Yuhua Wang on US-China Relations and the Legacies of Mao and 1989

Both the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Incident are milestone events in the PRC history. Do they continue to implicate US-China relations? Yuhua Wang, Professor of Government at Harvard University, shares his insights on the corresponding historical events and timely issues on China’s domestic politics and how it may affect the US-China relations.

Yuhua Wang is a professor in the Department of Government at Harvard University and the author of The Rise and Fall of Imperial China: The Social Origins of State Development (Princeton University Press, 2022) and Tying the Autocrat’s Hands: The Rise of the Rule of Law in China (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

This interview was conducted by Xin Tong, graduate assistant for the Carter Center’s China Focus and Master of Public Policy student at the University of California, Irvine. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Good morning, Professor Wang. Thank you for being our guest. We are very grateful to have the chance to speak with you today.

Good morning and also thanks to the Carter Center for the interview.

Thank you. Speaking of China’s domestic politics and its historical issues, both the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Incident are milestone events in PRC history. So, my first question is: What does the Cultural Revolution mean to Chinese and American societies respectively? Does it have different impacts on Chinese and American people in their history and current approaches to one another?

Sure. Let’s start with the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China. I would say that the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 is probably the most divisive event in the PRC history. And I would say there are three ways how the Cultural Revolution has impacted the Chinese society and the Chinese people.

First of all, the Cultural Revolution was a massive event of state violence. During the 10 years, especially the early years of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government and also the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army, used violence both against the Chinese people but also within the bureaucracy. There were people within the bureaucracy, bureaucrats and military officers who used violence against other bureaucrats and military officers.

I have done some research on this using survey data from China. I show that the people who were growing up in areas that were exposed to more violence in the early period of the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1960s, are less likely to trust the Chinese government. The violence used by the Chinese state against Chinese society influenced how Chinese people think about their relationship with the Chinese government, even 50 years later. And then that’s probably a consequence of what people saw in the late 1960s. For example, they saw how the PLA repressed people. They saw how people used violence against each other. So there has been a huge impact of state violence on subsequent politics in China.

Second, how society was divided during the Cultural Revolution continues to influence Chinese politics. We all know during the Cultural Revolution the government mobilized people against each other. We were divided by our class background. Some people belonged to “good classes,” for example, poor peasants. And some people belonged to “evil classes,” for example, landlords or capitalists. That classification was made by the Chinese state in the 1950s. And, then, during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the government mobilized different groups of people against each other. That has a huge impact on how Chinese people think about themselves, not only their relationship with the Chinese government but also how different groups identify themselves and how they see each other. We know during the Cultural Revolution, for instance, stories of neighbors reporting on each other, students beating their teachers, and children informing on their own parents. Those stories are very divisive in a society where people stop trusting their own family members, their neighbors, and their teachers.

One prominent story is Chen Xiaolu–the son of the military general Chen Yi. Chen Xiaolu reflected on what he did during the Cultural Revolution. He said that he now regretted beating up his teacher. He passed away several years ago, but it was a very precious moment, I would say, for someone like him, a Chinese elite member, who can publicly say he regretted what he did during the Cultural Revolution. But that’s a reflection of what people did in the 1960s and 1970s, where they turned against their own family and teachers. It was very divisive for Chinese society.

I have seen some studies that show that there’s still a negative impact of the Cultural Revolution on interpersonal trust in China. So people who went through the Cultural Revolution are less likely to trust each other–their own neighbors and family members.

The last thing I want to point out is the huge human capital loss. There was a generation of young people who were born in the early years of the PRC or the last years of the Republic era (in the late 1940s or early 1950s), they turned 14, 15, 16 when the Cultural Revolution started. They were sent down to the countryside. We all know this part of history, the sent-down youth. Some of them stayed there for a long time, 10 years even, until the end of the Cultural Revolution.

