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A Lesson from China’s Cultural Revolution

What can other countries learn from the devastating effects of China’s “Cultural Revolution”?

September 10, 2020

More than fifty years after it started, China’s Cultural Revolution continues to influence events in that country.

China’s President Xi Jinping, whose own father (a leader of the Communist Revolution) was jailed for 16 years, has refused to admit the evil of that era.

The refusal of the Chinese government to clearly condemn this tragic period will have long lasting consequences on China’s political and cultural life.

Lessons for other countries

The brutal characteristics of that period can also be relevant to countries such as the United States, Brazil and Belarus, whose leaders’ stoking the flames of anger and violence have already led to tragedy.

In the case of the United States, Trump’s rationale is that the more chaos there is in the country the better it is for a candidate promising “law and order.” This is an argument that was used by Jair Bolsonaro and that brought him to the presidency of Brazil.

When in May 1966 Mao launched the socio-political movement called Cultural Revolution — which lasted 10 years — he unleashed the persecution of millions of people accused of undermining the communist regime.

In addition to millions of people who were persecuted, abused and killed, millions more were forcibly displaced from the cities to rural areas and made to work for the benefit of the regime.

The resulting purge affected not only people in the lower ranks but also senior officials, who were accused of taking the “capitalist road.”

The Red Guard

China’s youth responded to Mao’s call by forming Red Guard groups throughout the country. One of the most famous cases involved Deng Xiaoping’ son, who tried to jump out of a building after being brutally interrogated by the Red Guards.

The death toll between 1966 and 1969 has been estimated from various sources at about 500,000 to one million people.

One of the testimonies of the abuses carried out during one of that country’s darkest times was that of Ms. Song Binbin, daughter of Song Renqiong, one of China’s leaders known as the Eight Immortals.

In 2014, Song Binbin publicly repented for her participation in the attacks against a former teacher, Bian Zhongyun, at the time deputy headmaster at the school. The attacks culminated in the mob beating which led her to her death.

Appearing at the school affiliated with Beijing Normal University, Song Binbin said, “Please allow me to express my everlasting solicitude and apologies to Principal Bian. I failed to protect the school leaders, and this has been a lifelong source of anguish and remorse”.

Ms. Song Binbin’s testimony didn’t appease his widower, who, since his wife’s death has tried to keep his wife’s memory alive and to obtain an honest apology for the perpetrators of his wife’s assassination.

“She is a bad person for what she did,” he declared. And he added, “The entire Communist Party and Mao Zedong are also responsible.”

Grim milestones

Milestones that reflect the madness of crowds is exemplified by Ms. Song’s testimony, and the testimony of Zhang Hongbing. Zhang was a lawyer who, with his father, denounced his mother, Fang Zhongmou, and made her a target of a brutal killing. At the time of his mother’s death Mr. Zhang was only 16 years old.

What makes this case particularly painful are the circumstances of Mrs. Fang’s death. “They beat her, bound her and led her from home. She knelt before the crowds as they denounced her. Then they loaded her on to a truck, drove her to the outskirts of town and shot her,” described Tania Branigan in The Guardian.

“My mother, father and I were devoured by the Cultural Revolution,” declared Mr. Zhang. “It was a catastrophe suffered by the Chinese nation” he added.

Mr. Zhang’s testimony shows the extent a person’s mind can be impacted by fear so they could consider his own mother as his enemy. He tells that at the time he told his mother, “If you go against our dear Chairman Mao, I will smash your dog’s head.”

And he added, “I felt this wasn’t my mother. This wasn’t a person. She suddenly became a monster…She had become a class enemy and opened her bloody mouth.” The last time he saw his mother was when she knelt on a stage hours before her death.

Trying to atone

More than four decades after his mother’s death, Mr. Zhang is trying to atone his unrelenting sense of guilt not only by telling the circumstances of her death, but by also calling for the preservation of her grave in their home-town in Anhui province.

The cases just described are just a few examples of a special moment in China’s recent history. As President Xi tightened his grip over the country’s media and non-governmental organizations that are involved with human rights and public health issues, many observers drew comparisons with that dark period of the country’s history.

Public discussion of this dark period in China’s history is still relatively limited in China, and news organizations are prevented from mentioning the details of what happened during that time.

However, the Chinese government still needs to clearly condemn these events. As Ms. Song Binbin declared, “How a country faces the future depends in large part on how it faces its past.”


More than half a century after it started, China’s Cultural Revolution continues to influence events in the country.

The refusal of the Chinese government to condemn the “Cultural Revolution” will have long lasting consequences on China’s political and cultural life.

The purge following China’s “Cultural Revolution” affected not only people in the lower ranks, but also senior officials -- who were accused of taking the “capitalist road.”

How a country faces the future depends in large part on how it faces its past.