Hung Hsiu-chu, Taiwanese Students, and Red Guards

A few days ago, Hung Hsiu-chu suggested that the DPP is inciting student protests in exactly the same way that Mao Zedong encouraged Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution. Apparently, Hung Hsiu-chu doesn’t know much about Chinese history.

According to this story in United Daily News, Hung criticized the DPP for “manipulating the students’ simple intentions, using money to passively push the students to the front line where they would clash with police, using slogans to arouse students’ passion, and let them recklessly destroy the culture and structure. ‘This is just like what communist China’s Mao Zedong did.’”

There are two charges in this. First, Hung is suggesting that the DPP’s role is equivalent to Chairman Mao’s. Second, Hung is implying that the Taiwanese students have “recklessly destroyed culture and structure” in roughly the same way that the Red Guards did. Both of these notions are ridiculous. However, most Taiwanese don’t know a whole lot about the Cultural Revolution, and some might uncritically go along with Hung’s charges since both cases involved students.

The first charge can be dismissed relatively straightforwardly. After all, almost all accounts of Taiwan’s current student movement (except for those coming from the KMT) indicate that the students are acting on their own initiative. This has been true of all the recent protest movements, from the Wild Strawberries to the Dapu protests to the Sunflower movement. In all cases, the youth have been thoroughly disappointed by the tepid DPP opposition and have sought to take matters into their own hands. The DPP has generally voiced support more in an effort to avoid appearing totally out of touch with activists’ concerns than in an effort to guide them in any particular direction. The notion that the DPP is the guiding hand behind the students is simply at odds with almost all accounts of the factual events.

However, for the sake of argument, let’s suspend disbelief and assume that the DPP really is behind this. It’s still nothing like the Cultural Revolution.

In the Cultural Revolution, students at a few elite schools organized into Red Guard units, probably with some encouragement from elites close to Mao. Mao then used the propaganda system to write glowing reports about these Red Guards in the party-state media, effectively endorsing them as Mao-approved forces. With this strong message, students all over the country organized their own Red Guard units to make revolution in support of Chairman Mao. Does Hung really think the DPP is so potent among the youth that it could create the current scale and intensity among students with a few lukewarm, after-the-fact expressions of support? Does she think that Tsai Ing-wen’s popularity among youth is anything like Chairman Mao’s godlike status in 1966?

In the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao mobilized the Red Guards for a power struggle against powerful cadres in his own party, such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Mao gave the Red Guards their marching orders with his famous big character poster, in which he instructed the Red Guards to “bombard the headquarters.” The students were convinced there were traitors in the party that had to be rooted out, and the Cultural Revolution became a general movement against counter-revolution. The equivalent of this in Taiwan might have been if Chairman Ma had mobilized students during the September 2013 attempted purge of Speaker Wang. The current Taiwanese student protests are not an intra-party struggle at all, and they have a very specific focus. Rather than searching for enemies of the state, the students are focused on a very specific issue, textbooks. There is no attempt to root out traitors. While there are calls for Education Minister Wu to step down to take political responsibility, this is hardly the same as purging an opponent and labeling him as an enemy of the people. “Step down, Minister Wu” 吳部長下台 is a very different slogan from “Down with Running-Dog Wu” 打倒吳走狗。

The most ludicrous element of Hung’s charge is the insinuation that Taiwanese students are destroying culture and structure in the same way that the Red Guards did. The Red Guards used physical violence to struggle against countless authority figures, including teachers, party officials, and government officials. They subjected the person to hours, days, even months of interrogation, and they routinely used physical means to extract confessions. They also held public struggle sessions, in which the accused would appear on stage wearing a dunce cap and placards stating the supposed crimes, and people in the audience would take turns screaming abuse and physically beating the accused in an effort to extract a public confession. Here in Taiwan, I don’t remember seeing Minister Wu dragged off for a struggle session.

The Red Guards actively destroyed traditional culture in an effort to create a new socialist culture. For example, they tore down many old buildings, burned old texts, destroyed temples, and tried to eradicate minority cultures, which they considered to be feudal. They also shut down schools for several years and paralyzed many local governments. To date, the most egregious thing the Taiwanese students have done is one brief and ineffective effort to break into the Education Ministry.

Most fundamentally, the Taiwanese students are protesting in a democratic context. Their goals are very specific and limited. Procedurally, they want to affect the regular institutions of government follow the written procedures, and substantively, they want to prevent rewriting the textbooks from a Chinese-nationalist point of view. These protests are conducted within established boundaries, though they arguably briefly stepped slightly outside those boundaries when they broke into the Education Ministry. Ultimately, the way to win in a democratic system is to affect public opinion and to win elections. The Cultural Revolution was conducted in an authoritarian context. Without rule of law, there were no established boundaries. The Red Guards conducted a total struggle against Mao’s opponents. Losers did not just lose the policy fight. They lost their party membership, their career, their freedom, and some, including the Chinese State President Liu Shaoqi, even lost their lives.

