Childhood under Mao – China’s Cultural Revolution | DW Documentary


In 1966, China was swept up by the
rising tide of the Cultural Revolution. In August, more than one million people
gathered on Tiananmen Square to celebrate. Chairman Mao Zedong launched a
movement for the masses. The aim was to weed out anyone who appeared
eager to steer the revolution and people’s mindsets towards capitalism.
The young people of China became the messengers of Mao’s
communist doctrine. They were joined by people from all
over the world who believed in Mao’s philosophy. More than 400 foreigners were
involved in the Cultural Revolution. Their sons and daughters, known as the
“Red Children”, were given a communist education and as teenagers were drawn
into the revolution. Their lives are a missing page in an otherwise
well-known chapter of Chinese history. The story of the Red Children begins
with that of their parents. During this tumultuous period of the 20th
century, they left their homes with the dream of helping
to found a New China. My father was born into an
upper-middle-class Jewish family in England But in 1928, my grandfather’s
business failed and he went bankrupt. My father moved to China in 1938 after
reading the book “Red Star Over China.” He was impressed with the actions
of the Chinese Communist Party. “Red Star Over China” depicts Mao
Zedong as a hero who aims to save the poor and pursue social equality for the
masses. Mao established the base of the revolution in Yan’an, a remote part of
Central China. In an era when poverty and persecution were spreading
throughout the world, Mao’s philosophy attracted young idealists
like Michael Crook’s father. My father’s first destination was Yan’an.
He wanted to meet these great people he had read about, like
Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. In 1939, Michael’s father David met
Canadian-born Isabel Brown. They married soon afterwards. The couple
worked for the Communist regime as language teachers — for
diplomats and other officials. My name is Mimi Müller. I was born
in China in 1950. My father was Hans Müller, who was German.
Because he was half-Jewish, he had to flee Nazi
persecution in Germany. In 1933 the Nazis seized power in Germany.
After graduating from high school, Hans Müller escaped from a labor
camp and fled to Switzerland. While studying medicine at the
University of Basel, he formed friendships with left-wing
classmates, including some international
students from China. At the time, China was fighting against
Japanese expansionism. A Chinese friend suggested that Hans Müller go
to China and support the Communists. After graduating from university, Müller
wanted to aid the fight against fascism and decided to put his medical
skills to use in China. In 1939, after five months of travel,
he arrived at the base of the revolutionaries and immediately
requested to work at the front. The way to Yan’an was really perilous.
Sometimes they had to break through the enemy blockades in the middle of
the night. One soldier suffered a ruptured urethra on the battlefield. But
there were very few surgeons in the area who were able to use modern
surgical scalpels. My father operated on him using the scalpel he’d brought
from Switzerland. The surgery went well, and the people of the village started to
call him “The Buddhist Saint of the West”. In 1945, when she was just 14, Kyoko
Nakamura went to Manchuria to study at a Japanese nursing school. Soon
afterwards Japan was defeated, and the Second World War was over — leaving
Kyoko stranded in the chaos and unable to return home. Soon after that, the
Chinese Civil War resumed. As a nurse, Kyoko Nakamura was invaluable to the
Communists. She was assigned to the front, where she met Dr. Hans Müller —
who was working for the Chinese army. I was surprised to see a European
doctor in the Communist Army. It was hard for
me to understand. At first, Kyoko Nakamura was hesitant,
but she eventually found herself attracted to Hans Müller. They fell in
love and were then married. They joked about how “German fascism
and Japanese fascism met and got married in the
Chinese communist army.” After the war they stayed in China and
in 1950, Mimi was born in Beijing. In October 1949, Mao Zedong founded
the People’s Republic of China and quickly became a hero to the Chinese
people. About 100 foreigners from the US and Europe who subscribed to Mao
Zedong’s beliefs were given important positions and enjoyed
generous privileges. Foreigners were few and far between in
China at that time. The families of ”Red Children” received special care but also
began to integrate into Chinese society. Our economic situation was
relatively good. My parents got a higher salary than
their Chinese colleagues. Most of the Red Children and their
families were provided with accommodation in the form
of dormitories or rooms in what was called “The
Friendship Hotel” in Beijing. Compared with Chinese people, the
foreigners enjoyed good treatment. But they were still subject to the control
of the Communist Party, and faced restrictions on moving freely to different
provinces and choosing their jobs. Red Children attended local schools and
received the same education as Chinese children. They soon
became fluent in Chinese. The first phrase I learned in primary
school was “Hurray for Chairman Mao.” The next were “labor” and “farmer”.
