July 16th 2016


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COVER STORY 2016 election: Malcolm makes allies malcontents

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WA BUSHFIRE INQUIRY Ferguson report a beauty, but now the fight begins

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ECONOMICS Ignore scaremongers; Britannia rules apply

PUBLIC POLICY WA Meth Strategy 2016 a most welcome first step

EUTHANASIA Measure of success of Dutch tests will be death

HIGHER EDUCATION Trigger warnings: an infantile tyranny

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AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Middle Kingdom brings eternal Now down under

MUSIC Weighing up sounds and silence in John Tavener

CINEMA Memory, self and family: Finding Dory

BOOK REVIEW Mao Maoing a culture

ERICH VON MANSTEIN: Hitler's Master Strategist

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BOOK REVIEW
Mao Maoing a culture




News Weekly, July 16, 2016

 

THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION:
A People’s History 1962–76

 by Frank Dikötter

Bloomsbury, London
Paperback: 432 pages
Price: AUD$27.95

Reviewed by Bill James

W.H. Auden described the 1930s as a “low dishonest decade”, but the 1960s gave it a run for its money, most notably by the West’s widespread adulation of history’s worst mass murderer, Mao Zedong.

This reviewer can remember university student devotees of “sex, drugs and rock’n‘roll” culture plastering their walls with icons of the Dear Leader who, had they lived in China, would have clapped them all in the laogai, the Chinese gulag.

This is the third volume in Dikötter’s trilogy on Mao’s China 1949–76, and along with its excellent predecessors (The Tragedy of Liberation and Mao’s Great Famine) it strips away any remaining scraps of revolutionary glamour adhering to the Great Helmsman.

What Dikötter calls “the opening shot of the Cultural Revolution” was a 1966 editorial in the People’s Daily headed: “Sweep away all monsters and demons”, which called for the eradication of all residual bourgeois attitudes and behaviour in China.

Mao had been alarmed by the potentially cross-border infection of de-Stalinisation in the USSR, which he condemned as “revisionism”. He was determined to go down in history as a second and greater Lenin, who carried the original 1917 Revolution through to its ideologically purified culmination.

His genius and quasi-deific status was proclaimed through every conceivable medium, such as portraits, statues, hysterical youth rallies, campaigns (“Three Loyalties and Four Boundless Loves”), as well as the ubiquitous loudspeakers, Mao badges and big character posters.

At a less grandiose level, the Cultural Revolution was an opportunity for him to settle longstanding petty resentments by inciting the people’s indignation against his personal bêtes noires. Targets included rivals and critics within the Chinese Communist Party and, more generally, all Chinese citizens whose outlook had been broadened by education and culture, which he despised.

To do this, he turned first to China’s youth (whom Dikötter characterises as “impressionable, easy to manipulate and eager to fight”), exemplified by the notorious Red Guards, and then to the population at large, igniting a national explosion of self-righteous fanaticism and violence.

As Mao’s mouthpiece, Lin Biao called on China’s youth to exterminate “all the old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits of the exploiting classes”. In the tumultuous heresy hunt which ensued, nobody could know what group or individual, no matter how seemingly unimpeachable their ultra-leftism, might next be exposed as “rightist” or “capitalist roader”.

China experienced a pandemic of paranoia which left McCarthyism for dead. As Dikötter puts it: “The situation changed constantly, with bewildering reversals in fortune dictated by the whimsical policies emanating from Beijing.”

Beginning with their teachers and lecturers, the Red Guards imposed a reign of terror which included public humiliation (spitting, dunce’s caps, abject postures, abusive signs) in front of mass meetings, leading to many suicides; stripping and destruction of bourgeois clothing; imprisonment; beatings; scalding with boiling water; forced consumption of excrement; stoning; burying alive; straight executions …

In shapeless military uniforms featuring heavy belts for beating their victims, they randomly attacked women, children, old people, farmers, small-business proprietors, shop­keepers, pedlars, barbers, tailors, craftsmen, Christians, Taoists, and mere unfortunates in the wrong place at the wrong time.