If Hung Hsiu-chu really thinks that the two cases are parallel, she is ignorant of or willfully misinterpreting both current events and Chinese history. Maybe it’s not her fault. Maybe she never learned about the Red Guards. I don’t think the ROC history textbooks teach a whole lot about the Cultural Revolution, since, unlike the Tang Dynasty or the Northern Expedition, that’s not “correct” history.

14 Responses to “Hung Hsiu-chu, Taiwanese Students, and Red Guards”

  1. Brido Says:

    Putting the over-analysis on hold for a moment, Taiwanese politics is showing an unsettling tendency towards overturning unfavourable results of process through physical means, whether that be swamping the LY podium to prevent a debate or occupying government buildings to prevent the department functioning. It’s not a happy trend for such a young democracy – hopefully it’s just growing pains.

    • csempere109 Says:

      I know what you mean and it sounds like at least one public poll agrees, but I would say that things were different during the Sunflower Movement. That was a response to the KMT bypassing normal democratic procedure to try to pass the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement without review (support within the KMT wasn’t strong enough for it to pass if it had gone through the review process). Occupying the Legislative Yuan in order to enforce normal procedure was more easily justifiable.

      • Brido Says:

        My understanding was that the clause-by-clause review was not normal procedure but a concession Ma made to try to circumvent accusations of ‘black box’ decision-making. The opposition took the opportunity to strangle the agreement by snatching the podium and preventing the review before the KMT could bring its LY majority to bear.

        To be honest, when there’s the opportunity at the end of every term to evict the incumbents and vote in a party who’ll change things, I’m none to fond of these tactics. I could understand them if Ma were suspending elections or had suddenly pulled the CSSTA out of thin air after the January 2012 vote but he didn’t.

        Like it or not, Ma campaigned for re-election with the specific promise of pursuing the CSSTA as part of his platform and he gained an overall majority. The opposition stymieing it because they don’t have the ability to vote it down strikes me as thwarting the democratically-expressed will of the Taiwan electorate.

      • rust Says:

        This post might be helpful to the conversation here,

  2. Guy Beauregard Says:

    I assume that Hung’s comments have less to do with any accurate understanding of history than simply functioning as a dog whistle to mobilize her base. Demonizing students and other activist types as “irrational” (here encoded as Red Guard excesses) is standard KMT talk to position themselves as the “rational” party that knows best.


  3. lihan Says:

    I believe that these incidents reflect the divergence in national identify. As more and more Taiwanese identifying themselves as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese as they are “taught” to be, these movements are like the seismic shocks as blocks are moving against each. And overtime the movement is over, the pro-independence side seems to gain more ground. Trade pact with China and textbook revision provide enough frictions and these movements are a way to release the accumulated energy.

    • Brido Says:

      lihan’s identity point is a good one. More and more Taiwanese are coming to think of themselves as Taiwanese but that doesn’t mean the same thing it did a generation or two ago. Whereas it used to mean ‘Hoklo-speakers descended from Ming-era immigrants’, now it’s synonymous with ‘Citizen of what’s officially known as the Republic of China.’

      Whether the political parties can adapt to the new realities or whether they’ll prefer to stay locked in their old battles is a good question. I wouldn’t bet on it, personally – I think the best hope lies in entirely new parties without the pre-democracy baggage and for preference a faeces-load of independents to keep them honest.

      • Pat Says:

        Does the DPP have to adapt to the ‘new reality’? It’s extremely beneficial to them and is precisely what they’ve been hoping for for three decades.

      • Brido Says:

        For the time being no they don’t and for the time being yes it is. For Taiwan, it’s not beneficial to have any party shackled to the past and for the Green side in particular it’s not healthy to have their politics linked so strongly to grievance.

        Parties for the future need to focus on the future, not the past, or they’ll be left behind. One way or another, the political scene will change, either by existing parties adapting or by them being abandoned.

  4. frozengarlic Says:

    Of course it is over-analysis. I happened to be particularly annoyed by that story, and I had some free time yesterday to rant about it. Still, this sort of wildly exaggerated attack has gone a long way toward poisoning political rhetoric in the USA (where FOX news routinely compares Democrats to Nazis or Hitler).

    As for physical conflict in the legislature, there is nothing recent about it. The first fighting took place in 1987, and it has evolved over the years but it has never gone away. (I’m just starting a research project on this, so I’ll probably be able to say something intelligent on the subject in about four years.)

  5. Les Says:

    Interesting also how KMT broadly supported Chinese students in 1989. Students demonstrating against KMT enemies are innocent, pure, heroes and martyrs. Those protesting against the KMT are violent, irrational puppets.

  6. Les Says:

    Speaking of CCP propaganda…

    • frozengarlic Says:

      I think the last sentence of that piece might say more than the CCP propagandist intends it to: “How can the Taiwan students be fooled by and engage in the move of one who is selling your homeland?”

  7. M Says:

    Ridiculous analogies are a defining feature of Taiwanese politics! Normally they make some reference to Nazis or the white terror. Give Hung some credit for originality!

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