They lost their opportunity to go to school. They were not able to get education when they really needed it. When they came back, they were maybe able to find jobs in the cities, but we all know that they didn’t have the human capital that could help them make career advancement. And then in the late 1990s when a large number of people were laid off by state-owned enterprises, the sent-down youth were the generation that was hit the most. They were the people who were laid off in the late 1990s. We call them the lost generation. They lost their education during the Cultural Revolution. Then they lost their jobs in the late 1990s. There’s a huge human capital loss to that one generation of Chinese people. 

There is one caveat though. I’ve seen a study that shows how, for people in rural areas who were born in rural China in the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution has had some positive impacts on their education, because when the sent-down youth were going to the villages in China, they brought their knowledge. They brought their education. As a result, they were able to help the young people in rural China gain some knowledge and gain some education.

So, I think that there are probably two sides of the story. On one hand, the Cultural Revolution probably had a negative impact on the human capital of urban youth. On the other, it may have had a positive impact on education in rural China.

And then in the US, very interestingly, the Cultural Revolution created a partisan response in American society. According to people’s political orientation at the time in the 1960s, 1970s, the Cultural Revolution was perceived very differently.

The leftists, the people who were more associated with the Democratic Party… say, for example, by that time there was a massive anti-war movement in the US. The Vietnam War created a large-scale anti-war protest in the US, primarily on college campuses. The young people at the time were protesting against the war in Vietnam. And, then, they were mostly Democrats that were against the incumbent president, Richard Nixon, at the time, who was a supporter of the war but also the leader of the war. And then for the leftist students, the Cultural Revolution actually provided inspiration for them because they saw what was happening in China. And then they were also very disillusioned with the American government. They were very disillusioned with democracy, with Western culture, with their own government.

So, what happened in China under Mao during the Cultural Revolution provided some inspiration for the leftists in the US. And I know just reading a lot of memoirs, a lot of the leftist students who now have grown older and become scholars, for example, in the memoirs they would say they actually really liked the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s because they felt this is how the government should work. We need to have a revolution. We need to have a lot of protests, for example. We need to see protest every day on the street.

So that’s for the American left. But for the right… this occurred during the Cold War. And then they certainly saw the Cultural Revolution in a negative light. They see this as a chaotic period in a communist regime. You see this huge difference between partisans in the US society.

Thank you. That is a very comprehensive and thought provoking answer. And you mentioned during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese people didn’t trust the government. And also the government mobilized people against each other, like neighbors reporting one another.

Today, we know that Xi proposed his new age of “Chinese dream” but it led to the widespread worry and criticism in the US that a Cultural Revolution 2.0 is possible. And in Xi’s new era, the Cultural Revolution was once redefined as “arduous exploration” in school textbooks, and was met with repudiation from various circles of life in Chinese society. Xi’s political, economic, and social policies have been widely linked with a new style of the Cultural Revolution. So from your perspective, does this link make any sense? And what is your observation on the differences between Mao and Xi in their approaches to the Cultural Revolution?

Well, there are a lot of differences between the Mao era and the Xi era. China is in a very different stage of economic development. In the 1950s, we were still very poor. Now we are the second largest economy in the world. And China has become more internationalized and more globalized. And then the Chinese people are very different in terms of education, and in terms of their exposure to foreign countries.

There are also some similarities, however. I want to highlight two similarities between the Mao era or the Cultural Revolution and then the Xi era. One is politics has surpassed the importance of the economy in China and has become the priority of the Chinese Communist Party. And this is very similar to the Mao era, I guess. There was a time when the economy was the priority for the Chinese communist party. That started in the late 1970s when Deng came back and said, “We should have economic development as the first priority.” And then that continued for about 40 years or so until the early 2010s.

When Xi took office, the first priority in 2012, 2013, 2014 was the anti-corruption campaign. That was the priority of the party. And then party building became the priority. Now its COVID control. None of these are about economic development. Some of them are actually detrimental to economic development.

So, I would say that the first similarity is that politics dominates. Politics surpasses the economy and then becomes the priority of the Chinese government. And that was also the case during the Mao era. Mao didn’t care so much about economic development. There were a lot of “revolutions” under Mao. We had different waves of mass movements, from the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution. They were all detrimental to the economy. This is one similarity.

