Chapter 33 – Cultural Revolution Realities


1. The Face of Chaos 
2. Sinister Crowds
3. Mis-Reporting the Chaos
4. The Causes of the Chaos
5. Back to Japan and Reflections on the Chaos

My 1971 visit and two 1973 visits to China had shown me much about the shambles caused by Beijing’s disastrous post-1966 Cultural Revolution. 

China may have been the hope of millions seeking the revolutions or changes that would bring progress.  But what we saw was not progress. 

1. The Face of Chaos

The facts were undeniable – factories more interested in producing Maoist slogans than goods; demoralised, poorly fed, badly dressed crowds gaping suspiciously at any foreigner in sight; constant stories of idiocies and brawls over ideology; the persecution of technicians who had studied abroad and had wanted to bring their skills back to China …. 

At the annual trade fair in Canton I was shown a rather primitive machine for making zippers. It had been developed by the workers at XX factory, was what I was told proudly by two cheery young ladies trying vainly to sell it to the world outside. 

I asked where it was being made in China, only to be told that Chairman Mao had decreed self-reliance, that the machine had been developed solely by and for XX factory, and that other factories would be inventing and producing their own zipper machines. 

(Fortunately the China of today has got rid of that nonsense.) 

In the countryside it wa even worse – decrepit factory-shacks that were supposed to be producing independently the chemical fertilisers needed for each commune; the debris of the backyard steel furnaces which had had to be fed by valuable pots, pans and needed farm implements, simply because the Chairman had decreed that every commune had to produce its own steel.


China was also determined to impress us with its medical skills. 

The highlight was being taken to see a badly-burned Shanghai worker receiving acupuncture while shouting Mao slogans.

2. Sinister Crowds

Sometimes the nonsense could turn sinister. 

On a walk through the Shanghai slums a large crowd gathered behind me. Someone started shouting that I was a capitalist intruder. 

Fortunately, and just as the mood was turning ugly I turned a corner bringing me onto the main Nanjing Road thoroughfare. 

The relief was considerable. 

Elsewhere I was to see similar Cultural Revolution degradation of Chinese society, though not as dangerously as in Shanghai.

That meeting with the brittle hostility of Chinese crowds was to give me the clue to understanding the 1989 Tiananmen incident. Few anti-Beijing critics seem willing to admit this, but that incident was preceded by the horrible atrocities wreaked on disarmed or unarmed PLA soldiers. 

Dragged from buses and byways the day before the Tiananmen shootings they were attacked and mutilated by crowds similar to what I had just passed through.

Crowds had looked on impassively (Beijing has provided the photos). The soldiers moved in to get revenge the day after.

It was a measure of the regime unpopularity after more than a decade of Cultural Revolution insanity. 

 3. Mis-Reporting the Chaos

Collective idiocy in those days was not confined to China. 

For years the Western media had portrayed China as an evil dragon breathing fire and fear over Asia. 

Now thanks to ping-pong diplomacy and the frantic rush by Western journalists to get visas, China had overnight become a model of peace and progress. 

One writer – a Tokyo-based colleague who had been able to persuade the world that a brief meeting with Mao in 1943 made him an expert on all things Chinese – spoke gushingly about the amazing honesty of the Chinese under Communism. 

Little did he realise that the hotel employees trying to return discarded razor blades which he and others praised for honesty were under strict instructions to do so. 

If they wanted to know something about Chinese honesty, all they had to do was look at the bicycles parked outside their hotel. 

Every bicycle would have been carefully locked its owner. But the Mao enthusiasts seemed to lack the eyes to see such things.

In several weeks traveling China in 1973 I did not see a single construction crane. The economy had ground to a halt. And I wrote that. 

But my journalistic colleagues from the US and elsewhere were writing happy reports about China’s great economic progress. 

Few seemed to realise that the steel mills we were shown in Beijing and Anshan were mostly built decades earlier by Japanese engineers and were in serious run-down condition. 

Compared with the modern, gleaming mills I had seen in Japan before my visit they were a joke, and dangerous.  

Trying to report for The Australian on the still very backward state of China’s economy without seeming to want to encourage the anti-China crowd back in Australia was not easy. 

But it had to be done. 

I suspect that to this day I am still on some kind of Beijing warning list as a result. 

Ironically, the same media were later to turn anti-China again, as we were to see with the Tiananmen Square massacre myth. 

4. The Roots of Chaos

After the 1973 visit myself and two ABC correspondents had a gap of six weeks to fill before the Whitlam visit was due. The authorities agreed to our request to be allowed to travel around China to fill in the time. 

We got to see quite a lot – across to Xian in the west, by train to Loyang and then down to Shanghai before returning to Beijing. 

Once again it was the same pattern of inefficiency smothered with Cultural Revolution propaganda. 

I tried to find the logic behind it all. Helping me were our two minders – she, an intense Cultural Revolution devotee from Shanghai (which had always been in the forefront of revolution in China); he, an easy-going fellow from Beijing willing to admit there had been mistakes. 

As our train wandered over the Chinese countryside I could eavesdrop on their constant debates. Clearly they both took their politics very seriously.  

At almost at every visit we would be told how this CR faction had attacked yet another CR faction. 

What were they arguing over? No one seemed to know for sure. But ‘being struggled against’ was the order of the day for anyone who seemed in any way to deviate from the official line. 

Meanwhile abject poverty surrounded us in the countryside.

5. Back to Japan and Reflections on the Chaos

Returning to Tokyo, I tried to regain perspective. 

The Chinese were not a stupid people. Many of the officials I had met in Beijing were intellectually more supple than most of their Japanese or Australian equivalents. 

Our minders were unusually smart, intelligent, caring people. 

Yet even they had been overcome to some extent by the fanaticism imposed on them. 

It was my first real lesson in the power of ideology to warp a nation and a people. 

And to some extent it matched what I had seen in the USSR, though the Chinese version was much more intense. 

We are all vulnerable, I guess – not just the Chinese. 

But the Chinese were especially vulnerable because their traditional subservience to authority.

If the supreme authority says jump, everyone jumps. If they say march, everyone marches,and in perfect order.

To the leaders I am sure it is a source of pride. But seen on TV by many in the West, even to moderates, it is a source of concern – a trademark of every aggressive regime in history. 

Persuading them that China is different is not easy.  It is a task made much more difficult by the Mao admirers for whom China can do no wrong.