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Prof. discusses college rebels

Claire Reising | Monday, February 25, 2008

The story of China’s Cultural Revolution was a “political fiasco” that had a deep impact on the country’s universities, Stanford sociology professor Andrew Walder said Friday at “The Beijing Red Guard Movement: China’s Cultural Revolution in Retrospect.”

“They didn’t accomplish anything but destruction,” he said.

Walder, who wrote “Fractured Crusade: The Beijing Red Guard Movement,” lectured about the student Red Guard movement at Chinese universities between 1966 and 1968. Though the Red Guards supported Mao Zedong, factionalism arose among the movement.

Instead of just purging government officials, Walder said, Mao originally sought the support of students and young workers to ensure that his policies and legacy would continue after his death.

“There’s a real logic to what he did,” he said. “If he would simply use a purge to get rid of the top officials, he felt he wouldn’t have had a lasting impact on the country.”

One of the Red Guards functions was to target officials they deemed anti-revolutionary at “struggle sessions,” in which the accused would be publicly humiliated and often physically harmed. However, Walder said students disagreed about the rebellion’s aim and which people to target.

In his research, Walder had expected to find that the factions originated from the students’ social classes. However, he said they actually formed as a result of students’ experiences under the control of university-placed work teams, which monitored dissenting activity.

After work teams left the universities, students who did not clash with them formed a majority faction, but students who opposed the work teams and suffered under their control formed a minority faction. One goal of the minority faction was to have the negative political labels the work teams gave them removed.

In the following months, Walder said factions solidified into a “political gridlock” and became violent. Students set up barricades and attacked each other with acid, bricks and hand grenades.

“Every school had two factions and was locked into this structure,” he said.

However, Walder said when Mao realized the factionalism would not be successful, he brought in the military to end the fighting and control the schools.

Walder contrasted this with 1960s student political action in the United States, where students united to protest the Vietnam War, rather than fighting among themselves. In the United States, the worst consequences protesting students could face was jail or expulsion from their universities, but in China, consequences ranged from ruined careers to a loss of freedom.

“You didn’t have that kind of kind of violence in the U.S., where students were barricading themselves on campus and fighting one another,” he said.

Also, students could not escape from their situation because they were unable to simply transfer universities and leave their factions, Walder said.

Walder said researchers rely on interviews with former Red Guards and information from Red Guard pamphlets and newspapers to piece together the Cultural Revolution’s history. However, he said that former Red Guards’ testimony is not always reliable because it can contain “half-truths, evasions, inaccuracies.”

“There was a lot of guesswork, a lot of filling in the blanks,” he said. “You take hints from newspapers, editorials, comments, and you expand back, imagine what the social reality was behind the rhetoric.”

Another component of research, Walder said, is discovering unanticipated information that challenges one’s preconceptions.

“I find that just about every time I’ve done research on a topic I start with certain ideas, and the process of learning involves a great deal of unlearning,” he said.