“A Lifetime in Recovery From the Cultural Revolution”

Howard French’s new article on a brilliant geneticist from Zhejiang, Xu Tian, is inspiring. For Xu, the shadow of the Cultural Revolution still hangs over his life, and its tragedy can hardly be exaggerated. His observations on China today are eloquent and entirely accurate. Is anyone listening?

His visits back to China are those of a prodigious son, and his feelings toward China are at once hopeful and deeply critical. What he has found is a nation investing furiously, and with some notable successes, in educating its people. At the same time, he fears the implications of a system heavily invested in control, and the culture of rampant and mindless materialism, careerism and cronyism that it has produced.

“The best people have left and the old people have retired, and commercialization has taken hold,” Dr. Xu said.

Referring to scholarly investigation, he added: “The tradition has been broken, and we who were seeking the truth have moved on. It is very difficult to rebuild this sort of thing.”

Materialism, he said, has fueled an overpowering urge to “get rich quickly,” leaving few with the patience for pure inquiry. Everywhere one looks in education, he said, one sees the controlling hand of government, meaning that those with the best connections prevail, not those with the best ideas. Those who answer the fixed questions of a system based on the planning of nearly everything are rewarded, he said, not those who answer questions that few had dared dream about.

“They are putting more into education than perhaps any country,” Dr. Xu said, “but what we haven’t taught people yet is to value ideas, and to value the life of the scholar.”

Speaking boldly for a person who keeps a foot in China, Dr. Xu says what the country needs is a “new revolution” to get away from what he said was a “system that teaches people to follow the rules, not to be an innovator.” To get there, he warned, China will have to overcome thousands of years of tradition “that has always avoided exploring different ways of thinking and exploring, and has emphasized staying within the system.”

You can’t maintain harmony and stability when people question and think outside the box; the system in place even today discourages it, just as it discourages sharing information with the WHO about bird flu. The Cultural Revolution was all about quashing free thought and institutionalizing stupidity and blind devotion to a venal cult figure. China is still dealing with its consequences, and every time they go on about the No. 1 priority being “harmony,” they demonstrate that the straitjacket Mao imposed on a billion people is still snug – not as tight as in 1975, but it’s still there.

Read the whole thing. Thanks to Bill Stimson for the link.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

Your comments are very true. How can you have people that can innovate and “think outside the box”, when they are taught FACTS at school that are not to be disputed?

No wonder so many Chinese people on the internet are blinkered. I came across one just a little while ago, harping on about how much of a threat Japan will be in the future due to its need for resources, while blatently ignoring China’s future thirst.


Equally he didn’t even have the basic facts right, saying that Japan had a population of over 200 million that would increase further. Whereas it’s actually 127 million and set to decline -_-

October 23, 2005 @ 10:00 am | Comment

This is so true. When it comes to taking tests, Chinese students beat American students handily. But when it comes to innovation, the same Americans who were so badly beaten in tests, are miles ahead. Enough said.

October 23, 2005 @ 2:06 pm | Comment

It’s a pity the Chinese government and social system only values harmony in terms of everybody thinking the same and not asking difficult questions. Towards other things which threaten social harmony in more fundamental ways, such as corruption, blatant bullying and extortion by officials and a micky mouse justice system, China is all too tolerant.

October 23, 2005 @ 2:21 pm | Comment

Howard French?

October 23, 2005 @ 2:56 pm | Comment

The Chinese have always valued social harmony and stability above all else – that, at least, is as much a Confucian “straitjacket” as it is a Mao straitjacket. The imperial civil service examination system and its notoriously brain-deadening emphasis on “ba gu wen” (eight-legged essays) cultivated generations and generations of scholars who could parrot Confucian classics with aplomb, but knew little of anything else.

But it will getter better, even if the outlook seems grim now. Nonconformism (and thereby innovation) is the inevitable outcome of too much conformism. The culture of obedience is not permanent and invincible. The Powers that Be may censor, they may brainwash, but they can’t stop the flow of new information, new people, new ideas. Already in China you’ve got the precocious (and okay, admittedly overhyped) ling-lei literati, who have openly defied China’s current system of education and its stifling social mores.

So, I am not resigned.

October 23, 2005 @ 3:17 pm | Comment


Of course there is always hope. China’s economic changes are creating an uphill strugge for the CCP. I believe that although there are a lot of nationalistic youths, there are also those that do not trust the government – they merely tolerate it because they have no options open to them.

The future really is in the hands of the Chinese people. If they choose to buy the nationalistic (and partially xenophobic) claptrap that the CCP spreads, then they will be doomed to decades of more authoritarian rule – and potentially decades of chaos due to social unrest. The peasants won’t tolerate living in a harsh capitalist world without representation forever.

But if they have the wisdom to think for themselves and be willing to stand out, then anything will be possible.

October 23, 2005 @ 3:38 pm | Comment

“Prodigious” son?

October 23, 2005 @ 7:33 pm | Comment

Hey! Maybe the guy’s just, you know, really, really fat. ๐Ÿ˜‰

(or maybe French’s proofreader was just AWOL that day.)

October 23, 2005 @ 7:41 pm | Comment

Actually, on second though, “prodigious son” works, because Xu is supposedly brilliant and accomplished. It’s wierd though because of course I always think of “prodigal son” (and then I get Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” stuck in my head..)

October 23, 2005 @ 7:50 pm | Comment

“But when it comes to innovation, the same Americans who were so badly beaten in tests, are miles ahead. Enough said.”

China like many asian countries aims at producing ‘useful’ citizens. American education is more about fulfilling individual’s aspiration. It has not much to offer to those have no desire to excel.

October 23, 2005 @ 11:43 pm | Comment

Did I really write “William French”? It’s fixed.

October 23, 2005 @ 11:47 pm | Comment

“French” – this is off topic, but something just occurred to me.
I was going to make a weak joke about calling him “William Freedom”, you know, like Freedom Fries. Then I said, “nah, too weak.” But THEN it hit me:

Suddenly I remembered, that’s ACTUALLY what the name “France” originally meant. The Germanic nation of the “Franks” – for whom France is named – their name meant “The Free”.

October 24, 2005 @ 12:03 am | Comment

France/Franks/Free, cf “speaking frankly”,

October 24, 2005 @ 12:07 am | Comment

You were tired, Richard! It happens.

I slept like 10 hours last night. Not like me, but sometimes you just gotta…

October 24, 2005 @ 12:27 am | Comment

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