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Perpetual Revolution Spins Out of Control

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It is August 1966, and I am watching a long column of Peking University students marching along the western wall of the Last Emperor's palace. They move in neat phalanxes of about 40 rows each, 12 abreast; their elected leaders (known as Liaisons in the egalitarian lingo of the Cultural Revolution) carry pennants that they wave over their heads as they shout slogans like Down with all authority! As they march, one student points his megaphone toward some onlookers, barking out a stern warning to any stray class enemies: If there are any dog spawn or turtle's eggs from the landlord or capitalist classes among you, leave before you are punished by the revolutionary people! Peking University--known as Beida for short--is the cradle of political agitation in China. Two Beida teachers led the 1919 May Fourth movement, which first placed democracy and science on the Chinese agenda. I initially thrilled to see their young successors in 1966, storming Heaven's door. In the front ranks of each column, the young rebels carried portraits of the stony-eyed Supreme Authority, the man who inspired them to voice their opposition to all authority, Mao Zedong. Between rebellious slogans, the students sang out: Eternal life to our Teacher, Chairman Mao! Here, in a nutshell--although I didn't realize it at the time--was the tragic paradox of the student-rebels who eventually sprang to action all over the country. They were carrying out what Mao called Great Democracy. They overthrew the school authorities and forced them to do menial labor. They spoke their own minds, published their own papers, covered the city streets with wall posters that criticized anything and anybody (except Mao and his immediate staff). And they joined with like-minded schoolmates to form their own political organizations and agitate for their own demands. It was unprecedented in Chinese history, yet their very rebellion was directed from above. They had been unleashed and prompted by agents of their adulated leader, Mao. Not that the students realized it at the time. Their outburst was volcanic, a pent-up release from the rigid discipline and self-sacrifice the Communist Party had demanded for 17 years. Ever since liberation, as we called the 1949 Revolution, the party had demanded that China's young people suppress their yearnings as to where to attend school, where to live after graduation, where to work. They had consented, instead, to go wherever the party sent them and do whatever the party needed them to do. I remember interviewing a Beida graduate pouring steel at a furnace in Chengdu, Sichuan. She told me that she and her fiancÚ had hoped to get married right after graduation and to teach school together. But she had been ordered to leave her betrothed and her chosen profession to become a steel worker hundreds of kilometers from Beijing. She said she had happily accepted this glorious task for the future of our Motherland! Was she really happy? Yes and no. She yearned for her fiancÚ, and she would have preferred teaching to standing in front of a blazing furnace with a steel ladle. But she was brought up to be patriotic and to dream of an ideal socialist society, and if that required personal sacrifice she was ready to make the best of it. So imagine how she felt at the outset of the Cultural Revolution when she was told by Mao and his inner group that her sacrifices had been misguided, that she had been a victim of treacherous leaders who had set aside the Chairman's revolutionary line and exploited the young. All the force with which she had suppressed her desires turned into fury at the way she had been duped--and into determination to assert her needs in the name of the Cultural Revolution. In Mao's words, it was right to rebel. This sudden release from compulsion accounted for the fiery outburst that made the Cultural Revolution the biggest popular uprising in human history--and one of the greatest holocausts. Several weeks after the marching scene, I watched Beida students respond to their leader's call to Smash the Four Olds and Set Up the Four News. They took to the streets again to suppress by force all old thoughts, old culture, old habits, old customs. They marched to Beijing's main shopping district along Wangfujing (the street of the prince's court), which was now renamed Anti-Imperialist Street, and proceeded to demolish everything that hinted of feudalism or capitalism. Street signs with words like Lucky or Prosperity had to be smashed, because they smacked of superstition and greed. Girls with braids longer than shoulder length or boys with tight trouser cuffs had the offending parts snipped off on the spot, as these were deemed bourgeois fashions. Finally, as the Cultural Revolution went through its first year, the chaos became so destructive and mob rule so arbitrary that Mao despaired of ever controlling the zealots he had activated. He marched the students off to do farm work in the villages, supervised by China's no-nonsense peasantry. And he sent in the army to restore party rule in the institutions where rebel groups had taken control. Order was restored, though China remained in the grasp of Mao's radical allies until his death in 1976. By then, an estimated 100 million people had become victims--killed, imprisoned (10 years in solitary for me), persecuted, sent to hard labor. Still, as first zealot and then victim of the Cultural Revolution, I lived to see history advance in the wake of this holocaust. I saw the Chinese de-collectivize their farm land, open both their markets and their minds--and join the world, for the first time in history. As a foreign expert working in China, and the sole American citizen admitted to the Chinese Communist Party, I had been swept up into the Cultural Revolution along with Beida students. I thought they were creating a town hall democracy in China, and that Mao himself was discarding one-party rule. In April 1989, I watched again as Beida students marched in long, well-disciplined columns to Tiananmen Square. They had learned the tactic of non-violence, but they were still the obvious descendants of the Red Guards. Like their forebears, they were unaware of being used both by politicians who saw them as a means to extend their influence, and by the old guard, who found in the protests a pretext to show their own strength and remove the reformers from power. The demise of the movement showed that students are no longer the standard bearers of political reform and democracy. It is, rather, the former students who are now members of the burgeoning Chinese middle class. Their influence is growing daily, and their representatives are pushing their way into all sections of political life. Anti-Imperialist Street long ago got back its name--and became the site of one of the world's biggest and most lucrative McDonald's restaurants. Sidney Rittenberg, who lived in China for 35 years, is the author, with Amanda Bennett, of The Man Who Stayed Behind