book review / commentary

Social Justice Warriors and China's Red Guards

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Social Justice Warriors and China's Red Guards

Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement
by Andrew G. Walder
Harvard University Press, 2009, 400 pages
Reviewed by T.J. Nelson

T he social dynamics of the Red Guard movement are worth studying for one simple reason: similar social dynamics are now at work at our universities. We're in the middle of our own cultural revolution. How similar, if at all, are China's Red Guards to today's social justice warriors? What cultural factors produce these types of movements? Even though Andrew G. Walder's Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement isn't a new book, it helps us answer that question. The facts below are taken from that book.

On May 25, 1966, a group of senior party members in the philosophy department of Beijing University, all of whom were Marxism-Leninism instructors, put up a poster denouncing their party secretary. The leader, Nie Yuanzi, had struck the match that created the movement that came to be called the Red Guards (红卫兵; hongweibing in Mandarin). It was to leave thousands dead, decimate the universities, and put thousands of students in labor camps.

Three days later, the Central Cultural Revolution Group (CCRG), led by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, was created. The CCRG manipulated the movement from the beginning, causing it to split into two opposing factions. Conflict grew, especially at the Beijing Aeronautics Institute and Beijing Geology Institute (which came to be known as ‘Heaven’ and ‘Earth’).

At first the weapons were purely verbal. But this was not an ideological struggle—both factions believed the same thing. It was a struggle for hierarchy, to regain lost status. They competed to be More Mao Than Thou; Walder portrays the student factions as being terrified of being labeled counter-revolutionary—the equivalent of being labeled racist today, with similar repercussions for the accused individual.

In this environment political favor was as important as merit for career success; being labeled counter-revolutionary would be a death sentence for one's career and could lead to incarceration, torture, and execution. The most militant radicals, says Walder, were not those predisposed to one ideology or another, but were the ones whose experience at the hands of Mao's work teams had cost them the most in terms of status.

Though the movement consisted mostly of high school and college students, they were ruthlessly violent. In some areas they kidnapped and imprisoned up to half of their teachers and school administrators. In one high school students created a prison in the basement, where they held prisoners and tortured several people to death.

Starting on August 8, students at Qinghua University ran wild, destroying property, invading homes of middle level cadres, and beating people. Dozens of people, including famous novelists and other cultural figures, were murdered. Thousands were beaten and humiliated. Many more were driven to suicide. Students rampaged through residential areas, stealing money, and destroying books, paintings, scrolls and other cultural items. In one month, 114,000 homes were invaded. The official death toll in one month was 1,722. [p. 145] But Mao and Jiang Qing just shrugged.

It ended in chaos, with a battle at Qinghua between rival factions involving snipers, Molotov cocktails and hand grenades, in which 12 people were killed and 30 permanently disabled. Five members of an enormous “propaganda team,” consisting of locals armed with copies of Mao's book, were also killed.

Were there really “two cultural revolutions” as some Chinese scholars contended: a power struggle among the elites in government side by side with a mass social movement? That is, were the Red Guards a spontaneous social movement? Or was it all another of Mao's games, like the Hundred Flowers Campaign a decade before? Walder concludes that the Red Guards started as followers of their CCRG sponsors, but the movement spiraled out of control.

By 1967 Mao's cultural revolution was focusing on the provinces instead of the cities, and the Red Guards, a purely urban phenomenon, were no longer useful. The CCRG crushed them; Mao declared martial law, emptied the campuses, and sent the students off to labor camps. After Mao's death, the “Gang of Four” (Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, and Yao Wenyuan) were imprisoned and the remaining Red Guard leaders, including Nie Yuanzhi, Kuai Dafu, and Tan Houlan were arrested and imprisoned; some others were executed.

The Beijing Red Guards were only a small part of the Cultural Revolution, which was blamed for 34,000 deaths and the persecution of hundreds of thousands. Other books provide much more detail on the immense personal suffering and destruction that Mao caused. There is little discussion here of what Mao was trying to accomplish, or the effects the movement had on particular individuals, on society, or on Chinese communism. The style is dry and somewhat clinical, but that may be what's needed to gain sociological insight.

Before this book sociologists had always assumed that the factions represented social constituencies: that privileged conservatives, fearful of losing status, supported the status quo, while radicals who were oppressed wished to overturn it. Walder's goal was to document the events which, he says, overturn this simplistic narrative. His evidence is monumental and convincing.

Yet this book does not answer two important questions: what were the social dynamics that created the Red Guard movement, and what do they tell us about today's culture wars?

The similarities are striking. In both cases the nation's supreme leader and the mass media applauded the movement and encouraged the social ostracism of the victims. In both cases the universities encouraged them by accommodating their schedules by rescheduling exams. In both cases victims were forced to publicly confess to their sins in the hope of being rehabilitated. In both cases highly accomplished individuals were publicly disgraced and their careers were destroyed. In both cases name-calling came to replace reason and discussion. In both cases there were riots, murders, violence and looting tied to the movement.

Both movements produced bizarre, symbolic antics—the Red Guards tried to have traffic lights changed to make red mean Go; in America the response to a crazy person committing a murder is to exhume the body of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was buried in 1904 (which seems to me to be a pretty good alibi).

Both movements were centered primarily in the elite universities: Beida and Qinghua were the Chinese equivalents of Harvard and MIT. And in both cases, some of the attacks were defensive in nature, to fend off accusations of insufficiently enthusiasm for the dogma. For the Red Guards, that dogma was Maoism. For our SJWs, it is ‘social justice.’

There are, of course, differences. In our universities there are still occasional dissident voices. The movement is not restricted to the universities. In America, a victim can appeal a false conviction and stay out of prison, even though their career and social standing are still destroyed. In Red China, there was little distinction among these: the employer was the state, and the unjustly accused could only appeal to party leaders. The Red Guards were also far more violent. So far, we have no equivalent to their ‘struggle sessions,’ where dissidents were humiliated, forced to wear dunce caps, and often beaten. Unlike in Red China, no one has yet been executed for writing a bad Tweet or a critical essay (or even, thank goodness, a bad book review). But the mob mentality and the desire to enforce ideological conformity are strikingly similar.

The Red Guards movement is thus an interesting case study of the social phenomena that develop when adherence to an ideology is allowed to contribute to status. I hypothesize that five things must be in place for this to happen:

  1. A cohesive subset of the population with shared beliefs.
  2. The need to document and display loyalty to those beliefs in order to move forward in life.
  3. The likelihood of losing something important, such as career prospects or social status, if the person is deemed to be in opposition to those beliefs.
  4. A mass media which supports its goals and suppresses reporting of any opposition.
  5. Support, or perceived support, from the government.

These factors would push the cost/benefit ratio over the threshold to creating a cultural movement. The movement ends when the costs exceed the benefits—that is, when one or more of the preconditions no longer applies.

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Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement
by Andrew G. Walder

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jul 12, 2015