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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