Four hundred thousand dead in Beijing doesn’t have the same ring to it   1 comment

So in my Post-1949 China course (aka “history of the PRC”), we’re learning about the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Around 1966-1976, urban China was basically taken over by a whole bunch of radical students. They started out protesting against educational standards. Mao started to take advantage of the situation, and suddenly we had students dressing up in military uniforms, putting on red armbands, and walking through the streets beating up people less enthusiastic than they were. Or maybe they beat up people who were more enthusiastic than they were, because those people were taking advantage of the situation.


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Very few urban dwellers got through this period unscathed. People died regularly. A lot of these kids — the Red Guard — beat people or even killed people. We’re reading the memoir of Ye Weili. Whenever we see or read about her, she talks about how girls at her high school murdered their headmaster. They forced the woman to do manual labor. The woman was old and arthritic and had heart problems; when she collapsed, they dumped her in a laundry basket and left her there overnight. We’ve read and heard interviews of people saying that they had beat people, and when the people they beat protested, they beat them even more harshly. We’ve seen videos and images of authority figures being forced to walked around with a sign hanging on their neck while stadiums of people shout abuse at them. We’ve seen Red Guard members burning and beating old symbols of art. “Cultural Revolution is not a dinner party,” Chairman Mao told them.

My professor, Prof Chang, asked us, “Who do you think did the most violence in the Cultural Revolution?”

I answered, more because it was obvious what he wanted us to say than anything. “The Red Guard.”

Prof Chang reviewed all the images we had seen in all the classes before, of the Red Guard beating and interrogating and parading their victims around. It was obvious that he was going to end this with a “But…”

And he did. The Red Guard committed a lot of violence (don’t misunderstand), but the People’s Liberation Army did worse, in shutting down the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese Government plays up the idea of the Red Guard committing all the violence. After all, the PLA was sent in by the government. The PLA is the current military of the People’s Republic of China.

“It’s like Kent State,” Prof Chang said. “The National Guard came in and shot people.”

Now I learned that what happened in Kent State was…an accident? Let’s call it that. The students were protesting, wildy enough that the National Guard was called in. The National Guard fired into the air to get the students to calm down. What goes up must come down, and four bullets land in the heads of student protesters.

Compare that to the systematic, intentional urban warfare of the Cultural Revolution. Not to mention the fact that we discuss the Kent State shootings. Both the Chinese and American governments talk about the Cultural Revolution as if the biggest atrocities were only committed by the Red Guard. Yet Kent State entered our national dialogue.

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One response to “Four hundred thousand dead in Beijing doesn’t have the same ring to it

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  1. I don’t know anything about Chinese history and this was really interesting to me. And sad.

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