My mother supported me and was very strict in what she taught me: the
farmers are suffering from poverty, and landowners are crooks. They would
teach us these ideas in the form of fairytales. I accepted this
education without questioning it. In the 1950s, a development boom
began in the urban areas of Beijing. With the Cold War dividing Europe and
the West, the Communist party actively recruited experts from around the world for
their professional and technical skills. My name is Monique Hoa. I was born in
Marseille in 1945. My father was an architect. In 1951, he went to China to
help with the country’s development. Monique’s father, Leon Hoa was born in
Beijing in 1912 — to a Chinese father and a Polish mother. Leon Hoa studied in
Paris and married Irene, a French woman. During the Second
World War, he joined the resistance and fought against
the German occupation. After the war, Leon worked as an architect
in Marseille. He had a good life in France, but the opportunity to build
up a new country appealed to him. My father saw China as his homeland,
and felt that socialism was going well there. My parents were both members
of the French Communist Party. They decided to go to China to give
their full support to the country. In 1951, the family boarded a
cruise ship and moved to China. Leon’s experience as an architect in
France was valued highly. He played a central role in Beijing’s urban
planning — designing a hospital, highway bridges, and
many other structures. My mother worked at China Radio
International, and became a pioneer of the French
broadcasting establishment. The family’s happy life soon came to
an end. In 1957, Monique’s father was caught up in an
unforeseen development. My father pointed out that Beijing City
Hall was too luxurious. In addition, he submitted his opinion to the Beijing
Institute of Architectural Design. All he did was provide advice on
technical issues. But it resulted in him being put
before a kangaroo court. At the time, China was engaged in an
“anti-rightist” movement. Scholars and intellectuals who criticized the
Communists were branded as members of the “right wing”. They were
denounced and forced to undergo reeducation in state-sponsored
manual labor programs. The roots of the movement can be
traced back to the Soviet Union, following the death of leader
Joseph Stalin in 1953. His successor Nikita Khrushchev
launched a series of political reforms. In 1956, he condemned
some of the crimes committed under Stalin and the cult of
personality that had surrounded him. Seizing the opportunity, intellectuals
in Hungary, Poland and other communist countries in Eastern Europe encouraged
uprisings in hope of bringing about reforms The Soviet Union responded by dispatching
its military to crush the opposition. Mao Zedong was wary about the prospect
of similar events in China. He cracked down on intellectuals who
criticized the party and branded over half a million people as
“right-wing radicals.” Leon Hoa was among them. He was removed
from his position as supervisor of a major development project and
forced to work on the construction site for a year. After her
father was branded a “rightist”, Monique also
suffered repercussions. When I was in junior high school, I got
into quarrels with my classmates. They called me a “Little Rightist”. I got back
at my classmates by slapping them in the face. It happened pretty often.
I was angry that my father was dismissed as “right-wing.”
So I was even angrier when they called ME a
“Little Rightist.” Chairman Mao wanted China to become
the leader of the communist world, replacing the Soviet Union. He boasted
that China would surpass Britain within 15 years, and in 1958 Mao launched the
‘Great Leap Forward.’ The entire nation was expected to participate in
agricultural and industrial development. The farming system was to be
collectivized by placing it under the direct control of what were called
“People’s communes.’ Mao banned private-sector farms and strictly rationed
food distribution around the country. Between 1958 and 1962, at least 45
million people are worked, starved, beaten to death. During the Great Leap
Forward, food is forcibly taken from the countryside in order to feed people
in the cities. In other words, cities are fenced-off and they live in a bubble. All
information is strictly controlled. It was very difficult for ordinary
people, never mind foreigners, to actually know what is
happening in the countryside. Following collectivization and the
disruption and collapse of agricultural production, food shortages began to reach
the cities. But, the Communist Party regulated the media, so the public was
initially unaware of the situation. In 1962, the party leadership assessed
the progress of the Great Leap Forward. Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s heir apparent, inspected
the grim reality of rural areas, and admitted the party’s failure.
Liu re-introduced some capitalist policies that
Mao had eliminated. Mao feared this failure could be
used to undermine his authority. The result was the
Cultural Revolution. Shortly after the founding of the
People’s Republic in 1949, the communist party had also set up a
nationwide youth organization called the “Young Pioneers”. It sought to
train the new generation to become the communist leaders of the future. Joining
the Young Pioneers was effectively mandatory for schoolchildren
— and their red neckerchief remains to this day a symbol
of pride and belonging. I was taught that it was a part of the
national flag, and was dyed in the blood of the martyrs of the revolution.
