America's Potential Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

Supporters of free speech and basic civility throughout the world watched in horror for a decade as Chinese university campuses descended into violent chaos during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Respected professors were shouted down, subjected to public shaming that included being paraded through the streets in dunce caps, and forced to attend public “struggle sessions” which included torture.  Anne Thurston recounted the use of the “airplane” maneuver in her work Enemies of the People:  

“You Xiaoli was standing, precariously balanced, on a stool. Her body was bent over from the waist into a right angle, and her arms, elbows stiff and straight, were behind her back, one hand grasping the other at the wrist. It was the position known as ‘doing the airplane.’… On both sides of the blackboard were chalked her name and the myriad crimes she was alleged to have committed. She was accused of being a bourgeois academic authority.”

While living in China two decades ago, I heard numerous personal horror stories from Chinese friends who were of the Cultural Revolution generation. One woman recalled with tears how her sister was driven to suicide by Red Guard harassment on a college campus; another recalled how her father, a high-ranking provincial official, was taken away in the middle of the night never to be seen again. Even Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s son, Deng Pufang, was subjected to Red Guard violence -- being pushed out of the window of a building at Peking University in 1968 and, as a result, becoming a wheelchair-bound paraplegic.  During that same Cultural Revolution, Mao’s fanatic wife, Jiang Qing, had rival Zhou Enlai’s adopted children, Sun Yang and Sun Weishi, tortured and murdered by Red Guards – Sun Yang died in the basement of Renmin University. 

The current uproar on American campuses, specifically at the University of Missouri and at Yale, has not reached anything near a level of Red Guard violence. Yet the video of Mizzou Assistant Communications Professor Melissa Click, calling for “muscle” for use against a student reporter and then attempting to grab his camera, displayed a fanaticism worthy of any Red Guard.  And the Yale student shouting obscenities at Professor Nicholas Christakis and demanding his firing because of an email his professor spouse sent out concerning freedom of expression in the wearing of Halloween costumes brings to mind past scenes of chanting Red Guards waving little red books giving the “Quotations of Chairman Mao.”  On November 18th Yale News reported that Yale President Peter Salovey had emailed students his support for Professors Nicholas and Erika Christakis, rejecting demands that they be fired.  Such mindless, intolerant, and vulgar Red Guard-like demands are indeed unworthy of America’s great institutions of higher learning. 

As with Mao’s Red Guards, the current American student movement has been galvanized by an attack on university administrators. The Red Guards accused university officials of “intellectual elitism” and “bourgeois tendencies.” A number of university officials were toppled, just as in the recent case of the University of Missouri president.

In China, fired school administrators were then forced to perform such degrading labor as cleaning toilets. Fellow students were also subjected to Red Guard ridicule for “bad class” backgrounds (usually descendants of the landlord class, capitalists, or intellectuals) in a manner similar to the current attacks on “white male privilege” on some U.S. campuses. The labeling by the Red Guards of individuals as “capitalist roader” was as devastating as the current labeling as “racist” is in America. 

The Red Guards sought the repression of any divergent ideas. The cancellation of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s scheduled appearance at commencement ceremonies at Rutgers University last year by student protestors is one more example of political correctness run amok. Putting aside concerns for free speech and academic freedom, Ms. Rice and her historic achievements, including becoming the first black woman to serve as secretary of state, represent that very diversity and merit-based achievement which the student culture warriors claim to so highly prize. And besides, Ms. Rice likely would have had some very sage advice to give young graduates just setting out on their post-academic careers. The loss was for the Rutgers students and their tuition-paying family members. 

Another example is that of demonstrators at political rallies seizing microphones and attempting to shout down speakers such as in a recent case with Senator Bernie Sanders.This mindless thuggish behavior displays a total disregard for that civil political discourse which is the hallmark of a free society, in sharp contrast to Maoist China.         

American university students should recall that one of the greatest proponents of political correctness in the twentieth century was Chairman Mao. China paid a terrible price for a decade-long closure of its universities and the resulting lost generation of students sent to labor in the remote countryside. American diplomat David Dean recalled this scene in his memoirs Unofficial Diplomacy: The American Institute in Taiwan, pages 60-61: “Mary and I were witnesses, watching from a window in our apartment in Beijing, to a sad ‘ceremony’ sending hundreds of students out to the far reaches of China… And there were crowds of parents weeping bitterly as their children boarded the special buses. Some would never see their son or daughter again. Being sent down to the countryside frequently meant permanent exile.” 

The great debate of the decade-long Cultural Revolution over “red versus expert,” i.e. that strict adherence to Maoist ideology was more essential than any technological or scientific expertise, deprived China of those very skills later promoted by Deng Xiaoping’s “four modernizations.” As a result, Mao’s China remained an impoverished, isolated backwater out of sync with the economic boom then engulfing such neighbors as Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore. Is that ideologically-driven backwardness the future for America that today’s student demonstrators desire?  

America’s coming Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution on its college campuses will not involve a formal school shutdown or an exile of students to remote sections of the Rocky Mountains. It will lead, instead, to a shutting down of ideas and an erosion of those academic skills vital to prepare America’s students for a challenging global economy. Mizzou professor Melissa Click, for example, reportedly specializes in research on “50 Shades of Gray readers and fans’ relationship with Lady Gaga.”  As university students in developing economies study science and engineering, how will a greater knowledge of Lady Gaga make American students ready to compete in the global marketplace?

With the accelerating costs of a college education, as exemplified by millennial voters’ expressed concerns over the debt serving of their student loans, one would think that they would demand more content from their universities and their professors. Curriculum based on political correctness and sensitivity training seems a prescription for a declining America. Only when China threw off the fanatical political focus of the Cultural Revolution in favor of the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping did it rise to be the world’s second-largest economy. America’s coming potential Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is, thus, a likely roadmap for economic, political and cultural disaster. 

Dennis P. Halpin is a visiting scholar at the US-Korea Institute (SAIS) and an advisor to the Poblete Analysis Group. 

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