|A book to read before making a poor analogy.|
Earlier this week I was interviewed by Erik Torenberg, for his podcast “Venture Stories.” The podcast was wide ranging; among other things, we discussed my posts “The World Twitter Made,” “On Cultures That Build,” “China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order,” my on-going critique of Patrick Deneen, my essay for the National Review, and my numerous attempts to translate, understand, and explicate Xi Jinping Thought. There was one topic we covered, however, that I have not yet written publicly about. Torenberg asked me to assess what has become a rather common talking point in both Chinese expat and American right-wing circles: the ominous comparison between the BLM statue removal campaign and the Cultural Revolution of Maoist China.
In response, I shared with Torenberg a small letter I wrote in reply to a journalist from a right-wing publication who was seeking quotes on this topic. Here is what I wrote:
The trouble is, [reporter’s name], it is not very similar to the beginnings of the Chinese cultural revolution. The cultural revolution began not with defacing statues and public monuments, but with attacks on people: defaming them, publicly, physically humiliating them, imprisoning them, torturing them, and ultimately killing them. People were dying weeks before monuments were being defaced. Tearing downs statues did not lead to mass death; mass death led to tearing down statues. Death was part of the program from the beginning.This program was egged on, directed, and manipulated by a dictator who feared he had lost control of you might think of as the Chinese “deep-state” and the existing political class. Again, a world of difference from the current environment, where the powers that be are filled with protest-sympathizers and the political class provide active cover for the extremes of the current movement. The major institutions of American life are behind this movement: the major institutions of Maoist life—and more specifically, the individuals who manned them, were the targets of that movement.Finally, the main thrust of cultural revolution, especially in its initial stages, was dismantling bureaucracies that controlled Chinese life, whereas most of the thinkers that animate this moment (say Ibram X Kendi) call for vast extensions of administrative control over American life, and most of the long-lasting achievements of the movement thusfar (say the change in hiring policies adopted by firms like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs) have been achieved by administrative fiat. This movement is one big appeal to management; from the beginning, the cultural revolution was about having teenagers drag management out on the street and beat them blue.
Thusfar there are only cosmetic similarities between the two moments (non-state actors taking the fore, ideological fervor, attacks on public monuments) and those similarities are shared by many, many other movements over time, only a few of which led to mass death. Question the intentions or the knowledge base of anyone who blithely compares the two.
Americans are extremely fond of exaggerating the threat their political enemies pose. Histrionics about Donald Trump ending American democracy are everywhere to be found; readers will no doubt remember the protestors who claimed that Dick Cheney was the second coming of Hitler, or that Barrack Obama was a stealth authoritarian socialist. This sort of rhetoric is nothing new to American democracy: look back far enough and you will find prominent politicians and journalists accusing Andrew Jackson of Caesarean ambitions, gold-standard men of aiming to overthrow democracy, and railroad strikers of wishing to re-inact the Paris Commune on American shores.
I am afraid we will always have this impulse. Everyone wants this vote to matter. Humans hunger for meaning and consequence: we want to be the generation that faced the choice between dark and light, chaos and order, destruction and salvation. More cynically, it is also a lot easier to justify dubious politics—say, voting for Donald Trump—when the alternative is totalitarian cataclysm. The fact that our fear of democratic death springs eternal is in some ways a good thing. It is part of the reason America’s liberal institutions have lasted as long as they have: “eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty,” Old Hickory said, and we have been nation of paranoiacs ever since. Yet spurring our worries to nightmarish hyperbole has its own weakness. Great powers need not fall with a bang. Many fall apart through drawn-out whimpers. Our fear of the totalitarian murder squads around the corner blind us to the more mundane (yet less imaginary) engines of decay and decline.
Given this, we ought not confuse cosmetic similarities with deeper parallels. Yes, the emotions that push some kid out onto the street today are not so different from those that pushed kids into Tiananmen Square in 1966. But that could be said for the common emotions that compelled young men into battle both at Verdun and Fallujah. However, the shared experiences of those grunts at war scale poorly. The strategic imperatives of the Western front were fundamentally different from those of an insurgent-infested Iraq, and only so much can be gained from comparing one moment to the other.
To give you a practical sense for what I mean, consider this resolution sent to me by a friend at Georgetown Law, one which chronicles the “revolutionary” agitation of the local Student Bar Association. The “resolved” section of the petition reads:
THEREFORE; be it resolved that:
- Georgetown Law should mandate a critical race theory unit in all first-year criminal justice courses and require training in preparation for teaching this unit with the opportunity for diverse faculty to provide input. Georgetown Law should also establish a student-faculty committee for the 2020-2021 academic year that will determine how to establish a two-credit racial justice requirement for all full-time and part-time students starting with the Class of 2023, similar to the academic requirement for undergraduates on Main. Campus.