My parents were very happy that I joined, and they took me on
a trip to the Great Wall. I wore my red scarf, and
felt really honored. In 1966, Mao launched the
Cultural Revolution. In order to realize his ideal communist
state, he launched a nationwide campaign to eliminate dissidents
and reeducate the Chinese people. Mao relied primarily on loyal young
activists who had been steeped in his communist philosophy since childhood.
They were highly motivated to overthrow any leaders of the Communist Party that
might have had capitalist leanings. In May 1966, Mao established the
Cultural Revolution Group, centered on his wife Jiang Qing. The propaganda arm
of the party and the People’s Daily newspaper wielded the effective power
in the group. They began to disseminate propaganda about the Cultural
Revolution and Mao’s ideology. Around the same time, some middle school
students in Beijing formed a group called the “Red Guard.” They said they wanted to
combat “so called” revisionist authorities and attitudes. Soon Red Guard units began
emerging in schools across the country. In the early stages of the Cultural
Revolution, pro-communist foreigners were not allowed to
assume active roles. Most of them were forced to remain in
the Friendship Hotel and were placed under the supervision of the State
Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs. Following Chairman Mao’s instructions,
non-Chinese were eventually allowed to participate in the revolution. Young
foreigners wanted to form a team of their own. Our parents encouraged us,
so we built up a youth group. Even though we were teenagers, we
wanted to be critical as well. Michael Crook, like other
Chinese teenagers, believed in the political ideals of
the Cultural Revolution. At the time, young people always
carried a little red book called “Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong”.
It provided an introduction to his ideas and thoughts about the
Communist Party, and was originally published by the People’s
Liberation Army in 1964. During the 10 years of the Cultural
Revolution, an estimated one Billion copies of the little red book were
printed and sold in China. Together with the “Selected Works of Mao Zedong”, it
was regarded by Mao’s supporters as one of the “Treasured Red Books”. At
school and in the workplace, everybody read it. Mao’s thoughts had
infiltrated the public consciousness. In the summer of 1966 a series of events
was organized to advertise the Cultural Revolution. The rallies were captured
on government propaganda films. Mao granted free transportation for all
participants. Over one million young students from all over China attended a
series of rallies. Mao also ordered the gatherings to be broadcast in theaters
around the country to promote the movement and create an appealing
image of the Red Guards. One Red Guard later said: “We were
enthusiastic Maoists, but at the same time we were a people
discontented with reality”. Why did the teenagers actively
participate in the Cultural Revolution and join the Red Guards? Because we
were rebellious youths. As Chairman Mao said, “teenagers
are full of energy.” At the rallies, the leaders called for the
Red Guards to destroy the “Four Olds” — old customs, culture, habits, and ideas
which they regarded as remnants of feudal and bourgeois society. The Red
Guards soon set about destroying traditional temples, Buddhist statues,
and other cultural treasures — anything deemed to symbolize
the old authority. Meanwhile, landowners and wealthy
citizens believed to be capitalists were subjected to show trials. Scholars,
writers, and artists were assaulted and in some cases beaten to death.
The police stood by silently. Mimi Müller’s Chinese friends became Red
Guards and took part in the Cultural Revolution. She also read the ‘little
red book’ every day on the bus and was proud to spread Chairman
Mao’s doctrine. But her father, Hans Müller, who had
helped build the new China, started to have doubts about the Cultural Revolution.
Old comrades who had fought alongside him now found
themselves coming under fire. My father told me very clearly: “if you
resort to violence, do not come back home.” So I tried to
limit my involvement. At the time, raiding people’s homes had
become a popular pastime among the Red Guards. They would break into
the homes of suspected capitalists, searching for hidden assets and any
papers that proved ownership of land, which were held up as evidence of
counter-revolutionary activities. My friend called me to search
our classmate’s house. This kind of thing was
allowed back then. But to my father, this
act was unforgivable, so it was difficult for
me to make a decision. After some consideration, I decided
my father was wrong in this case. I talked to him and he said, “If
you join any violent activities, you must leave
this household.” So I only took part
on one occasion. I watched without saying anything.
When I broke into the house, I was confused. I don’t remember a thing.
