it about living in freedom that causes people to romanticize tyranny of the worst sort?

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Daniel Yokomizo May 28, 2008 at 11:02 am

To be the devil's advocate, what were the death statistics before and after the Cultural Revolution. If the revolution brought objective benefits and the number of deaths caused by it isn't statistically significant (i.e. without the socialist government there would be other conflicts, crime, whatever, causing the deaths) why can't they be praised for their success?

I mean why we value action so much higher than inaction. Killing one person to save another is a moral conundrum but letting one person die by allowing someone else to live is the "moral choice"? What if the numbers are skewed and by action we end up with more people alive? Wouldn't the extremist utilitarians always value more people?

I find these questions interesting because the reasoning revolutionaries use always prefer action to inaction, but we (society) only chastise it when it fails (in our eyes).

Just for the record I think such revolutions are a complete mistake and agree with Russel.

Freedom_Lover May 28, 2008 at 11:04 am

Lies, all neocon lies I tell you! China is a worker's paradise!!!!

/wipes froth off lips

Randy May 28, 2008 at 11:15 am

Reading the post, and searching back through what I know of history, it seems to me that there is nothing scarier than a nation under the control of hardcore idealists. The result is always a rampage. Sometimes external, sometimes internal, often both, but always a rampage. What's needed is separation of idealism and state.

M. Hodak May 28, 2008 at 11:29 am

Daniel – Are you asking if 20 million deaths by violence and man-made famine were unremarkable?

I think Dongping Han offers the kind of pinhead analysis that gives academics a bad name. If he had made similar claims about the collateral benefits of Nazism (and millions of people clearly benefited, for a while at least), then his pinheadedness would be more apparent.

Kyle M May 28, 2008 at 11:57 am

Nice use of contrast Russ. I particularly enjoy it when alleged academics are embarrassed by the evidence on Wikipedia.

I spent over a month in China, where Mao is still somewhat venerated, though that tradition is waining. I was lucky enough to have the guidance of Professor John Paden, the film "Morning Sun" by Professor Carma Hinton, and the books Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux and Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian before I went. All four sources informed me of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in different, specific, vivid ways.

When I was actually there, though, everyone acted as if Mao had been mislead by the Gang of Four and that it wasn't his fault. When I'd ask people what they thought of Mao, they'd say they liked him and that the Cultural Revolution was a "good idea." This was until I had a tour guide in Xian who when I asked what she thought, she leaned in and whispered, "Mao and the Revolution set China back forty years. We were even with Japan until then. Now look."

From my own observations, the tragedy that the destruction of the "Four Olds" wrought upon that epic civilization's history is obvious.

Thanks for calling this Dongping Han out, I hope he loses his tenure for such lunacy.

William May 28, 2008 at 12:11 pm

I've been living in Chengdu, China for the past six months and have yet to hear anyone wax nostalgic about the Cultural Revolution. What I have heard is criticism of its needless, irrational destruction of culture and its stupid policies, such as forcing educated young people to go work as peasants. Mao is still somewhat venerated as a liberator but most people recognize the Cultural Revolution as a big mistake.

jorod May 28, 2008 at 12:35 pm

It must have been like the French Revolution or Amin's Uganda. Mao and other dictators liked to test their underlings loyalty through rituals of violence and mayhem.

Andrew May 28, 2008 at 12:59 pm

Great post. I read the letter on Sunday and was absolutely speechless. I'd write a letter in response but I wouldn't know where to begin. Sadly I think many "liberals" including many at the NY Times, are of a similar mindset and share the delusion that there can be a society with "free" health care, full employment, and equality without any costs.

FreedomLover May 28, 2008 at 1:06 pm

It must have been like the French Revolution or Amin's Uganda. Mao and other dictators liked to test their underlings loyalty through rituals of violence and mayhem.

Posted by: jorod | May 28, 2008 12:35:45 PM

Now you know what Barack Obama has in store for us. The new Idi Amin?

happyjuggler0 May 28, 2008 at 2:22 pm

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

Daniel Yokomizo May 28, 2008 at 2:24 pm

@Randy: I'm not saying that is unremarkable, I'm asking (in a devil's advocate way) if we know that it statistically increased the death rate. China wasn't a paradise these days, there was violence and famine anyway and the climate issues would happen whether or not Mao took power. The point is: it's bad to break a few eggs to make an omelet if a similar number of eggs were going to be broken anyway?

Again, just for the record, this is an argument, it doesn't mean that I'm support of whatever happened or that I think this kind of action is intelligent (no in both counts).

