After leaving China for America two decades ago, my father only returned to his homeland once. I had turned 18, and I think he wanted to show me something of his youth, of which he spoke little. In the dusty village where he grew up, we met an endless stream of old men who wanted to see the village’s prodigal son. Gifts were offered and extravagant greetings were swapped. Then, after each visitor had departed, my father would tell me, matter-of-factly, what they did to him during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
The harmless-looking retired cadre, now an amiable old man who pinched my cheeks, had been the village party secretary who forced my father to perform manual labour — running after cows with a basket to pick up the droppings — because, as the son of a landlord, he could not be trusted with an education. The local businessman, now on his second wife and third Audi, had belonged to a gang of high school children who beat him for being descended from counter-revolutionaries.
Some of my father’s tormentors were blood relatives, who were especially keen to display their revolutionary credentials through violence, a situation that was sadly not uncommon: it was rumoured that Bo Xilai, who nearly supplanted Xi Jinping before being imprisoned, had broken his own father’s ribs as a Red Guard. Only the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 saved my father, who took the university entrance examinations a few years later, and never looked back.
Since the beginning of — shall we call it our 2020 cultural moment? — much ink has been spilled on whether there are similarities between the current protests-cum-riots and China’s Cultural Revolution. Even though some of its cheerleaders openly make the comparison, most commentators dismiss the idea, including UnHerd‘s Daniel Kalder.
To my father, and indeed to many of his contemporaries, the answer is clear. They had lived through it, and although they cannot put their finger on the why, they can feel a certain febrility in the air which reminded them of the events of half a century ago. But with their accented English and unfashionable politics (few, for some reason, are especially well-disposed toward the western Left), they have been largely excluded from the conversation. Or they could be biased, as western Marxist academics used to say of the testimonies of eastern European refugees who had been in Communist prisons.