The Cultural Revolution and Free Speech
PBS’s Frontline recently aired a documentary of behind the North Korea scene. Among all of the images of the expected misery, poverty, hunger, want, there was 1 segment which I thought was greatly overlooked. A quick exchange between a few North Koreans behind closed doors.
NARRATOR: Behind closed doors, even members of the North Korean elite have voiced unhappiness with the regime, like this businesswoman filmed at a private lunch.
1st MAN: All we’re saying is give us some basic rights, right? We don’t have any.
WOMAN: It’s not like that in China. In China, they’ve got freedom of speech, you know. They went through the Cultural Revolution.
2nd WOMAN: We North Koreans are wise and very loyal. An uprising is still something we don’t understand.
1st MAN: But even that’s only to a certain point.
WOMAN: There can’t be a rebellion. They’ll kill everyone ruthlessly. Yes, ruthlessly. The problem here is that one in three people will secretly report you. That’s the problem. That’s how they do it.
2ndMAN: Let’s just drink up. There’s no use talking about it.
The Western Net users picked up on the line, and laughed at the irony of what they could only attribute to as ignorance of a North Korean. But the real irony is, the North Koreans may have the better understanding of “Free speech” and “cultural revolution”, as do the Chinese who experienced it.
“Freedom of Speech” through “Cultural Revolution”. It couldn’t happen in North Korea, because the regime would “kill everyone ruthlessly”. Need to digest that a bit more.
We North Koreans are wise and very loyal. An uprising is still something we don’t understand.
“Free speech” necessarily equate to “uprising”?
To most part of the world, yes. If the aim of “free speech” is to drastically change a society, then it does equal to a call to “uprising”. You can proclaim “peaceful” all you want, but you know you are headed toward chaos of change that you can’t predict. As Rumsfeld once said, “Democracy is messy.”
I mean, face the reality of change. To most part of the world, we are not talking about sitting down and having civilized little chat about the color to be painted on a new national monument, or even how to split up the tax money to different interest groups. No, “free speech” is an “uprising” usually against an entrenched ruling class.
And it’s not just having one’s say, it’s IN-YOUR-FACE kind of “free speech”, where the weak gets to denounced the strong in public once and for all, and reverse the power structure. Uprising 101.
And this is what happened partly in the Cultural Revolution. No-holds-barred Freedom of Speech.
Western historians would attribute the Cultural Revolution all to Mao, as a “purge”. Well, Mao didn’t have that kind of control. Mao was actually mostly out of power at the time. He didn’t control the CCP, and he didn’t have control of the military either. Mao couldn’t even protect some of his own friends. That was actually the whole point of his calling on the Red Guards. He hoped that they would somehow put him back to power.
Instead, the Red Guard unleashed “free speech” on pretty much everyone, including the CCP leaders, the Chinese military, their own families, and themselves. In doing so, the Red Guards didn’t really put Mao back in control, because the whole country was in relative chaos, Mao didn’t have much control of any thing.
As “free speech” goes, the Red Guards were idealistic and completely unabashed and unrestrained in terms of what they could say. Forget “civilized” speech. The Cultural Revolution was all about saying whatever criticism/curses one can come up with. It was the “Woodstock” of Angry Chinese Youths, if you will.
They threw away caution and traditions of respecting each other and elders, and set to daily tasks of challenging every idea around them. That’s the ultimate “free speech”, that I have yet to see rival. For their “free speech”, they grind schools, factories, social services of the entire country of China to a halt. Try BEATING that, Occupiers of Wall Street!
The Red Guards didn’t care if they were wasting their youths, not going to school, not getting good jobs, not having any thing to their names. And they did it for almost 2 decades. (Sure, some did it reluctantly, perhaps out of peer pressure, but hey, that’s the social movements).
If we accept that “freedom” can be messy, then the Cultural Revolution need not be spun positively. It is simply another “messy” exercise of “freedom”.
*Some Westerners have wondered why some older Chinese nowadays visit “Cultural Revolution Themed Restaurants” in China. Well, wonder no more, because to many old Red Guards, it was a time of their total freedom (both exciting and dangerous), that no one will ever experience the equal.
