Thomas Burnham, The Analogy Between the Cultural Revolution and “Cancel Culture:” A Historical Perspective

On July 4th, 2020, in the midst of the twin crises of a nationwide uprising against racial injustice and a global pandemic, Donald Trump stood before Mount Rushmore to tell the people of the United States that the greatest threat to its liberty and security was “cancel culture.”
Kaiser Kuo's ironic tweet responding to the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

On July 4th, 2020, in the midst of the twin crises of a nationwide uprising against racial injustice and a global pandemic, Donald Trump stood before Mount Rushmore to tell the people of the United States that the greatest threat to its liberty and security was “cancel culture.”  He defined it thus:

“If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.  Not gonna happen to us!”

Delivering his speech uninvited on native lands, play-acting as a stalwart defender of American history against the iconoclasm of “leftists,” he proclaimed, “Make no mistake, this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American revolution.”

This was yet another instance of the sort of red baiting mixed with orientalism that has taken over in Washington.  With the defeat of the Bernie Sanders primary campaign, the “Russiagate” conspiracy theory became the Democratic Party’s electoral identity above and beyond any policies offered by its renegade progressive caucus.  Following the grand failure of the first impeachment attempt, now president-elect Joe Biden competed against Trump on his anti-Beijing credentials instead.  Since his election in 2016, American news outlets have repeatedly accused Trump of “kowtowing” to Beijing on everything from trade to human rights.  Adding to the din, a Biden campaign ad accused Trump of having “rolled over for the Chinese” in his catastrophic mishandling of Covid-19.  Not to be outdone, the Trump administration ratcheted up its own Sinophobia.

Against this, and against the backdrop of the nationwide protests after to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers last May, Trump’s invocation of China’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” on July 4th drew worldwide media attention.  The Cultural Revolution occupies a special place in the Western reactionary imaginary.  It conjures up images of thronging masses of young students dressed in military garb waving little red books and chanting slogans.  These red guards are imagined as a faceless mob setting fire to the Ming tombs and subjecting their elders to untold abuse.

In a recent piece for praxis on positions politics, Aminda Smith meditated on the abundance of unthinking comparisons between Maoism and Trumpism and found that those making such comparisons share one thing in common: an elitist allergy to popular politics. In a similar vein, this piece confronts how recent writing critical of the last year’s protest movement draws on imagery from the Cultural Revolution, focusing in particular on the analogy with “cancel culture.”  The analogy between the Cultural Revolution and cancel culture came to be because, for many in the West, both are synonymous with far-left politics.  Initially an outgrowth of the #MeToo movement, “cancelling” was meant to hold powerful men accountable.  Now, cancel culture has come to mean any censuring or even criticism done by the “left.”  Cancelling has come be seen as the worst aspect of the “left” even by elements of the left itself.

This analogy is becoming increasingly commonplace in conservative media.  A month prior to Trump’s speech, Kevin D. Williamson published an unstructured litany of conservative clichés in the New York Post, with everything from clueless references to Animal Farm and 1984’s “2 minutes hate” to vague allusions to life under the German Democratic Republic.  He titled the piece “Social justice warriors are waging a dangerous ‘Cancel Cultural Revolution’.”  In the wake of the “Harper’s letter,” National Review contributor Jonathan S. Tobin wrote that “the struggles of ordinary people who are being forced to suffer for not kowtowing to the Black Lives Matter movement or for voting for the wrong candidate don’t get noticed nearly as often.”  According to Tobin, everyone from museum curators to small business owners are being subjected to “Cultural Revolution-style struggle session and humiliation” at the hands of today’s red guards.

From this concern over the “cancelling” of “ordinary people,” the analogy seeped out of conservative media and into the wider political discourse.  After the president’s speech, Matt Taibbi posed the question, “If it’s not ‘Cancel Culture’, What kind of Culture is it?”  In this piece, he linked the red guards’ iconoclastic struggle against the “four olds” (old customs, old cultures, old habits, and old ideas) with the BLM-spearheaded movement to remove or topple monuments to Confederate military leaders and slave traders.