- Georgetown Law should mandate annual, expert-led faculty training on implicit bias, harassment, and microaggressions. We recommend offering faculty training twice a year so that professors only teaching during one semester are still able to participate; however, professors would need only participate once a year to satisfy the training requirement. Tenure-track faculty should be required to participate in live training, and adjuncts may participate asynchronously by watching a recording.
- Georgetown Law should implement a reporting system that allows students to document bias-related in. cidents in the classroom. This reporting system could be modeled off of the Main Campus Bias Reporting System administered by IDEAA, and is a natural follow on from the 2019 Cultural Climate Survey as it would allow the Law Center to continue gathering data about bias incidents in real time. We recommend aggregating and anonymizing the annual data and publishing it to the Law Center community for transparency.
You can believe that each of these measures is malignant—I certainly do—without pretending that this is anything like what happened in China in the 1960s. What do these student activists want? Mandated classes and grading systems. Additional certification hoops to jump through. An additional layer of bureaucracy to govern and punish their teachers and fellow students. They are doing the only thing Americans in this century know how to do: creating a ruckus in hope that they can get the management to take their side (and enlarge its own powers in the process).
What would a similar event have looked like in the Beijing of 1966, at the earliest stage of the Cultural Revolution? Students would have begun by identifying counter-revolutionary elements in both the school administration and the faculty in as public a fashion as possible. The student body and the faculty would have divided themselves into factions, mutually denouncing their enemies. They would have proceeded to arm themselves, using violence to humiliate, torture, and kill the professors and administrators that were opposed to their political aims. This was the first step of the Cultural Revolution. Through means like these, cultural revolutionaries in Beijing murdered 1,800 people and drove another 77,000 outside of city limits before the first statue went down.
When statues did start going down in the last week of August, far more than statues were destroyed. Women with ‘bourgeoisie’ hairstyles or clothes were forcibly stripped and shorn. Flower, barbers, and tailor shops were destroyed, their owners beat or intimidated. The houses hundreds of thousands of suspect individuals were ransacked, street peddlers were beat up, religious figures were ritually humiliated, books were gathered and burnt, and men or women associated with anything old were forced to hand over their property. Some 400,000 were left homeless.
All of that happened in one week in August. In the months to come Mao would redirect the cultural revolutionaries to attack the foundation of the Party itself. Every single bureaucracy in the country except the Army would be targeted. Dissolving the bureaucratic structures that controlled the economic, government, and academic spheres of Chinese life was the central purpose of the Cultural Revolution; the initial waves of violence and destruction were prep work for that end.Contrast this again with what we see today. The violence and destruction associated with the Black Lives Matter’s protests are magnitudes smaller than all of this; the ultimate aim of the movement is not to smash existing bureaucracies and kill or terrorize those who man them, but to increase bureaucratic control over American life. Even the most anarchic slogan of the current moment, “defund the police,” betrays the thoroughly bureaucratic mindset of the protestors. China’s cultural revolutionaries did not defund their police; they smashed them.  Our protestors petition the government to divert funding away from organs they dislike; China’s cultural revolutionaries sought to destroy government itself.
The comparison just does not stick. Those who use it are either uninformed or more interested in scaring you into desperate action than in understanding or explaining the truth.
This post touches both on American political culture and the Chinese communist political tradition. If you would like to read some of my other posts on American life, consider reading “On Cultures That Build,” “A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture,” or “The Title IX-ifcation of American Childhood.” On the other hand, if Maoism is the topic of interest, see the posts “A Note on Historical Nihilism,” “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II” or “Meditations on Maoism.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
 Erik Torenberg and Tanner Greer, “The Past, Present, and Future of the US-China Relationship With Tanner Greer,” Village Global’s Venture Stories (2 August 2020).
 Georgetown University Student Bar Association, Resolution 2020–2021–9, “Calling for Academic Racial Justice Requirement for Students, Mandatory Faculty Training on Implicit Bias, and Bias Reporting System,” passed on 26 July 2020.
 My account is grounded in Frank Dikkotter, The Cultural Revolution (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 66-94; 115-147. The statistics on deaths in Beijing are found on pp. 78-79; those on the number left homeless on p. 93.
 And burnt all files of their misdeeds while doing the smashing.