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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.

  1. aquadraht
    February 6th, 2014 at 18:10 | #1

    While I do not agree to everything you wrote, you clearly have much of a point, especially in terms of RG acting out their freedom. But right a question: How “two decades”? To the best of my knowledge, CR started a bit 1965, then developped full momentum of the RG movement 966-1967. In 1968, the time of the RG was mainly over, and the Revolutinary Committees, actually led by PLA officers, took over control. Until 1971, Lin Biao tried to long for power, while Mao and the Gang of Four were collecting the shatters of the party to some extent. In the last 5 years of Mao’s life, Zhou Enlai restored much of stability, together with Deng Xiaoping. The crisis unfolded after his death and eventually, after Mao’s death, led to ousting of the Gang of Four.
    So I see only a 2yr period of full chaos, not two decades. Correct me if I am wrong.

  2. ersim
    February 7th, 2014 at 08:39 | #2

    Besides the propagandistic garbage that PBS(Propaganda Broadcast Services) produced with “Frontline” about North Korea, you do make a great point about how ” freedom of speech” is used, depending on what country/society. The use of the Cultural Revolution in China is a great example of how ” freedom of speech” was put in action. Unlike the West, their version of “change” is at best empty promises, or at worst, “reform”(window dressing).

  3. Black Pheonix
    February 7th, 2014 at 09:05 | #3


    Granted that most of the truly chaotic times of CR was only may be 2 years, but CR was going on for a long while.

    Another aspect of CR was the “sent down youth” movement, sending 1 million Chinese youths into the country side to “learn from the farmers”.

    This went on for the entirety of the CR. It was partly done to temper the chaos of CR.

    But I think it also worked to give the Chinese youth a different perspective on their “freedom”, to face the harsh reality of China in its poor rural areas.

  4. Black Pheonix
    February 7th, 2014 at 09:11 | #4


    The North Korean quote puts it into good perspective:

    Without the true realization of possible violence that accompanies “free speech”, one does not truly understand “free speech”. Not its value, not its horrors.

    In the reverse example, some Westerners say things irresponsibly, make racists, hateful speech using stereotypes and generalizations. That is because they don’t really think about the possible violence and escalation that might arise from their “speech”.

    Such merely cheapens the freedom, and pollutes the public sphere.

    In Western media (and even legal systems), there is a dearth of civility now. It is because Victory in politics and court means more than “free speech”, that they are willing to abuse 1 for the other. But in reality, as in CR, victories are seldom worth it (and seldom last very long).

  5. February 7th, 2014 at 12:41 | #5

    I think this entry on Baidu sum up the CR nicely.


    “Complete Name “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. A political movement mistakenly started and lead by Mao Zedong from May 1966 to October 1976; it was usurped by the counter-revolutionary cliques of Lin Biao and Jiang Qing, it brought severe pain to the Chinese people.”

    As one can tell by the complete name there are TWO major aspect of that movement. The first is about equality and anti-elitism. The second is about perceived flaw in Chinese culture. Mao didn’t come upon these themes out of thin air. These two problems have plagued Chinese societies for ages.

    Mao and the CCP thought they can solve it by founding the PRC. However, by the mid 1960s, a new elite class has emerged. And the so-called “short comings of Chinese culture” still persist! Mao is getting really old, he was already 73 in 1966. He felt that only a revolution can achieved results before he passed away. Contrary to common belief, Liu and Deng enthusiastically support this. It is Liu and Deng who launched a political attack on a few high ranking CCP on alleged wrong doing setting the stage for future attack for all leaders, including themselves. http://chenyonglin3333.blogchina.com/774066.html

    In 1966, the PLA under Lin Biao abolished its rank structure so that every man in the army is equal. That same year Gaokao was also eliminated because going to university is elitist! As BP has pointed out, what should high school and the college students aspire to? The country wants them to promote equality and reform the culture. Although Mao encourage attack on the political elite (there are ground rules that have to be followed as written in the so-called 16 directives of the CR published on August 1966.) http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_627894230100fqyj.html

    在进行辩论的时候,要用文斗,不用武斗。During debate, one must use word not force to attack.