Since July 4th, the analogy has also drawn the attention of those directly connected to the experience of the actual Cultural Revolution.  Writing under the pen name Xiao Li, a second-generation Chinese American academic wrote a piece for Unherd titled “America’s cultural revolution is just like Mao’s.  In it, Xiao Li briefly recounts the abuse suffered by their father during the Cultural Revolution and ponders whether or not BLM is the same as the red guards.  “To my father,” Xiao Li opines, “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.”  Xiao Li ruminates that the red guards “came from privileged backgrounds” and that “today’s revolutionary vanguard is also made up of young, well-educated people, a disproportionate number hailing from elite educational institutions and working within elite professions.”  In a passage which betrays their ignorance about the critique of systemic racism at hand, Xiao Li continues:

“(T)he idea that elite Anglo-American institutions are filled with closeted racists, absurd though it is to anyone who has worked in them, became an article of faith overnight.  Whether it is in newsrooms, universities or progressive advocacy groups, the hunt for secret racists gives these would-be Selma marchers a sense of purpose.”

Having thus waved away the current protest movement, Xiao Li goes further, drawing direct parallels between the red guards and BLM:

“Eventually, the movement’s slogans make their way downstream to non-elite institutions and popular discourse.  In due course, no entity, however remote from the issue at hand, could refuse to make public statements in support of the movement.  In China, no book, be it about astronomy or sewing patterns, could fail to contain an introduction with fulsome praise for Chairman Mao, complete with quotations from his collected works.  Similarly, today businesses selling anything from teabags to maths degrees feel the need to bend the metaphorical knee to the protesters.”

Setting aside their misunderstanding of the neoliberal phenomenon of “woke brands,” it is clear that, without saying so in as many words, Xiao Li is denying the need for the BLM protest movement altogether.  To them, all it has done is brought us teetering on the edge of chaos ”just like” the Cultural Revolution.

On the other side of the Pacific, the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post Wang Xiangwei also wrings his hands about the specter of the Cultural Revolution.  Wang points to the perspective of the Hong Kong-based Asia Weekly, which wrote in July that “(t)he (BLM) movement has also emboldened extremist groups like Antifa, white nationalists and Boogaloo boys.”  In Wang’s characterization, “Some China observers also believe Trump is stoking racism and culture wars for political gain, but his assertion that the US is right in the middle of a cultural revolution is not far-fetched campaign rhetoric.”  However, musing on how the current leadership in Beijing reminds “many of the bygone era in which Mao was deified,” Wang sees the specter of the Cultural Revolution hanging over China as well.

The cover of the July 6-12, 2020 issue of Asia Weekly. "The Six Phenomena of the Cultural Revolution in the West: Facing the Crisis of Factional Warfare."

The Primordial Upheaval

Today, the leadership in Beijing views opposition elements through the lens of the Cultural Revolution.  Since the 1981 “Resolution Regarding Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China,” the Cultural Revolution has been officially understood as the “leftist aberration” in party history.  It is the primordial instance of dongluan (动乱 upheaval, turmoil, chaos) against which all social and political movements are compared, including the “rightist aberrations” of Tiananmen in 1989 and Hong Kong in 2019.  Another instance was the 2012 Wang Lijun incident which abruptly ended the career of princeling Bo Xilai.  Reflecting on the incident, Premier Wen Jiabao told the Chinese public that “(t)he pernicious and feudal influence of the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution has not been completely wiped clean” and “(h)istorical tragedies such as the Cultural Revolution may recur.”1

Since the 1981 resolution, even so-called “Maoists” maintain a complicated relationship with the memory of the Cultural Revolution.  As explored in Jude Blanchette’s China’s New Red Guards, with the coming of age of the post-Mao generation and with the growth of the internet, Maoism has made something of a comeback in China.  Today’s self-avowed Maoists use the imagery, slogans, and songs of the Mao era to conjure up patriotic sentiments.  They just as use the memory of the Cultural Revolution to tar their enemies in accordance with the official ideology.

