August 19, 2019

REMEMBERING THE CHINESE CULTURAL REVOLUTION’S RED AUGUST (ADDENDUM): Last week I did a post about August of 1966, the month in which the Red Guard student gangs started going on the rampage. But where did these students come from? And what made them so angry?

I can give you only partial answers: During this early stage of the Cultural Revolution, they were very disproportionately the sons and daughters of privileged party members.  (Surprised?  I suspect not.)

Red Guard students also tended to be the beneficiaries of preferential treatment in admissions. All during the 1950s and 1960s, the children of party members and at least in theory the children of peasants and workers received a kind of “affirmative action” in admission both to elite schools and to colleges and universities. Frequently a revolutionary pedigree was a more important credential than a good academic record. Early on, a popular meme (if not exactly a Shakespearean couplet) was “If the father is a hero [of the Revolution], the son is a good fellow; if the father is a reactionary, the son is a good-for-nothing—it is basically like this.”

Like students who receive preferential treatment here in the USA—diversity students, legacy students, and athletes—on average the Chinese recipients of preferential treatment got poorer grades than other students. Mao is reported to have acknowledged this: “The political performance of the children of revolutionary cadres in schools can only be rated as second-class, but students with bad family backgrounds [i.e. the children of alleged capitalists, landlords, rich peasants, and counter-revolutionaries] have performed very well. However, no matter how well they have performed, revolutionary tasks cannot be put on their shoulders.”

Loyal Instapundit readers know that I have written extensively about the problem of affirmative action “mismatch” in this country. (If you haven’t already read one of my essays, they are here and here. Please take a look.) Alas, large gaps in academic performance between identifiable groups tend to cause resentments. Perversely, a group that has been given preferential treatment may come to believe, against all evidence, that the system is rigged against them, when in fact the problem is that the system was rigged in their favor.

In China, the myth that the “Born-Reds” (as they sometimes called themselves) had been mistreated by the educational system prior to the Cultural Revolution was a strong one. “We Born-Reds gasped for breath under the suppression of the cow ghosts and snake demons [i.e. the teachers and school administrators], and bourgeois bastards [i.e. children with “bad” family backgrounds] in schools,” wrote several of the Red Guard crybullies. In fact, in the years leading up to Red August, school administrators were often far too inclined to indulge the “Born-Reds,” in part out of fear of their political clout.

Mao pandered to these students. For him, poor academic performance was not really a problem. He was contemptuous of the Chinese system of education anyway. And he was especially contemptuous of its examination methods: I am in favor of publishing the questions in advance and letting the students study them and answer them with the aid of books.” He seemed not to be troubled by cheating. “If you answer is good and I copy it, then mine too should be counted as good.”

Mao complained about too much emphasis on “foreign dead people much the same way that leftists today complain about about “dead white males.” And he sympathized with students who dozed off during lectures. “You don’t have to listen to nonsense, you can rest your brain instead.” He accused the schools of favoring students from “bad” family backgrounds.

No wonder the Born-Reds loved him (and weren’t too fond of their teachers).

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