The Cultural Revolution was a period of violent passions and deep traumas. Violence was committed in the name of the noblest ideals or out of the darkest human motivations.
In the past, Cultural Revolution culture has been easy to dismiss. Despite Western fascination will objects that we might call “Mao kitsch”—buttons, statues, and posters—and Chinese nostalgia for Cultural Revolution music or plays, we have written off these cultural products as “just propaganda,” or not really culture at all.
When we teach the Cultural Revolution here in the United States, our textbook version is that Chairman Mao, fearing “revisionism” within his own Communist Party, launched an attack on perceived internal enemies. Our students tend to be most fascinated with the Red Guards, young people who Mao called on to “make revolution” by joining him in an attack on the old world.
That Johannes Chan—Hong Kong University’s dean of the law school—was barred from being appointed a pro-vice-chancellor, has been called the end of academic freedom by lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, and “a visible litmus test” by Jerome Cohen and Alvin Cheung in the pages of the South China Morning Post.
Last year, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen student movement and its brutal crackdown made major headlines. China-watchers, journalists, and academics commemorated June 4—as the event is called for short—with articles and books, and with lectures and roundtables.
This week’s “Report on the Recent Community and Political Situation in Hong Kong” underscores the way the Hong Kong government has and continues to portray its position vis-à-vis the Umbrella Movement. Local media reportage has focused on Pan-Democrats and activists’ objections to the way the movement is represented.
A week ago today I sat together with you outside the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s library, a teacher among other teachers, a university member beside students, 13,000 strong. The weeks before had felt quiet.