One Maoist told Blanchette, “The internet is the new ‘big character poster.’”2  In 2011, this digital big character poster was put to work against the liberal economist Mao Yushi (no relation to the Chairman).  He had published a widely circulated article in the prominent Caixin newspaper titled “Judging Mao as a Man.”  As translated by Blanchette, Mao Yushi wrote,

“Some still view Chairman Mao as a god, however, and view any critical discussion of him as blasphemous.  If these people have their way, we will never be able to analyze him, never directly face his legacy, never question his spirit.  Fortunately, the average person is now able to form their own understanding of his legacy.”3

Mao Yushi’s piece continued into paragraphs of invective against Mao and his fourth wife Jiang Qing, the leader of the Gang of Four and avatar of the Cultural Revolution.  Zhang Hongliang and numerous other intellectuals associated with the leading “Maoist” website, Utopia (乌有之乡) vociferously condemned the piece online.4  They accused Mao Yushi of “deliberately stirring up trouble and creating turmoil (dongluan).”  A mass campaign was organized and a petition was drafted calling on his publication to be censored and for him to be tried for sedition.

This drew the ire of the late dissident Chen Ziming.  In his “Brief Analysis of Two Maoist Factions: Royalists and Rebels,” Chen too went back to the Cultural Revolution, but this time to dispel the mistaken belief that today’s Chinese Maoists are all the same.

“There are those who say that in their psychological state, language, and behaviour, Liu Siqi5 and Zhang Hongliang are the same as the red guards in the cultural revolution.  To this I say that although the red guards in the Cultural Revolution all wore red armbands, held up red books, and called ‘long live Chairman Mao’, the targets of their opposition and the goals for which they strived were in fact very different.”6

Chen then divides the red guards into two types: “rebels” (造反派) and “royalists” (保皇派).

The rebels, initially the darlings of Mao Zedong, were adherents to the democratic ideal of the Paris Commune and were stridently anti-bureaucratic.  These are the red guards of the bloody Red August when young students terrorized Beijing’s intelligentsia in 1966, or the 1967 January Storm during which the short-lived Shanghai Commune briefly stood to challenge to the party itself.

The royalists were the “upright seedlings of red roots,” or the children of prominent party members and military leaders.  According to Chen, they were the ones who “swept away all ghosts and monsters” and denounced their classmates as the “sons of bitches” on campus for whatever they saw as deviating from correct party doctrine.  For their relative material comfort and inherited political connections, they were “thrown into the cold” when Mao emphasized the anti-capitalist line in the early days of the Cultural Revolution.  However, as will be shown, they soon returned.

In Chen’s analysis, today’s royalists might be called “pro-party patriots,” or simply “right Maoists.”  Conservative in nature, they are committed to “protecting their fathers and mothers” and “defending the red regime from ever changing colour.”  They remain opposed to the “sons of bitches” on campus, except now they set their sights on “black lawyers” (human rights attorneys) and “reactionary literati” (academics and journalists), calling them “national traitors” instead of “ghosts and monsters.”

Chen writes that although Utopia accused Mao Yushi of “stirring up turmoil,” it is in fact these right Maoists who, “in harmony with official mouthpieces,” were reenacting the Cultural Revolution.  In the conclusion of his piece, he condemns them in the harshest way he can:

“As for these royalist Maoists like Zhang Hongliang, they are absolutely not part of the leftist camp.  They are a superficially left, but in reality they are a special detachment of the authoritarian right.  They are faithful disciples of the Nazis (National Socialists).  They are the backbone of Chinese fascism.”7

But what about today’s rebels?  According to the blogger Chen Chun, these “left Maoists” are not found concentrated in the well-to-do provinces and tier one cities or cosmopolises like Shanghai.  Instead, they are diffused across the distant backwaters and dilapidated third front zones like Xinjiang, Guizhou, Guangxi, Ningxia, or Henan.  Chen Chun, quotes an interview of his with a prominent left Maoist to explain their underrepresentation in Chinese political discourse:

“How could it be otherwise?  Left Maoists oppose capitalism and the status quo.  We’re the most dangerous group.  The liberals don’t like us, we are a headache to the authorities, why would they allow us any exposure?”8

Indeed, while the right Maoists are treated as a problem by the government insofar as they are more royalist than the king, the left Maoists (as well as Trotskyists, #MeToo campaigners, and the odd handful of sympathetic liberals) have no choice but to stay underground.