Randy May 28, 2008 at 3:00 pm


My post above wasn't really targeted at yours, but I'll field the question.

Re; "[Is it] bad to break a few eggs to make an omelet if a similar number of eggs were going to be broken anyway?"

Idealists are always talking about the perfect omelet, but the historical record is quite clear. The combination of idealism and state is not a recipe for omelets. Its just a recipe for a lot of broken eggs. So the answer to your question is yes, it is bad, because there is no omelet. The solution to the problem of broken eggs is to stop breaking them – and/or stop the people who break them.

vidyohs May 29, 2008 at 8:03 am


Clean, succinct, and concise. Truthful as well.

Gil May 29, 2008 at 11:29 am

What of 'hidden genocides'? They might include the authorities of the Medieval Era for not undertaking any basic science that could have allowed for basic hygiene and medicine that could have saved millions from the Black Death. Or what of the fear-mongering of the '60 & '70 frightening young Baby Boomer men & women about 'how the end of the world is nigh' either by WW3 or overpopulation that million of babies weren't even conceived and Western nations are now reliant on immigrants to make up the numbers? Or the banning of broad-spraying of DDT in Africa? Ethanol? . . .

But I s'pose it does depend on the type of revolution doesn't it? Were the American Revolutionaries quaint and proper in their fighting and only used enough force to attain freedom and stop there? The French Revolutionaries undoubtedly went too far and delighted in engaging in the torture, rape and murder of their perceived enemies.

Hammer May 30, 2008 at 5:01 pm

Gil: Generally, genocide involves purposefully killing people who are already alive.
In your Black Death example, not knowing how to stop the plague, and not funding scientists to solve the problem hardly makes those in power at the time culpable. Those in power had no idea of what to do, and neither did anyone else.
Similarly, saying there might be too many people (while silly) is not on the same level as killing those that are already alive.

The problem you are having, and that many leftists seem to have, is an inability to differentiate between knowledge errors and moral errors.
The medieval lords did not have any clue as to what was ultimately causing the plague. Even if they had wanted to stop it they couldn't have. That's a knowledge error.
The Red Guards and Communists in general knew pretty well that chopping up a person with a machette would kill them, and in fact that was their intention. That's a moral error.

brotio May 31, 2008 at 1:02 am

I've just read read Hammer's comments on the two related threads.

Hammer, all you've left me needing to say is, "Bravo!" I'll quote Vidyohs: "Clean, succinct, and concise. Truthful as well." Great posts.

skh.pcola May 31, 2008 at 9:58 am

@Gil: "…might include the authorities of the Medieval Era for not undertaking any basic science…"

When has government innovated anything of value? Name one instance other than military technology that eventually passes into the civilian sector (nukes, radar, &c.).

Your mindset is one that is at the root of the problems in society; you believe that "authority" has the answers/solutions, but history proves that paradigm shifts are provided by individuals who ideate outside of the rigid, overarching structure of "authority."

Also, your startling use of moral relativism vis-a-vis China's Cultural Revolution and the United State's War of Independence is disgusting. Can't liberal retards distinguish between actions by oppressed people and actions on people by an oppressive government? Loathsome ideology, Gil…you have a heap of it.

vidyohs May 31, 2008 at 11:30 am


You're one ignorant little quacker.

The authorities knew exactly what to do in order to stop and eliminate the threat of the Black Plague.

The whole scenario is the exact duplicate as what we see being played out now with Al Gore and the envirowhackos.

In the early stages of the Black Plague, what passed for a researcher scientist of the day, figured out what was causing the plague! It was being carried by cats, yes cats. This misguided soul (think Al Gore) convinced the authorities that all they had to do was kill all the cats.

Orders of bounties for dead cats spread out across Europe and soon there were few if any cats left alive. The Black plague exploded across Europe.

Cats kill mice and rats, rats and mice carried the fleas that carried the black plague, and when all the cats were killed the rodent population exploded and so did the range and intensity of the black plague.

"Authorities" have a long history of making everything worse because authorities are generally made up of ignorant people like you who are easily convinced of stupid things, like you.

In summation "the authorities" did not ignore the black plague they listened to their "expert" and took action and killed untold millions through stupidity.

And, "the authorities" in Washington D.C. have now taken the first step (Polar Bear on the endangered species list) to ruin our modern day world.

Carbon Dioxide is the modern flea and carries the new "global warming" plague. Polar Bears depend on ice, anything that threatens the ice threatens the Pokar Bears, so therefore anything done to protect the ice is now justified in law.

See how freaking easy it is for stupid socialistducks to screw up a world.

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