In 1966, China’s Communist dictator Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution, a whole-of-society effort to remold the Chinese people into worthy Communists and to eliminate all dissenting voices. Knowing his order would need loyal foot soldiers, Mao turned to China’s youth, leveraging their enthusiasm for change and disdain for authority to execute his designs.
Mao kicked off the Cultural Revolution at Beijing University, one of China’s most prestigious colleges. Students answered Mao’s call by blanketing their campus with huge character posters and by denouncing university administrators and party leaders and humiliating them in public struggle sessions. The fervor quickly spread to other Beijing universities and high schools, as radicalized students called themselves Mao’s “Red Guards” and vowed to punish anyone, especially those authority figures who had “betrayed” the party and would stall China’s march to a purer Communism.
At the Experimental High School in downtown Beijing, an exclusive all-girls school for the children of senior Communist Party leadership, a group of teenagers formed their own Red Guards unit. They began torturing the school’s vice principal and Party secretary, Bian Zhongyun. Other adults at the school didn’t intervene, probably out of fear for their own safety. The students intermittently beat Bian for weeks until August 5, 1966, when she finally was beaten to death, becoming the Cultural Revolution’s first high-profile casualty.
The local authorities declined to press charges against the girls who had participated in Bian’s torture and death. As news spread that no one was held accountable for Bian’s murder, students at other schools were emboldened to attack teachers, administrators, and anyone classified as a “bad element.” In August 1966 alone, nearly 2,000 people were killed in Beijing.
Tania Branigan’s Red Memory quotes a former student who attended Experimental High School and witnessed Bian’s death: “I understand why Chairman Mao began the Cultural Revolution in schools. You kill teachers, you destroy schools—you can destroy much more: traditions, ideas, and values. Destroy schools, and you destroy civilization.”
Destroying Chinese civilization was Mao’s goal precisely because he believed that the old world must be eradicated and all opposition to the building of a new world eliminated. Mao endorsed violence for the cause, welcoming over 1 million Red Guards to Tiananmen Square on August 18, 1966. Wearing a military uniform and Red Guard armband, Mao urged young people to be more militant in their struggle against enemies. With Mao’s blessing of the young revolutionaries, the nation descended into chaos and lawlessness. The youths’ restless energy, once unleashed, spread like wildfire. An estimated 2 million Chinese were killed in the Cultural Revolution, rendering it one of the most savage movements in China’s history.
History may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes, as Mark Twain once said. In the aftermath of Hamas’s terrorist attack against Israel, some of America’s most vocal and ardent Hamas supporters were college students. That fact is not surprising, since many college students have been indoctrinated into the Marxist view that the world consists of oppressors and the oppressed, and that any actions taken by the oppressed against their oppressors are justified. Since many pro-Palestinian students frame the conflict between Israel and Palestine as one between oppressors (Israelis) and the oppressed (Palestinians), they feel no qualms condemning Israel while they openly celebrate the Hamas terrorists who murdered, raped, and kidnapped Israeli civilians.
The responses from university leaders have been disgraceful. Administrators who never hesitated to send strongly worded statements on real and perceived social-justice issues have been reluctant to condemn Hamas. Similarly, university leaders who regularly silenced non-progressive students and faculty members in the past have suddenly discovered the virtue of “free speech” in addressing anti-Semitism on campus.
Such moral cowardice has likely emboldened some pro-Palestinian students to move from verbal to physical intimidation against Jewish students in recent weeks. At New York City’s Cooper Union College, a librarian had to lock several Jewish students inside the library to protect them from pro-Palestinian protesters pounding on the door. On Harvard’s campus, a group of pro-Palestinian students, including the editor of the Harvard Law Review, surrounded a Jewish student and shouted, “Shame, shame!” These incidents are not examples of “free speech,” but physical intimidation of Jewish students.
One lesson from China’s Cultural Revolution is that without accountability, young people brainwashed by radical ideology can do incalculable harm to their peers, superiors, and society at large. To protect Jewish students’ safety and prevent a repeat of past horrors, university leaders must reprimand the radicals who harass and intimidate their fellow students.
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