Examples of their brave efforts have been uncovered from time to time.  As told by Zhang Yueran in an excellent piece for Made in China titled “Leninists in a Chinese Factory,” state repression engendered a strategy among these left Maoists not unlike Leninist vanguardism.  Barely out of college, sacrificing their health and careers, these Leninists deliberately took on work in the most notorious factories.  Their aim was to agitate for the creation of independent labor unions outside of the officially sanctioned All-China Federation of Trade Unions.  This decade-long salting project culminated in a unionization drive at the Shenzhen Jasic Technology factory in June 2018.  The Jasic incident drew worldwide attention when scores of workers were arrested and when 22 members of the student-led Jasic Workers Solidarity Group were disappeared for their involvement.

Among the Jasic Workers Solidarity Group were several members of the Young Marxist Society at Peking University.  The Young Marxists came under heavy scrutiny after Yue Xin, a committed #MeToo activist and leading member of the group, published an open letter to current leadership in Beijing that August.  Soon after she too was disappeared.

The Young Marxists had also been attempting to mobilize on behalf of the underpaid and overworked janitorial and cafeteria staff of their university.  That September, university administration informed them that their group would be disbanded (cancelled if you will) and replaced.

In December, the old Young Marxists’ protested this decision on campus and were met with police batons.  Meanwhile, the new Young Marxist Society held their inaugural lecture on the value of neo-Confucianism for contemporary China. The new Young Marxist Society rejected their predecessors’ mass-based politics of class struggle, opting instead for an official interpretation of socialism as being about the orderly improvement of the people’s quality and the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”  Using quotes from Mao and Lenin to justify not reading either, the new Young Marxist Society directed a January 2, 2019 WeChat post against their predecessors:

“Comrade Lenin clearly instructed the youth that ‘to not have grasped mankind’s accumulated knowledge in becoming communists is to have committed a grave error’.  To believe that you do not need to comprehend all the knowledge that has produced communist doctrine (here meaning Chinese philosophy and history) and that to know the slogans of communism is enough is also an error.”

After quoting the 1981 resolution, the new Young Marxists then accused the old of being like the red guards:

“The decade of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ led our country’s economy to the verge of collapse, and we should take warning from this like we would from an overturned cart ahead of us, but you all are obsessed.  You oppose reform and opening, you want to drive backwards into history, to repeat history, to subvert the results of reform and opening, and to return China back again to that age of upheaval.  All those who today are striving with all their strength for a better life and a more prosperous China will never agree!”9

The new Young Marxists even went as far as to blame the old for worsening the lives of those – the factory workers, low-level university staff, and migrant laborers – on whose behalf they were beaten, arrested, and disappeared.  With their WeChat account long since banned, the old Young Marxists had no way of refuting these accusations.

The Shift from Chaos to Order Under the Red Flag

To understand the separate fates of the “royalists” and “rebels,” and to complicate the plethora of unthinking analogies made to the Cultural Revolution today, it is useful refer to the July 20, 1967 Wuhan Incident.

After the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, two factions emerged in Wuhan.10  One was the rebel faction.  Composed of various worker- and student-led organizations, the rebels initially enjoyed the broad support of the Wuhan Military Region following Marshall Lin Biao’s ten-point order instructing the military to uphold the left.  When conservative elements of the military and local party bureaucracy declared organizations within the faction illegal, the rebels began mass protests calling for a purge of the Wuhan Military Region.

The other faction was the Million Heroes.  They drew on local party members and conservative elements of the military who secretly opposed the rebels.  As explained in Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhal’s definitive Mao’s Last Revolution,

“(T)he Million Heroes were denying the need for a Cultural Revolution, at least as far as Hubei was concerned….  The formal grounds of dispute between the rival headquarters were whether or not the Wuhan MR had genuinely supported the left.  In reality, the conflict pitted those who saw themselves as having a big stake in the pre-1966 political and social order against those who did not.”11

Largescale fighting broke out between the two factions in the spring of 1967.  In a desperate attempt to quell the fighting and defend itself against the rebels, certain divisions of the Wuhan Military Region began shelling factories and campuses.  Thousands died in the clashes.

