By Dr. Tao Peng
On May 25, 2020, George Perry Floyd, 46-year-old African-American man, was killed in a violent arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The event triggered the "Black Lives Matter" movement in the United States and other Western countries to protest the wave of racism. Due to the acts of smashing and arson of public buildings and shops by some protesters, as well as the cultural "liquidation" of slavery and its representatives in American history, the BLM movement was compared with China's Cultural Revolution by some overseas Chinese media, which called it the "American Cultural Revolution." Certainly, some phenomena similar to those that occurred during the China’s Cultural Revolution did appear in the BLM movement. However, it is extremely undesirable and inconsistent with the fact that the entire BLM protest movement is aligned or equated with China's Cultural Revolution. There is an essential difference between the two.
What is the “Cultural Revolution”? The concept of the Cultural Revolution came from a political movement in China from 1966 to 1976 that eradicated traditional thoughts and lifestyles and their representatives, aiming to eliminate the so-called thoughts and system of "feudalism, capitalism and revisionism" and to build a new socialism culture. The basic manifestations of China’s Cultural Revolution are the destroying the so-called the "Four Olds" (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas) by the Red Guards, i.e. smashing and robbing homes, confiscating people’s property, destroying cultural relics, causing fighting between ethnic groups, cultural cleansing, tampering with history, paralyzing the normal order of society and government agencies, etc.
Judging from certain phenomena that occurred in the protests, some performances in the BLM movement, such as hitting, destroying, robbing and burning stores and public buildings (e.g. the police station), disturbing the normal order of society, are indeed similar to those of the China’s Cultural Revolution. The BLM movement is particularly similar or close to the China’s Cultural Revolution in that some protesters brought down, destroyed and graffitied statues of well-known figures (such as Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Winston Spencer- Churchill, etc.), who were thought to be historically involved in racial discrimination and slavery.
However, from the perspective of the institutional model and the goal and nature of the demonstrations, the BLM movement is fundamentally different from the Cultural Revolution in China. Two movements that are completely different in nature cannot be compared or drawn with equal signs. The China’s Cultural Revolution was a cultural cleansing campaign launched under a dictatorial and authoritarian system. The reason why Mao Zedong, the former chairman of the Communist Party of China, set off the Cultural Revolution in that time was to try to defeat his political enemies in the name of "Destroying the Four Old Things" in order to stabilize his personal power. The Cultural Revolution smashed and rejected the entire Chinese traditional thought and culture, regardless of whether they were good or bad, they were all denied. Nevertheless, the BLM movement has happened in a democratic country. Most protests have opted for a peaceful route. Just a small minority has turned violent. Its target was the racial discrimination awareness and practice in the history and real life of the United States and Western countries. The movement does not intend to negate and destroy the entire history and traditional culture of the United States.
In addition, as Mr. Perry Lin, a well-known Sinologist who is regarded as a famous expert on China of the United States, pointed out recently in an interview with Radio France Internationale: China and the United States have different political systems and they cannot be one-to-one compared. The Cultural Revolution in China is a top-down movement, while the anti-discrimination movement in the United States is a bottom-up movement. The birthplaces of these two movements are completely different.
Although some analysts believe that this anti-discrimination movement in the United States has been supported and promoted by certain political parties and organizations, and it may be used to build momentum for this year's election. But even if this is the case, the movement cannot be counted as a top-down movement. It is part of democracy that political parties support or participate in certain social movements. Besides, like any other campaigns, the BLM movement has been heavily criticized by some parties and organizations. It has both supporters and opponents. The disturbance and damage caused by the movement are certainly kept within limits.
The direct cause of this BLM movement is people's opposition to the police's excessive use of violence against black ethnic minorities. But the indirect reason is the long-term structural problems that are deeply rooted in society, such as the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, the rising social differentiation, the fierce struggle of political parties, the economic recession and social poverty deepened by the attack of the Covid-19. Some of the non-structural factors that have affected this anti-discrimination movement include the international climate strike movement under the name “Fridays for Future” that has been widely raised in Western society and the ongoing 2019–20 Hong Kong protests triggered by the introduction of the Extradition Law Amendment Bill by the Hong Kong government. The above factors aroused people's unsatisfactory dissatisfaction with social reality and the government's improper governance, and they used the George Floyd's death to vent their inner anger.