An orgy of anti-intellectualism saw not only universities and schools closed, but cultural edifices such as temples vandalised, and treasures such as paintings, porcelain, musical instruments and books publicly burned.

In confirmation of Heinrich Heine’s dictum about those who begin by burning books, there were in fact some cases of people, too, being burned alive.

Even the most senior and obsequious party leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping and Chou En-Lai, were never completely secure from the possible accusation of being a clandestine “class enemy”. Mao had effectively mobilised “the people” against the party.

By the end of 1968 the army had emerged triumphant from the chaos of competing factions all claiming to represent the one and only genuinely correct Mao Zedong Thought.

Mao had no choice but to depend on the People’s Liberation Army, and indeed it was doctrinally orthodox – after all, the The Quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong, the ubiquitous Little Red Book, had originally been designed to fit in the pocket of the standard soldier’s jacket – but he never lost the fear that it might become a law unto itself.

The Chairman’s misgivings notwith­standing, its marshals now set out to impose a largely welcome military order on the exhausted country. The turbulent adolescents who had filled the ranks of the Red Guards were dispersed to the distant countryside to “learn from the peasantry”.

In conditions of endless toil and austere living conditions (heat, cold, filth, poverty, hunger, mosquitoes, disease, sexual abuse, illiteracy and barbarism), what they really learned was the meaning of Marx’s famous expression, “the idiocy of rural life”.

Some were dragooned into the massive, megalomaniacal agricultural projects which, in the name of a mythical self-sufficiency, produced little food but badly damaged China’s environment. Demonstrating workers were put back in their factories, and remaining potential dissidents were dealt with in a series of purges and witch-hunts.

The domination of the army ended with the mysterious air-crash death of Defence Minister Lin Biao in 1971, an embarrassment mitigated by the prestige that accrued to Mao with U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit the following year. This “had huge propa­ganda value”, being “widely interpreted as an admission of defeat by America in its attempt to isolate China”.

Although the country remained outwardly quiet for the remainder of Mao’s life, beneath the surface two tendencies worked to undermine his intended legacy.

First, in a movement which began in the countryside and then spread to the cities, villagers subverted the controlled economy through black markets, underground factory production, and de facto privatisation of land, thus initiating the frantic capitalism which characterises China today.

It was an inevitable reaction to a rigidly “planned” economy that during the Cultural Revolution left the population short of not just food but of staples such as salt, soap, toothbrushes, matches, batteries, oil and textiles.

Second, in a sceptical reaction against the ideological “wars of religion” which had caused so much misery and upheaval, there was a general renunciation of Marxism-Leninism as a viable worldview. This left as Mao’s legacy an omnipotent party that exercises power for its own sake, with no ostensible intellectual or moral justification.

The scars of the Cultural Revolution remain. Up to 2 million died, and countless others suffered betrayal, humiliation, ostracism, loss of career and status and home and family, imprisonment, forced labour and torture.

Coming on top of the his disastrous Great Leap Forward and Great Famine, which had cost 45 million lives, the Chairman’s frivolous and egotistical manipulation of power in the period from 1962 to 1976 further traumatised a society which, beneath its communist veneer, had retained a considerable residue of Confucian respect, order and tradition.

Dikötter has done his best to give accessible coherence and structure to a cultural maelstrom involving myriad individuals and factions and events, which took place over 14 years, across a geographically large nation of many hundreds of millions of people.

What is more, the government of China still denies its archives to historians. It is doubtful whether anyone could have done a better job.

And his conclusion? While the Cultural Revolution “destroyed the remnants of Marxism-Leninism”, the reaction of the Chinese authorities to subsequent events such as the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989 “send a signal that still pulsates to this day: do not query the monopoly of the one-party state”.


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