On July 20, Mao decided to go to Wuhan himself and to repeat his swim across the Yangtze.  With Mao in tow, Zhou Enlai and the Minister of Public Security went to Wuhan to attempt to resolve the situation to the military and the broader public’s satisfaction.  The mediation backfired, enraging elements of the military and the Million Heroes.  Rioting broke out which forced Mao to cut his propaganda tour short before he could repeat his swim.  He fled the city by plane in the middle of the night while agents of the Ministry of Public Security were kidnapped and beaten to a pulp by the Million Heroes, who were aided and abetted by a division of the Wuhan Military Region.

Having embarrassed Mao and enraged the Cultural Revolution Group, those leading elements of the Wuhan Military Region who had aligned themselves with the Million Heroes were reshuffled throughout the country or tried in kangaroo courts.  The Million Heroes collapsed as an organization.  The rebels celebrated the “second liberation of Wuhan.”12 However, this proved to be a pyrrhic victory.

Yu Ruxin believes that the Wuhan Incident “was a gigantic blow to Mao’s way of thinking” and was a watershed moment in the Cultural Revolution.

“It caused Mao to see a serious development taking shape and pressed Mao to rethink his original intentions.  The chariot of the Cultural Revolution suddenly changed course from ‘chaos’ ([dong] luan) to ‘order’ ([fa 法] zhi 治).”13

Prior to the Wuhan Incident, the Cultural Revolution was typified by the mass tumult of the Red August and the January Storm.  After, it was characterized by the creeping reconsolidation of military and state power as abetted by conservative factions and paramilitary forces.  A number of other “incidents” were to follow Wuhan in this reassertion of the status quo.

That winter, a “red storm” came to the border province of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.  In Guangxi, an urban student and worker-based rebel faction called the “4-22” opposed the military leadership of the province.  They enjoyed the public support of Zhou Enlai but were secretly opposed by the military and the “United Headquarters,” a pro-military faction composed of conservative elements of Guangxi society.  Conveniently for the military leadership and the United Headquarters, a rumor began spreading that the Kuomintang “Anti-Communist Salvation League” had somehow been revived and was organizing a revolt of the “five black categories.”14 The 4-22 rebels were labelled as part of this counterrevolutionary movement, and with the assent the military, the United Headquarters endeavored to liquidate them.  Entire families were wiped out by various means.  Despite targeting the “five black categories,” the majority of the casualties were among ordinary peasants and rural cadres who expressed support for the rebels.  Between 70,000 and 150,000 were killed in Guangxi over the course of the decade.15

Soon after the Wuhan Incident, the Beijing Military Region dispatched a new general to the Inner Mongolian Autonomous region to “uphold the left.”  In early 1968, the military initiated a campaign to “dig out the poison” of the “black line” of the Inner Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, a pro-communist, ethnically Mongolian political party which had long since become defunct.  The military and conservative red guard factions worked in tandem to root out this fabricated group of separatist counterrevolutionaries.  According to the Supreme Court of the PRC, 34,000 people were persecuted with 16,222 “persecuted to death.” 16  Mongol ethnic identity was treated as proof of membership in the non-existent organization.  Ethnic prejudice was conflated with Mao’s invocation for class struggle, resulting in entire minority populations falling under suspicion of being “traitors,” pro-Soviet “revisionists,” or backwards elements to be struggled against in the fight against the “four olds.”

Jacques Ranciere once wrote apropos of the Cultural Revolution that “there is no theory of subversion that cannot also serve the cause of oppression.”17  Following the Wuhan Incident, conservative forces throughout China were able to re-establish their grip on power by learning to speak the language of Mao and the Cultural Revolution Group.  They did this at the expense of the rebels.  Cast into the countryside, hounded into obscurity, and dead in their shallow graves, it was the defeated rebels who were assigned the full burden of guilt for this decade of turmoil by the 1981 resolution.