Moreover, in today’s Internet era, everyone has a mobile phone that can spread violence and unfair incidents on the Internet at any time, causing widespread reactions among netizens and making large-scale gatherings and demonstrations easy to form. Bystanders can now use their mobile phones to easily record police violence and post them on social media, which has pushed radical activism to the world. Internet memes also played an important role in helping this new social movement gain support. The BLM movement spread through new information and communication technologies such as Facebook and Twitter has successfully gained widespread online support and spilled its influence into the offline real world.
Even though there have been some excessive behaviors and quite controversial issues with the current anti-racial discrimination protests, such as the requirement to cancel the examination of black students, the dissolution of the police station, the launch of the "Shut down STEM" campaign in the scientific field, the calling for the removal of Mount Rushmore monument, etc. However, these phenomena are inevitable for any large-scale mass and social movements. In the United States and Western countries, the "out of control" movements similar to this anti-discrimination demonstration are not without precedents in history, but they did not and could not bring the "10-Year Catastrophe" caused by China’s Cultural Revolution to the American and Western societies. The Cultural Revolution resulted in the persecution of tens of millions of people, the abnormal death of hundreds of thousands or even tens of millions of people, the destruction of countless cultural relics and monuments, the loss of traditional culture and morality, and the economic collapse.
Events similar to the BLM movement were the social movements of the New Left, summarized as the “68 Movement”, which were active in the 1960s and stood out particularly in some states in 1968. It began in the United States with the African American civil rights movement and continued in protest against the Vietnam War. Similar protests flared up in many countries around the world, including the West German student movement of the 1960s, May 1968 in France, demonstrations in Great Britain, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands and Mexico. All the so-called movements in the 1960s have caused turmoil in the host countries and affected social order. The movements were indirectly influenced by events including the Cuban Revolution, China’s Cultural Revolution, the Prague Spring 1968 and the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. The ’68 movements demanded more democratic and free rights as well as social injustice, and opposed "capitalism as a world system" and American hegemony, etc. However, the "68 Movement" has promoted social changes and spawned new political cultures, such as changes in gender roles, recognition of homosexuality, formation of opposition parties outside parliament, emergence of non-governmental organizations, rising of alternative propaganda and publication forms, etc. The movement enriched the connotation and form of democracy and freedom.
The BLM movement can be regarded as a cultural "revolutionary" movement, but it is not a Cultural Revolution in the sense of the China’s Cultural Revolution. The revolt is a bottom-to-top social movement that renews the resistance and the liquidation of long-standing cultural and structural (or systemic) racial discrimination in the United States and Western societies, requiring historical figures related to apartheid and discrimination to be re-evaluated. The uprising wants to establish an ideal society where individuals will not be discriminated against because of their race.
The BLM movement has been deeply inspired by the African American People’s Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, the black feminist movement in the 1980s, Pan-Africanism, the anti-apartheid movement, hip-hop, the LGBT rights movement, and the Wall Street occupation movement, which has been called the "New Civil Rights Movement". The movement originated in the African American community and protested against violence and systematic discrimination against black people. BLM protests also oppose broader issues such as racial induction, violent law enforcement, and racial inequality in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Because of some extreme demands and behaviors, the movement may provoke the extreme right "white supremacist" to rebound, and even aggravate the opposition between different ethnicities and left and right forces. Nevertheless, a democratic society is a pluralistic system, and under the mechanism of checks and balances, it has the ability to digest the negative consequences of social movements. Judging from the history and experience of the social movements in the United States and Western countries, although there are many improper aspects of the BLM movement, the revolt will undoubtedly contribute to new ideological, cultural and social changes to the Western countries like the "68 Movement". It could force the United States and other western countries with colonial history to rethink the discrimination in their own history and traditional thinking and habits, and promote public discussions on how to more effectively indorse ethnic equality and social integration, thereby enriching the connotation and scope of democracy and freedom.
Tao Peng, Ph.D., is an editorial writer and a senior columnist for World Journal in New York focusing on Chinese politics, international relations and geopolitics. He obtained his master's and Ph.D. degree in political science and sociology at the University of Münster in Germany, served as a visiting scholar at the National Chengchi University (NCCU) in Taiwan, and taught political science and sociology at FHöV NRW in Germany.