A Cultural Revolution-era card depict workers holding a copy of Chairman Mao's “Little Red Book”. The caption on the card reads “Grasp the Revolution. Promote production. Promote work. Promote preparation for war” (Wikimedia Commons)

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.”

This experience was not at all unusual. Others informed upon and incriminated their own parents, or beat up their teachers

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.

But both the government shutdown and the Cultural Revolution stemmed from the same cause: structural weaknesses in their respective systems of government. In the present-day United States, a rump faction of the Republican Party—which controls one half one of the three branches of government—has managed to hold the entire government hostage through a manipulation of the legislative process, threatening grave consequences if the country doesn't overturn legislation it doesn't like. Meanwhile, in the Senate, the pervasive use of the filibuster has meant that the party in the majority (in this case, the Democrats) need 60 votes to pass important legislation, appoint officials, or accomplish much of anything.  As a result of this structure, the American government appears to be in a constant state of paralysis, which is why many people (like the columnist Thomas Friedman, who once wished “we could be China for a day”) admire the efficiency of the Communist Party's system of government.

But proponents of China's political system often forget that, prior to engineering three and a half decades of economic growth, the Communist Party presided over 30 years of terrible misgovernment—of which the Cultural Revolution was merely one of the most egregious episodes. These problems were political. In the Great Leap Forward, officials exaggerated steel and grain output, shielding the true extent of the disaster to political superiors in Beijing, while the lack of a free press prevented anyone from checking against government power during the Cultural Revolution. In a democratic system of government, a head of state who presides over a disaster of this scale typically pays for it through resignation or electoral loss. But not in China. Mao Zedong was instead able to leverage his charisma to launch a cult of personality that turned his country upside down and caused considerable, long-lasting damage—an achievement almost certainly not possible in a system with more checks and balances.

Defenders of the Chinese political system, such as the Shanghai-based venture capitalist Eric X. Li, argue that while the Communist Party made terrible mistakes during the Mao Zedong era, it has proven itself remarkably adaptable. For example, in order to avoid a cult of personality forming around any single leader again, China has established regular, once-a-decade transfers of power, and has also embraced a more pragmatic economic policy under Deng Xiaoping. It is, without a doubt, highly unlikely that an event like the Cultural Revolution would happen again.

But it's worth remembering that the Chinese government hasn't fully reckoned with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, either. Though the Party officially regards the event as a mistake, school textbooks gloss over the horrors and politicians and media rarely bring them up. The fact that the disgraced politician Bo Xilai rose to national prominence in part due to his “red revival” in the city of Chongqing, where he encouraged people to sing Cultural Revolution-era songs and venerate Mao Zedong, proving that nostalgia for the era still exists. And the face of Mao himself—the architect of the Great Leap Forward famine and the Cultural Revolution—still remains on Chinese banknotes as well as, in portrait form, atop Beijing's Gate of Heavenly Peace.

The U.S. government shutdown—and especially the looming debt ceiling default—is an indictment of our form of democracy, where a determined faction of a minority party can cause immense mischief in order to stop implementation of a law it doesn't like. As a result, every American political crisis presents an opportunity to glance longingly at countries that seem to avoid these self-inflicted problems. China just isn't one of them.