Last Friday, my colleague James Fallows posted an e-mail from a China-based reader suggesting a list of China-related subjects Fallows could write about instead of the ongoing U.S. government shutdown. The first of these? Why “this would never happen in China.”
Actually, it did. And it lasted for ten years. But it's known by a far more familiar name: The Cultural Revolution.
Now, of course, the Cultural Revolution in China and the American government shutdown differ so much that it's hardly worth spelling out the ways. But at a fundamental level, both events are the results of structural failings in their respective political systems—flaws that, in the Chinese case, proved disastrous.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, as it is officially known, traces its origins to the early 1960s. By then, The Great Leap Forward, a radical economic scheme intended to force China to industrialize overnight that Mao Zedong launched in 1958, had failed- by 1961, an estimated 30 million people had died of starvation. As punishment for the famine, China's other leaders forced Mao to resign his position atop China's State Council and take a background role in economic planning, paving the way for pragmatists like Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping to clean up the mess.
But behind the scenes, Mao plotted his comeback. Working with Marshal Lin Biao, the head of the Chinese military, Mao published a book of his quotations (better known as the “Little Red Book”) and distributed them throughout the country. (The “Little Red Book” is still the third most published book of all time, behind the Koran and the Bible). His popularity restored, Mao then proposed that China engage in a state of continuous revolution where “rightist” elements (intellectuals, merchants, etc.) would be persecuted and rectified. By 1966, millions of “red guards,” essentially gangs of radicalized youth, terrorized Chinese cities, parading politically suspicious individuals through the streets and, occasionally, engaging in violent battle with other factions. In these years, millions of people were forced to leave their city and move to the countryside, where they worked as indentured servants in agricultural communes. This internal movement fractured many families and tore apart the social fabric of the Chinese nation as a whole.
In the New York Times last year, the Beijing-based writer Lijia Zhang wrote about her family's experience during the Cultural Revolution, providing a glimpse into how the campaign affected individual families:
A childhood friend of mine accidentally broke a porcelain statue of Chairman Mao. His mother was blamed, beaten and humiliated at public gatherings. She eventually went mad. My grandfather committed suicide at the height of the movement, terrified that his job as a grain dealer would make him a target of the roving bands of Red Guards who might persecute any merchant at any time because of a “capitalist” livelihood. My grandfather once said that he lived like a “bird startled by the mere twang of a bowstring.”
The consequences of the Cultural Revolution were vast. By the time Chairman Mao passed away, in 1976, an estimated half-million people had died of politically-related causes, often suicide. China's education system had ground to a halt, and universities had been shut for ten years. A huge number of historic buildings, artifacts, and monuments throughout the country were utterly destroyed. When Deng Xiaoping finally assumed power in 1978, after he himself had been imprisoned twice (and his son, following an interrogation by Red Guards, had been paralyzed in an attempted suicide), China was utterly destitute, broken, and dispirited. That in the ensuing 35 years China has achieved what it has is nothing short of miraculous.
So what does this have to do with the U.S. government shutdown? Obviously, comparing the costs of the shutdown to an event as vast and terrible as the Cultural Revolution is an insult to the memory of the latter's victims. Though the shutdown has kept hundreds of thousands of federal employees from working, without pay, and has caused the interruption of many important government services, the event doesn't register as an earthquake with deep consequences for American society, as the Cultural Revolution was for China.