This narrative of the Cultural Revolution as a “white terror disguised in red garb” is not general knowledge.18 While some are passingly familiar with the personality cultism, anti-intellectualism, and iconoclasm of the period, most are unaware of tumult that took place between 1966 and 1976, much less how it relates to Chinese political discourse today.  Even fewer have paid close attention to the multiplicity of forces beneath Mao or the ethnic valences of the Cultural Revolution on the local level.  Yet many writers on both sides of the Pacific have uncritically accepted the findings of the 1981 resolution.  They reduce the Cultural Revolution to nothing more than a leftist aberration and the red guards to an undifferentiated, chaotic rabble.

On the one hand, there is the temptation to take the history of the Cultural Revolution as another good reason to dismiss the bickering about cancel culture as a bourgeois concern.  Indeed, how can the “cancelling” of prominent figures, online harassment (no matter how pervasive), or even the loss of income or employment begin to compare to violence and death on the scale of the actual Cultural Revolution?  For that matter, what comparison is there between “cancelling” and the mortal violence occurring in our own society?  What is being “cancelled” in comparison with being murdered by the police or armed militias?  Or being disappeared by the state?

On the other hand, it might be more useful to deepen the analogy instead of rejecting it out of hand.  As described above, following the Wuhan Incident, conservative forces across China were able to coalesce around opposition to fabricated enemies like the Inner Mongolian People’s Revolution Party or the Anti-Communist Salvation League.  The left was then recast as the right to satisfy the official ideology.  In partnership with the military and other local authorities, paramilitary groups were formed to wage counter-insurgency campaigns against entire populations labelled as “counterrevolutionary.”   The carnivalesque upheaval of the early days of the Cultural Revolution was able to be turned right side up again by the structural ability of conservative forces to bring themselves back into alignment with state ideology and surviving formations of power simultaneously.  Politically conservative or even ethnocentrist regimes of repression were cloaked in the radical language of Mao and the Cultural Revolution Group.  As is often said of right Maoists in China today, they “waved the red flag against the red flag” (打着红旗反红旗).  Barring genuine revolution, the tremendous violence of the rebels was impotent against this reconsolidation of political power built on the acquisition of Beijing’s left language by right forces.

Today, something similar is in progress after Trump’s own ridiculous attempt at “bombarding the headquarters.”  Having had their sacred Capitol desecrated by a different kind of royalist faction, Congress now has the bipartisan consensus necessary to legislate on domestic terrorism.  Regardless of the best intentions of *insert your favorite Democrat here*, there should be no doubt that such legislation would be primarily wielded in the interests of the neoliberal status quo.

However “cancel culture” is defined, it is a real phenomenon.  Glenn Greenwald, Taibbi, and others are right in their concern that the legitimization of any form of censorship will ultimately harm the left worst of all.  Nonetheless, whether Greenwald or Taibbi approve of “cancelling” as a tactic or not is irrelevant.  Precisely the sort of cancel culture Trump describes as performing rituals or facing persecution has been going on in Western academia and media since the McCarthy era.  Countless critical scholars and journalists have been hounded out of their fields while the media bias towards presenting “both sides” of an argument drags the political discourse further and further rightward.  The difference is that this cancel culture as wielded by the right – the red-baiting, the trumping up of groundless accusations, outright censorship – is done in alignment with capital and the status quo.  Whether they are subjected to the online struggle sessions or not, the right is armed, organized, and in alignment with the capitalist state.  To prove this, one may look no further than the vast gulf between the treatment of our own rebels and royalists made evident by the January 6 storming of the Capitol.

A different analogy from Chinese history may be useful for thinking about the left’s problem with “cancel culture.”  Towards the end of the War of Liberation against the Kuomintang (1949-1950), the Chinese Communist Party found itself tasked with implementing the promise of land reform to the long-suffering peasantry.  “Speak bitterness” meetings and efforts to “settle accounts” with rural landlords, collaborators, and rich peasants suspected of harboring pro-KMT sympathies flew out of the control of local party cadres.  This resulted in the beating and killing of many of these people by their fed-up neighbors.  The CCP leadership, in hopes of maintaining the countryside as a united front against the urban-based KMT (and setting aside its plans to liquidate landlordism later), emphasized the human rights of these targeted groups and encouraged cadres to provide them the means to transition out of their “bad” class status.