The other similarity I can see is the ways how the government implements policies. Think about COVID control but also during the Mao era, all those movements. Mass mobilization becomes the primary way by which the government implements policies. This is a feature that we see very prominently during the Mao era but also now in the Xi era.

During the Deng era and post-Deng era, including the Jiang and Hu eras, they primarily relied on the bureaucracy when they want to implement a policy. They relied on the government to implement those policies. But under Mao and under Xi, I sense that a mass mobilization is the primary way by which the party implements policies. And this is very obvious during COVID. And then you mentioned that neighbors reporting on each other, that sounds very similar to how neighborhood communities control COVID in their own neighborhood. We have those local branches of the Chinese government, we call them neighborhood committees, juweihui (“居委会”), or street committees (“街道”). And they have played a very important role during the pandemic. They knock on your doors and then check your temperature. And then they make sure that you do the test every 24 hours. When you test positive, they will seal your door and then monitor you.

So, in different communities, people are also watching each other. If you come from a foreign country, for example, your neighbors will report you to the neighborhood community and then they will watch you, they will monitor you. So, I think I see a lot of within-society monitoring. It’s not a direct action of the government. In a lot of cases, it’s people watching each other. And then we also see a lot of mass mobilization during COVID in China. I think that’s probably a legacy from the Cultural Revolution.

You mentioned that the two similarities between the Mao and Xi eras are that politics dominate and mass mobilization is more greatly relied upon. During the Cultural Revolution, we know that Mao Zedong wanted to make himself an unprecedented ruler— uniting a political and spiritual ruler in one person. Yet, Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping introduced an open door policy and refuted Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Ultimately, Deng’s open-door policy did not extend to political reform, his decision to suppress the call for political reform in 1989 resulted in the Tiananmen Incident. So my next question is, do you see any connection between the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Incident and how these monumental events are reflected in American academic research in terms of China studies?

Yeah. I do see some connections between the Cultural Revolution and 1989. If we think about the college students who were protesting in 1989 and they were in their late teens or early twenties. They were probably all born during the Cultural Revolution. Though they were young during this time, they were probably exposed to the events during the Cultural Revolution. They probably heard what happened from their parents. So, certainly you can see some connections between their childhood experiences and then what they did in 1989.

I also want to mention that it is not only 1989. Throughout the 1980s there were waves of student protests in major cities in China. If you were in China at the time, almost every month there were large-scale or small-scale protest in the major cities in China at the time. So, protest was a common scene in the 1980s. And then when we think about why there were so many protests among students in the 1980s, one primary reason was those protests were actually encouraged… At the beginning, they were encouraged by the government because in the late 1970s, after Mao died, when Deng came back, one of the things he needed to do was to encourage people to criticize and to reflect on what happened during the Cultural Revolution.

One example is the Democracy Wall in downtown Beijing, in Xidan. The government actually encouraged the Democracy Wall. The idea of the Democracy Wall was to encourage people to post big character posters and then to use the Democracy Wall as a venue to reflect on what happened during the Cultural Revolution and then to criticize the Mao era. That was encouraged by Deng and other reformers.

And then in the 1980s, the students were liberated. There were a lot of discussions on campus, a lot of organizing events on college campuses to encourage the students to criticize the government. To think about what went wrong during the Cultural Revolution. So, protests in the 1980s were a response to the Cultural Revolution and they were encouraged by the Chinese government.

And then in 1989 the protest went to the extreme, I would say, it is a continuation of the waves of protests in the 1980s but then became prominent and then salient because they went to Tiananmen Square. That’s a very different space than, for example, just protesting on the street in Wuhan. Now you see thousands of students showing up in Tiananmen Square. That became very different. But throughout the 1980s people were very used to student protests on the street because that’s what they saw in the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution they saw or heard of people protesting, marching on the street, and the Red Guards. And then later the workers marching on the streets in Beijing, for example, in Shanghai, in Wuhan. So, in the 1980s protests were very familiar to people. The Chinese people saw this and then they saw, “Oh, this is just very normal politics,” because they saw this every day in the Cultural Revolution.

