Remembering The Cultural Revolution: A Nightmare On Film

Mao Zedong`s Chinese “Cultural
Revolution” came to an end in 1976, almost three decades
ago. Unless they are students of foreign affairs,
few Americans
under 45 or 50 years of age are
familiar with Mao`s third and final violent assault upon

By 1949 when Mao

consolidated power
in China,

of “capitalists” and landowners had become
everyday events. Mao`s second assault on China was the

“Great Leap Forward,”
a moronic scheme to organize
China into a network of “people`s communes.” The result
was the total disruption of agriculture, causing a
famine that killed more than 20 million people.

In 1966 Mao launched the

Cultural Revolution
. It was an assault on the
Communist Party and on all authority except Mao`s. The
“great leader” felt that policy failures and endless
killings had demoralized the old party cadres, causing
them to lose their revolutionary spirit.

Mao`s solution was to set millions
of youths (Red Guards) on their elders to purge the
Communist Party with humiliation and murder.

“It was glorious to beat people to death,”
Girls Middle School student Liu Tingting, whose high
ranking father, Chinese President Liu Shaoqi was purged
and allowed to die in prison of medical neglect.

The madcap enterprise was partly
captured on film by photographer Li Zhensheng. Phaidon
Press has now made Li`s black and white photographs
available to us in a book, “Red-Color
News Soldier,”
just off the press.
[ readers can buy the book

direct from Phaidon Press
at a 20% discount.]

Li Zhensheng`s fortunes rose and
fell with the Cultural Revolution. To survive as a

news photographer in Harbin,
he had to organize his
own group of Red Guards. When he was

by a competing group, he had the wits to
hide his photographs, which Phaidon calls a “secret
archive hidden for 40 years.”

It is not obvious why many of the
photos had to be hidden. But the Cultural Revolution was
an era when the wildest interpretations could be placed
on anything. Li tells the story of a
revolutionary-spirited newly married couple. They
decorated their bedroom with pictures and quotes of
Chairman Mao and found themselves denounced for making
love under the eyes of their leader. In their defense
they pleaded that they always first turned out the

Other of Li`s photos graphically
capture the emotional pain of the humiliation inflicted
by young punks on powerful men, governors and Communist
Party First Secretaries, some of whom were veterans of
the Long March.

Still others show “enemies”
kneeling, hands tied behind their backs, waiting to be
shot in the back of the head.

Each photo is captioned with a
description, and the collection is accompanied with Li`s
readable text describing the impact of the Cultural
Revolution on his life.

It is chilling that Mao could so
easily move a vast tradition-bound society to outrageous
and immoral acts of destruction.

Historic treasures
were destroyed along with people.
Production was disrupted, and the economy sank.

Li`s photographs show assemblies
of hundreds of thousands of Chinese youths with right
arms raised in Hitler-like salutes, but with fists
clenched, shouting nonsense slogans. It is astonishing
that these Red Guard brigades formed suddenly without
years of organization and brainwashing.

The National Socialists in Germany
had to indoctrinate and train their Hitler Youth. Soviet
efforts at indoctrination persisted for decades with
mixed results.

Many have speculated how Germany,
a leading nation of learning and science could be
overcome by propaganda. But that is what happens when
government can tell lies and not be challenged, whether
for reasons of power or patriotism. When governments can
lie, citizens are no longer safe. That is why
governments must be held accountable to truth.

The Cultural Revolution was
unique. It was undertaken by uncontrolled youths. Red
Guard units fought one another for supremacy. Li
describes the denunciations which destroyed so many
people as “freewheeling settling of scores” and
as “accusations of often specious content under the
guise of ideological purity.”
Once the process
began, the only way to avoid accusations was to strike

The Cultural Revolution is
reminiscent of

Stalin`s Great Terror
. Stalin`s secret police were
under pressure to round up ever more “enemies” or to be
arrested themselves for protecting enemies with
inaction. The insane momentum resulted in “street
sweeps” in which everyone who happened to be on the
street at a given moment was swept away into the gulag.

Li is clearly disturbed by the
atrocities of the Cultural Revolution. Yet, after giving
his photographic evidence, he mildly criticizes Mao and
offers apologetics for the Red Guards.

The Chinese Communist Party is
more judgmental. At the 11th Party Congress in 1981, a
resolution was issued (ellipses omitted): “Practice
has shown that the `cultural revolution` did not in fact
constitute a revolution or social progress in any sense.
Chief responsibility for the grave error of the Cultural
Revolution, an error comprehensive in magnitude and
protracted in duration, does indeed lie with Comrade Mao
Zedong. In his later years far from making a correct
analysis of many problems, he confused right and wrong
and the people with the enemy. Herein lies his tragedy.”

And that of his 65 million

Craig Roberts is the author with Lawrence M. Stratton

The Tyranny of Good Intentions : How Prosecutors
and Bureaucrats Are Trampling the Constitution in the
Name of Justice