However, Mao also cautioned the cadres not to “pour cold water” on the energies of the masses.  Instead, he advised that efforts be made to redirect their wrath towards select elements, especially the semi-urban commercial landlords, with an eye to enhancing the unity of the countryside against the KMT-controlled cities.19

The primary criticism of cancel culture lies in the degree to which indiscriminate “cancelling” alienates elements of the people from themselves.  To join the right in decrying cancel culture as a whole and play into their blinkered deployment of an analogy with the Cultural Revolution is like pouring cold water on the energies of today’s movement for change.  What needs to be done instead is to redirect that energy in a way which fosters solidarity against the post-Trump status quo.


Thanks to Long Yang for his commentary and invaluable perspective on early drafts of this piece.

1 Yao Linxia, “Zhongnanhai Should Reflect on the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and Mao Zedong’s Sins” (姚临夏, “中南海更应反思’文革’和毛泽东的罪恶,”《DW中文》April 7, 2012). My translation.

2 Jude Blanchette, China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019): 4.

3 Mao Yushi, “Judging Mao as a Man: Only When Chinese Strip Away the Mythology Surrounding Mao Zedong Will we Understand his Terrible Legacy,” Wall Street Journal, July 6, 2011.

4 Mao Yushi was something of a whipping post for Utopia at the time and continues to be to this day.

5 Liu Siqi, the widow of Mao’s son Mao Anying who died in an American napalm raid in the Korean War, was among the family members of the Chairman who signed the petition against Mao Yushi’s publication.

6 Chen Ziming, “A Brief Analysis of Two Maoist Factions: Royalists and Rebels” (陈子明, “简析两种毛派:保皇派与造反派,”《爱思想》May 6, 2013).  My translation.

7 Parentheses and emphasis in original.

8 Chen Chun, “The Leftist Youth of This Era” (陈纯, “这个时代的左翼青年,” Matters, August 13, 2018).  My translation.

9 WeChat account of Peking University Marxist Society, “A Letter from the Peking University Marxist Society to Qiu Zhanxuan and Other Students” (pku马会, “北大马会致邱占萱等同学的一封信,” January 1, 2019).  My translation and parenthetical addition.

10For a deeper analysis of the Wuhan Incident, see Wang Shaoguang’s The Failure of Charisma: The Cultural Revolution in Wuhan (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1995).

11 Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006): 204-205.

12 MacFarquhar and Shoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution: 215.

13 Yu Ruxin, “The ‘8201’ and ‘8199’ in the ‘July 20th Incident’” (余汝信, “‘7·20事件‘中的’8201‘与’8199‘,“《爱思想》, November 13, 2013).  My translation.

14 Landlords, rich farmers, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists.

15 Yan Lebin, “My Participation in Handling Issues Leftover from the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi” (宴乐斌, “我参与处理广西文革遗留问题,”《炎黄春秋》2012年第11期).  Anecdotal figures suggest far more were killed.

16 Bai Yintai, “The Unjust Case of the ‘Inner Mongolian People’s Revolution Party’ From Beginning to End” (白音太,  “‘内人党’冤案前后,”《炎黄春秋》2009年第8期).  This is almost certainly an undercount.  The civil society organization “32 Widows Appeal Mission” estimates that 40,000 were killed.  Hasige’erlei, “Personal Experience of the Injustice of the ‘Inner Mongolia People’s Revolution Party’ Incident” (哈斯格尔勒, “‘内人党‘冤案亲历记,”《炎黄春秋》2009年第1期).

17 Jacques Ranciere, Althusser’s Lesson, xvii.  Quoted from Jean Khalfa, “A Theory of Subversion that Could not Also Serve the Cause of Oppression,” Interventions, July 7, 2020: 2.

18 “Sorghum and Steel: The Socialist Developmental Regime and the Forging of China,” Chuang Vol. 1 (2016): 195. Available at 

19 Yang Kuisong, “Early Post-War Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Land Reform Policy Changes and Origins: With an Emphasis on the Interpretation of Archival Documents” (杨奎松,“战后初期中共中央土地政策的变动及原因 – 着重于文献档案的解读“,《开放时代》2014/05).

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