America's own Cultural Revolution
WASHINGTON -- Last month in Shanghai, Chinese venture capitalist Eric X. Li made a provocative suggestion.
The United States, he said, was going through its own "Cultural Revolution."
For those unfamiliar, Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was a traumatic period of political upheaval, ostensibly intended to cleanse the People's Republic of impure and bourgeois elements.
Universities were shuttered. Public officials were purged. Youth paramilitary groups, known as Red Guards, terrorized civilians. Citizens denounced teachers, spouses and parents they suspected of harboring capitalist sympathies.
Millions were uprooted and sent to the countryside for re-education and hard labor. Millions more were persecuted, publicly humiliated, tortured, executed.
All of which is why, when Li first made this comparison -- at a lunch with American journalists sponsored by the Asia Society -- I laughed. Li is known as a sort of rhetorical bomb-thrower, an expert defender of the Communist regime, and this seemed like just another one of his explosive remarks.
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And yet I haven't been able to get the comment out of my head. In the weeks since I've returned stateside, Li's seemingly far-fetched analogy has begun to feel … a little too near-fetched.
Li said he saw several parallels between the violence and chaos in China decades ago and the animosity coursing through the United States today. In both cases, the countries turned inward, focusing more on defining the soul of their nations than on issues beyond their borders.
He said that both countries were also "torn apart by ideological struggles," with kinships, friendships and business relationships being severed by political differences.
"Virtually all types of institutions, be it political, educational, or business, are exhausting their internal energy in dealing with contentious, and seemingly irreconcilable, differences in basic identities and values -- what it means to be American," he said in a subsequent email exchange. "In such an environment, identity trumps reason, ideology overwhelms politics, and moral convictions replace intellectual discourse."