My only memory is of a piece of gold
rolling past me. At the time, I thought it was the
right thing to do for the revolution. I didn’t have any doubts. And I didn‘t
even think about why. Just like wearing the latest fashions, we
didn’t ask for a reason. I was only 13 years old when the
Cultural Revolution began. But I was very active. We broke into the offices
of the art and music teachers. One student tried to beat the teacher with a
bat, but was stopped by the other students. I once went back to visit my former
principal, who I respected. She’d been beaten by her students and had
her leg broken. She still had trouble walking when I visited
her, all those years later. One year before the Cultural
Revolution began, Monique Hoa had returned to France to
study at the Sorbonne. I found out that the Cultural
Revolution was underway in China. There were reports about
it in the newspapers. I wanted to go back and see what was
happening. If I stayed in France, I would never know the truth. I wanted
to see it with my own eyes. In the summer of 1967, Monique dropped
out of university and returned to China, believing that helping
the Cultural Revolution was a once-in-a-lifetime
opportunity. But what she witnessed there was
different from what she had imagined. Why was there so much chaos? One
time, I saw someone being paraded around with her arms bound behind
her back ? an old woman who was forced to wear a large
cone-shaped hat. I witnessed scenes like this all
around the city. The young people didn’t have any sympathy. They
would even make fun of them. I heard that in my school the
Red Guards had beaten a teacher to death. That teacher was
a very unassuming person. I started to have doubts about
the Cultural Revolution. Where did Mao Zedong
think this would lead? The revolution also spread to the
workplace and local government. Special Red Guard factions
sprang up everywhere, and anyone who opposed
them would be punished. Senior managers and political figures
were replaced one after another. Eventually, the purges reached the top
of government. In 1967, Liu Shaoqi was dismissed as president, summarily
tried and placed under house arrest. Following severe maltreatment,
his health deteriorated. He died in prison and was
cremated in secrecy. On October 17th, 1967, a “rebel
faction” of the Beijing Foreign Studies University seized my father and
accused him of being a foreign spy. Michael Crook’s father, David, taught at
the university before he was arrested on campus by a rebel faction and
taken to an unknown location. His family tried desperately
to find out where he was. My mother and I came to appeal for his
release. She said to the rebels: “You are wrong to detain my husband. David
and I are not just married. We are comrades and partners of the revolution”.
She was then also seized by the rebel faction. A lot of the
foreigners were targeted during the Cultural Revolution. The wrongful capture
of my father is just one example. In September 1966, a lot of the slogans
are about ‘capitalist roaders‘, revisionists. A year later, it’s all about
traitors, spies, renegades. It’s not just about foreigners who might be spies,
it’s about anybody who might have an enemy link with a foreigner. So September
1967 onwards, there is a great witch hunt. Suzanna Yeh, a friend of
Michael’s, was born in Beijing to a Chinese father and
an American actress. Her father Yeh Chupei had been born
in the US to Chinese expatriates, and became a leading expert in metallurgy.
In 1950, he went to help with the establishment of the new
China and became the director of an important
research laboratory. Because Yeh Chupei came from the US,
and had an American wife, he was criticized by a rebel faction within the
laboratory and violently denounced. In 1968, he was held captive for a year
in a cabin near the laboratory. Although he was the director, he was not
permitted to continue his work. Instead he was ordered to clean
toilets for days on end. After his release, Yeh Chupei was
diagnosed with late-stage cancer. He continued writing his research papers,
trying to contribute what he could to China’s progress. As a suspected
counter-revolutionary, he was denied treatment
and eventually died. China destroyed my father. He could
have done so much for China. Despite all he went through, he went
back to help the Chinese people. In 1967 and 1968, a power struggle emerged
among various rebel groups. In cities around the country, armed guards continued
to turn on – and kill – one another. In Shanghai, Xi’an, Chongqing and other
places, rebel factions seized weapons from factories. The Cultural Revolution
devolved into a massive armed struggle. To combat this, in December 1968
Mao introduced a new policy measure called the “Down to the
Countryside Movement.” The young leaders of the Cultural Revolution were encouraged
to move from urban to rural areas. Under the pretext of “learning true values
from poor farmers,” some 16 million people were relocated to rural labor
programs for several years. The urban youth proved unsuited for farm
work, but their removal did help reduce the violence committed by
Red Guards in the cities. Michael Crook and many of the other
foreign Red Children were not sent to rural areas, but were ordered to
work in factories in Beijing. Michael worked in an
agricultural machinery factory. In the factory, we stood in a line
in front of Mao Zedong’s portrait. Everyone held the “Little Red
Book” and sang a song to it. Michael’s re-education in this factory
continued for two years. Then he worked at a car repair factory
for another two years. In late 1968, the rebel faction at the
radio station where Monique Hoa’s mother worked arrested Monique
without warning. They had tapped her phone and had been
monitoring her behavior. I was stunned, and wondered
what was going to happen. ‘Sit down and confess!’ You threw a
newspaper with Chairman Mao’s portrait on it in the trash. ‘To defame
Chairman Mao is to defame everyone’. ‘No one will forgive you’. If you do
not confess, your parents and your brother and sister
will have no future.” I was threatened like
this day after day. No one told Monique’s family that
she had been taken away. Her sister Catherine was 14 years old at the time and
could not understand what was happening. We were sharing a room and all my
sister’s belongings were seized. For a while, I had no idea
where my sister went. My mother was
crying every day. My father was also very worried.