    Sad to say most students are too juvenile to have self control. Like all teenagers in a mass movement, the urge to outdo one another is too strong. When facing so-called public enemies, revisionist, traitors, spies etc, it is too easy to use physical attack on them especially if they refused to acknowledge their crimes. It would start with a slap, then a punch, then a kick and all sorts of atrocities would follow.

    This is where the movement got seriously side tracked. It is also where Lin Biao and Jiang Qing were blamed. Anybody who didn’t toe their line would be given a trumped up label and be attacked mercilessly by the students. In other words, they have launched a coup. However, China is so big that they are not exactly in control either. It is not just them, anybody who has grudge against someone of position can simply come up with a charge and that person would be attacked. Basically, it is freedom of speech, blind idealism, populism and sadly mob violence, ignorance running amok.

  6. Black Pheonix
    February 7th, 2014 at 12:51 | #6


    “Basically, it is freedom of speech, blind idealism, populism and sadly mob violence, ignorance running amok.”

    Yes, but what’s really different about CR was that the motivation for the mob violence was very idealistic, out of pure need for political correctness and free speech, in pursuit of an expression of ultimate freedom.

    Freedom from “elitism” of all forms.

    It wasn’t the usual kind of “revolution”, where the motivation was that the populous just couldn’t take the “oppression” any more, they were either starving or victims of grave injustice.

    But in CR, the youths were more focused on their “future”, the future of right and wrong, the question of right and wrong.

    That makes the “free speech” of CR more purist, because it was not tainted by selfish materialistic short term goals.

    *Others, even the Americans, were motivated in revolution by taxes, discrimination, etc. When the short term goals are met, the revolution end rather quickly and inconclusively.

    That is not “free speech”, because nothing fundamental changed.

  7. ersim
    February 7th, 2014 at 16:34 | #7

    If freedom of speech can lead or start a ” revolution”, I guess it depends on who leads it and how successful the “revolution” becomes.

  8. pug_ster
    February 8th, 2014 at 03:33 | #8


    I find this double ironic. Censorship this pervasive in the US. I mean that not just American propaganda not reporting this, but if someone tries to post this in youtube, it gets removed immediately. Second, out of all things FLG propaganda is reporting this;p

  9. February 9th, 2014 at 05:45 | #9

    I really agree with ‘ersim’ on the point about the PBS = Propaganda BS. I’m disturbed by the utilizing of this wretched anti-DPR Korea ‘documentary’ — courtesy a US gov’t-sponsored media organ and supported by CIA personnel, a G.W. Bush administration Nat’l Security Council neo-con, a Japanese editor of alleged DPRK dissident journalists, etc. — as a jumping off point for an otherwise intriguing meditation about free speech and the Cultural Revolution. Such programming puts me right back in the “Axis of Evil” days, which was my spur to become an expat in the first place.

    You want “…images of…misery, poverty, hunger…” in a country with which the US is technically at war? The US gov’t / CIA will indeed be happy to give you just what you’d expect. They facilitate such ‘documentaries’ (and other releases across the media spectrum) of sheer negativity bolstered with a narration of implausible, unproved allegations about certain countries; all the while omitting the fact that these poor countries are invariably harshly and arbitrarily sanctioned by the US.

    I’d have thought Hidden Harmonies would avoid this kind of Cold War propaganda considering how many such vile attacks over the decades have been and still are deployed against the PRC, and which we spend much time combating.

    I can’t view the Frontline program in mainland China so I can only go by what’s in the transcript, but I’d be skeptical about what’s being said /translated. I can perceive inconsistencies in the narrative; for example the ‘illegal for women to wear pants’ meme (elsewhere reported as ‘NK girls in pants do hard labor’) is false. The ‘Pyongyang traffic girls’ do not wear skirts in the winter. I’ve always seen the female soldiers parading in pants. Trousers seem to be all that’s being worn by females in the cover photo of ‘Rimjin-gang’, the issue of the “News From Inside North Korea” periodical from 2010 edited by — guess who? — Japanese Jiro Ishimaru, a figure seen skulking along the Chinese-Korean border in this very Frontline program… http://www.asiapress.org/rimjingang/english/cover/index.html

    Besides the unverifiability of much the program’s narrative and the unknown quality of translations in a US propaganda piece, I’d suggest that perhaps unreasonable presumptions have been made about the reported words which form the basis of this article’s argument.