I think you can see the connections in different ways. Some of them in the 1980s were reactions to the Cultural Revolution. Some of them were encouraged by the government because of the Cultural Revolution.

And then in terms of how the world sees China, 1989 precipitated a huge change. I would say 1989 was probably a watershed event in how the world sees China. Before 1989, China was the vanguard. China was the pioneer in economic reforms among all the communist regimes. There was the Soviet Union and then China, and then North Korea and Cuba. But China was the pioneer. China was the leader in economic reforms. Even Western countries were looking up to China to see how this big country could carry out such economic reforms. A lot of the American companies were eager to invest in China.

In the 1980s, when China opened its door, a lot of US companies were thinking about going to China or had already moved to China. Moreover, scholars in the US who couldn’t go to China during the Cultural Revolution all wanted to go to China to study when the door opened. So, in the 1980s there was this golden era of reforms. China was perceived in a very positive light by the world. And 1989 changed that. That was a turning point because suddenly the Chinese government became the evil government, which used force against its own people. And a lot of the companies, foreign companies, that were investing in China in 1980s left after 1989. Scholars also left and then they couldn’t go back until the early 1990s. So, there was a turning point, I think, in 1989. The perception of China changed from very positive to very negative overnight after June 4th.

You said there were a wide range of protests during the 1980s and it was to some extent the reactions of the Cultural Revolution. And as we know, both the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Incident attracted global attention. I’m wondering to what degree could this event-based studies among American academics affect American society, or cause what kind of American society’s reactions? And what is its impact on its corresponding foreign policies?

Not much. With respect to the real impact of American academics on American society, and also on US foreign policies toward China, the short answer is not much. As scholars we don’t usually impact how the American people think about China or how American policymakers think about China. The media have a big impact on how American people think about China. What’s being said on CNN or ABC or Fox News, those things are very important in influencing how American people think. American policymakers have their own agenda. We try to inform them about China, we try to tell them how China works, but they have their own agenda which is usually shaped by partisanship and their ideologies. But I think we still can play a role.

Also, you mentioned event-based studies using 1989 as an example. I would say the early 1990s were also a time of change. In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed. And then Eastern European communist countries collapsed. So in the 1990s, there was a time of change. And among academics in the US there was a very widely believed prediction that China would collapse very soon as well. They saw what happened in 1989. They saw what happened in the Soviet Union. They saw what happened in Poland and in Hungary. And then they predicted in the 1990s that China or the Chinese Communist regime would collapse very quickly as well.

So that was the dominant view in the 1990s among scholars who were watching China. But then 10 years passed in the late 1990s and then the early 2000s and China was not collapsing. The Chinese regime was very stable and durable. The Chinese economy was growing by the double digits. And then starting in, I think, the early 2000s, scholars in the US started to change their view about China.

Most people started to believe that China was not collapsing and the Chinese Communist Party was going to hold on to power for longer. They also saw the economic growth in China. And I will say in the early 2000s most China scholars in the US changed their questions. In the 1990s they were asking when the Chinese regime would collapse and how? And then starting in the 2000s they started to ask why is the Chinese regime so resilient, so durable? They tried to explain the durability of the Chinese authoritarian regime, which was also shaped by China’s ability to survive the global financial crisis in 2008 and hold the Olympics that same year.

So that strengthened their belief that the Chinese Communist regime would survive and also would endure for a longer period of time. Coming back to your question, I use this example to illustrate how an event-based understanding of China can go wrong. When our understanding of China, a huge country with thousands of years of history, is shaped by single events like 1989, our understanding is distorted and also biased. I would always advocate for a long-term understanding. We need to understand the long-term changes in China rather than a single event.

This isn’t to say that some events are not more important than others, such as the Cultural Revolution or the 1989 Tiananmen Incident. We should study those events but we should not form our understanding of China solely based on these events. We should also not rely on one event to shape our predictions about China. China is changing all the time.