But we didn’t know what to do. Monique was subjected to intensive
questioning for more than a month. She was told that if she confessed to her crime,
she would be released. So she signed her arrest warrant, not
knowing what was to come. Then they told me that I was officially
arrested. I couldn’t believe it. I had signed exactly what they’d told me
to. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. That is what happened. So
much happened all at once. I’d signed the warrant.
I was speechless. Although she had done nothing, Monique
was charged as a foreign spy, and sent to a prison in Beijing that held
people accused of political crimes. For the first couple of months, they gave
me a book, Quotations from Chairman Mao. When I said I wanted to read
something else, they asked me whether I understood the entire book yet.
So I said ‘Most of it.’ They told me I was an insolent person, ‘You
are a criminal. Keep reading.’ So I had no choice but to read it.
Eventually, I began to deny the charges. ‘I was deceived by a rebel
faction and I signed the arrest warrant even
though I’m innocent.’ Every time I thought about it, my
entire body hurt. I was numb with pain. It continued like that for 3 years.
I spent my time looking at the tree outside the prison
all the time. I started talking
to the trees ? Looking at the tree in this
park reminds me of those days. In 1971, Monique was sent to a labor camp.
She was released one year later. There is no evidence of
Monique ever being a spy. In the meantime, a shift was underway
that would have a profound impact on the lives of the Red Children. Amidst
rising tensions between China and the Soviet Union, Beijing sought to resume
diplomatic relations with Japan and the West. This paved the way for a visit
by US President Richard Nixon in 1972 — a historic event that ended
25 years of hostility and shifted the balance of
power in the Cold War. As China’s international relationships
improved, foreigners who’d been wrongfully accused and imprisoned were released
— including Michael Crook’s parents. In 1973, state premier Zhou Enlai spoke
at a gathering of foreign citizens — to apologize on behalf of
the government for their treatment during the
Cultural Revolution. Mimi Müller, who had joined in at least one
house raid, left her factory in Beijing after two years and
re-enrolled in university. She married a Swiss man
and left China in 1976. Suzanna Yeh, who had lost her father,
left China for the US in 1973. She still lives
in San Francisco. That same year, Michael Crook and his
brothers moved to their father’s native Britain. They attended university there
before Michael returned to China. In 1976 Mao Zedong died — the man
who‘d had such a drastic impact on the lives of the Red Children. The so-called
Gang of Four of elite political leaders, including Mao’s third wife Jian-Qing,
were arrested on charges of conspiracy against the state and party. The
Cultural Revolution had come to an end. The key must be that Mao at this point
had pretty much achieved what he wanted to achieve. He has eliminated
most of his enemies. He has asserted his absolute authority. Mao Zedong’s
thought has been written back into the constitution. And there are
no enemies left standing. I’ve tried to forget those painful
memories. I don’t want to remember the Cultural
Revolution at all. I feel Chinese inside, I feel this
is my country. Looking back on the Cultural Revolution, I think
it was a soul-stirring event. Monique Hoa returned to Paris in 1975
and worked as a Chinese teacher until her retirement. She published a set
of Chinese textbooks that became very popular in France and are still in print.
But few readers were aware of the author’s
difficult early life in China. Eventually, her parents also came back
and spent their later life in France. But the three of them never managed to
reflect upon their life together in China. A couple of weeks before my father
passed away, I went out to the suburbs with him. He took a look around and said
he felt like a child. ‘Let’s go to that Chinese restaurant some day and
have dinner with everyone’ — as if he’d forgotten all
the painful memories. The Cultural Revolution in terms
of death is actually not all that exceptional. Probably only up to about 2
million people actually lost their lives between 1966 and 1976, when
Chairman Mao dies. But the key to understanding the damage done during
the Cultural Revolution to ordinary people is not to look at death, but to look
at loss, at trauma, loss of faith, loss of trust in social relationships where
people are obliged to denounce not only neighbors and colleagues but
also their own family members, where the entire social
fabric is destroyed. In 1981, the Communist Party issued
an appraisal of the country’s modern history. It said the Cultural Revolution
had been a serious mistake, but that Mao Zedong’s achievements
outweighed his failures. The idealists who traveled from
overseas to help create the New China, and their Red Children, who grew up amid
the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution: two generations whose lives were indelibly
shaped by their experiences of Red China.

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