    Firstly, isn’t it jumping to conclusions that the ‘North Korean elite businesswoman’ knows what she’s talking about concerning China’s free speech vis-a-vis the Cultural Revolution? I can’t know the speaker’s age, but what exactly would a DPR Korean citizen know about that period of China’s history?
    In other words, how would this person get information about it — through the DPR Korean educational-ideological system, through hearsay…? It seems like an assumption is being made that the historical knowledge of this foreign person and her companions — and later DPR Koreans in general — accords exactly with the experience of the author and Chinese people in general, the latter of which must cover a quantifiably varied spectrum.

    Secondly, I perceive the reported comments of this person as being rather ambiguous. My sense is that the person’s meaning could be that free speech in China was born / enhanced / intensified during the Cultural Revolution. However, it seems like another way to read it is that free speech in China appeared post-CR, that the turbulence was something to get through to arrive at the condition of having free speech.

    One watching the program or understanding Korean may understand what’s being said more clearly…

    As an ancillary point I appreciate your perspective on the CR, that it was something more than a solely destructive social upheaval which the current ruling ideological credo of Westerners and other enemies of PR China portray it as being.

  10. ersim
    February 10th, 2014 at 04:47 | #10

    @Sweet and Sour Socialism
    In relation to the “mockumentary” about North Korea, anything done and produced in the U.S.”lamestream”, including those who claim to be “liberal”, never give them face value. About the blog, I was more focused on how the Cultural Revolution is equated to “freedom of speech”, and how “freedom of speech” can lead to an “uprising” or a “revolution”, regardless of which country/society, including those who like to preach about “freedom of speech” to others in the world.

  11. February 12th, 2014 at 01:07 | #11

    @Sweet and Sour Socialism

    I completely agree that your characterization of PBS as Propaganda BS. I used not to pay that much attention … but the way PBS frames economics and politics is so one-sided that I wonder why so many think that watching it is “brainy” – or somehow “intellectual.”

    This piece on N. Korea is no exception.

    I like you am a little confused why Black Phoenix needed to use the Frontline piece as a jump into discussion of cultural revolution as freedom of speech. To me it confuses rather than elicits. I mean the pieces are all wrong … what do N. Koreans know about freedom of speech, or the intricacies of China’s cultural revolution. And of course, as you’ve mentioned, how does this propaganda piece against N. Korea work to elicit either freedom of speech or China’s cultural revolution?

    Still, the idea that China’s cultural revolution is one result of a no holds barred experimentation in freedom of speech is an intriguing notion that is rarely appreciated and explored … in China or the West. I may write something about it myself … but I would draw from sources other than this Frontline piece to refine my thoughts.

  12. pug_ster
    February 12th, 2014 at 07:52 | #12

    @Sweet and Sour Socialism

    Reminds of what many of these Western “China Experts” think of China when they a) embrace capitalism, they will embrace the west, didn’t happen b) embrace the internet and freeflow of ideas and they will embrace the west, didn’t happen again c) Chinese students studying in the US – they will bring back ideas of democracy, highly unlikely that it will happen.

  13. Black Pheonix
    February 12th, 2014 at 11:40 | #13


    “I mean the pieces are all wrong … what do N. Koreans know about freedom of speech, or the intricacies of China’s cultural revolution.”

    I do beg to differ from this sentiment.

    If indeed “freedom of speech” is universal as some claimed, then North Koreans would know it just as well.

    Additionally, a man starved knows the yearning for food better than most.

    Additionally, many North Koreans bore witness to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Indeed, Kim Il-Sung actually condemned the Chinese Cultural Revolution as “insanity”.

    North Korea, in my opinion, actively avoided a Cultural Revolution, because Kim wanted to preserve his mystique of his authority. But his minions also studied the Cultural Revolution, in their attempts to avoid it.

    Of all the countries in the world, 2 would understand Cultural Revolution. 1st being China which actually went through it, the 2nd being North Korea which actively avoided it.

  14. ersim
    February 12th, 2014 at 18:55 | #14

    @Black Pheonix
    It seems you bought into the Western propaganda of “brainwashed” in North Koreans

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