How many in their lives would ever be able to TOTALLY challenge the society their are born in? To question every thing, to criticize every thing long held sacred??
Most would say, “why would I? My society/country is fine.” Well, that’s not “freedom of speech”, that is self-censorship from ingrained biases.
Well, the Chinese Youth exercised the ultimate “freedom of speech”, and they did it without a tiniest bit of concerns for their own future (or the future of their families).
Yes, it is CRUEL and even inhuman. But that’s often what drastic changes require. (and we only talking about “speech”, or are we?)
If it sounds like madness to some, it shouldn’t be surprising. So many in the world today are DRIVEN to drastic “free speech” and uprising, because they see no other options. But they do it out of concerns for their families and friends. They don’t see any other options. But that too diminishes their “free speech”, because it is not truly “free speech”, when you are driven to scream out your misery.
REAL “free speech”, is when you have no real material motivation, but you are compelled by your reasoning and your passion to challenge, to ask, to criticize things that others hold Holy. And that, very few can do.
An entire generation of Chinese did it. (Mao perhaps encouraged them, but he couldn’t make them do it, if they didn’t want to).
The result: Chinese of that era, had to face the awful final conclusion that NO one was right. That everyone might be wrong. CCP leaders like Deng were put in prison or into hard labor. War heroes were persecuted, stripped of their honors.
Once no one is inviolate, the end of Cultural Revolution was self-evident. Mao was dying, and the Gang of Four could not borrow his prestige to stay in power. Why would anyone care who the Gang of Four were? They were no more sacred than any other CCP leader who have gone into jail.
This was the key reason why China did not become Dynastic family ruled like North Korea. In short, the Cultural Revolution destroy all possibility of another infallible “Emperor”. Mao couldn’t possibly leave his throne to someone else, not to his grandson, not to his wife. The would be “usurpers” didn’t need to prop up his grandson to power struggle with his wife. There was no dynasty. It was that simple.
*And in this story, was the true lesson of a “mess free speech exercise”. It is 1 major reason why North Korea didn’t develop like China, and why China didn’t collapse like USSR.
Destructive it was during the Cultural Revolution, that China suffer a huge loss of brilliant Military commanders in the PLA, many who were veterans of the Korean War. So devastated was the Chinese economy and military, that China simply had very little resources to challenge external security threats.
If the Cultural Revolution didn’t happen, (some have asked me that question), China would have had a very ardent military core of CCP, which would have demanded steady military funding increase, to prepare to complete the conquest of Taiwan (which was halted by the Cultural Revolution). Which would have failed over and over again, wasting resources and increase US’s support for Taiwan.
Effectively, CR prevented China from frequent military confrontations with US and USSR during the Cold War. China stagnated for almost 2 decades, but as a result, China was not tempted to follow the destructive Cold War arms race that drew in USSR and North Korea, leaving the door open to the eventual detente with USA during the Nixon era.
More importantly, CR in China left behind the current process of leadership transition in China. Power change hands between people, generations, and even between factions. After the CR’s destructive messiness, such power transitions may be boring but much more desired (even with some rumored purges). It’s far better than dynastic transitions and fearful whispers of “kill everyone ruthlessly”.
No. In China today, criticisms are common, far more than most countries. And the government even responds to them, positively and negatively, but never ignoring them. Why? This is the lesson of “free speech” of Cultural Revolution. That being, there are far worse consequences of “free speech”, that neither side would want.
*But this lesson is not yet fully comprehended by the West, nor the Rest of the World.
One only need to see the “Arab Spring” for the missing lesson.
“Free speech” is not some “organized” protest. True “free speech” is a disorganized spontaneous revolution. True free speech does not put someone in power, as it is to question everyone. It is not there to solve problems or to feed the poor. It is “free speech” for its own sake.
Those who usurp its purpose are inevitably doomed to fail in their own goals.
This is why Arab Spring failed. Because despite the blood struggle, it was simply not long enough to change any one’s mindset. One power is replaced by another, and life’s miseries and injustices carried on.
No. “Free Speech” was the Cultural Revolution. Every thing else are poor imitations, cheap drama to entertain and confuse the masses.