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Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard
By Fan Shen
University of Nebraska Press, 2004
HC, 279 pp. US$24.95
ISBN: 0-8032-4308-1

A cultural counter-revolution

By Damian Penny
web posted February 7, 2005

Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard "Communism doesn't really starve or execute that many people. Mostly it just bores them to death. Life behind the Iron Curtain is like living with your parents forever – literally, in many cases. There are a million do's and dont's. It's a hassle getting the car keys. No, life behind the Iron Curtain is worse than that. It's Boy Scout camp – dusty; dilapidated; crummy food; lousy accommodations; and asshole counselors with whistles. …and Mom and Dad will never come to get you – they're snoring in the next bunk."

- P.J. O'Rourke, "What Do They Do For Fun in Warsaw?" (1986)

O'Rourke was wrong about the starving and executing part, but the rest is pretty accurate. Communist regimes killed at least 100 million people in less than a century, and in a few outposts the killing hasn't stopped. Still, even when confronted with this grisly figure, extreme leftists will probably tell you that, aside from a few excesses, life was good for the vast majority of people living under Communism. Wasn't everyone fed, employed, and made to feel part of a magnificent, progressive movement?

That's why the hammer and sickle isn't as socially unacceptable as the swastika, and why boxer/maniac Mike Tyson has big tattoos of Che Guevara and Chairman Mao on his chest. It's also why books like Gang of One, a fascinating memoir of life in China from the mid-sixties to the early eighties, are so important.

Fan Shen did not spend much time in jail, but in a place like Chairman Mao's China, did that really make much difference? Even when he was "free" the state still told him, in minute detail, what he could do, where he could go, and what he could think. Individual ambition was suppressed, and thoughtless obedience rewarded. The people worked for the good of the state, not the other way around. And liberties generously allowed by the Communists were just as easily taken away. A hated university administrator explained the governing philosophy at an anti-democracy "workshop":

"You young people often forget who brought liberation and freedom to China. You must remember that our freedom is socialist freedom, our democracy is socialist democracy, and that they must be under the guidance of the Party. You must never forget that on top of democracy there is the Party. The Party hears the people and decides what's best for them. This is what the Great Leader called democratic dictatorship."

Gang of One begins with a scenes of "subversive" books being thrown on bonfires, "struggle rallies" in which people danced and sang songs of praise for Chairman Mao, and massive assemblies in which "enemies" of the regime – mostly dedicated Communists turned in by rivals – were publicly humiliated and beaten. The Cultural Revolution was in full swing, and Fan Shen, son of an army officer, was quite enthusiastic about it at first.

At twelve years of age he threw his children's books into the fire and organized a few of his friends into a grandiosely named "Great Wall Fighting Team", a gang of Red Guards out to prove their loyalty to the Party – not to mention the disloyalty of the other, presumably less dedicated, Red Guards. In this age, you were trapped in a kind of psychological dodgeball game in which you had to report on your neighbor before he could report on you.

Eventually, someone reported Fan's aunt and father, and that's when his first doubts began to form. And then he was sent to live and work among authentic "peasants" in an isolated Chinese backwater, where he spent his days toiling on asinine agricultural schemes ("Remodeling the Globe") while loudspeakers blasted propaganda all day. After a stint as a "barefoot doctor" tending to peoples' injuries after about a month of medical training, he wound up working in a seemingly state-of-the-art aircraft factory, then got into university and was ultimately awarded what seemed like a choice teaching position, until he discovered that the municipal water rotted teeth and made everyone sick, and that no one ever scored a much-coveted transfer out of the city.

Everywhere he went, Fan was confronted by brainwashed Communist cadres, pointless regulations subject to change at the whim of the Party, and jaded bureaucrats whose indifference could only be alleviated by family connections, subtle bribes or blackmail. If China in the 1960s was like a particularly strict summer camp, China in the early eighties – a "reform" period, at least economically – was like living in a country run by the Department of Motor Vehicles. That is, if the DMV could send you to jail for frowning on your driver's license photo.

After years of perseverance, Fan was finally got a coveted visa which allowed him to study in the United States – where he remains to this day, teaching English at Rochester Community and Technical College. (That brings to mind another P.J. O'Rourke aphorism, about the difference between countries you're not allowed to enter and those you're not allowed to leave.) Unlike in China, he presumably will not need the government's approval to take a job elsewhere.

Half the stuff in my house is made in China, and some say the country has abandoned Communism in all but name. But despite the skyscrapers and high-tech factories, the political situation hasn't changed as much as we'd like to believe. As many as twenty million people may languish in the Chinese Gulag. When reformist leader Zhao Ziyang recently died after years of house arrest, the censors quickly removed any mention of his name from Chinese internet message boards.

One of the great ironies of the age is that people who sneer at the stifling "conformity" of American society will invariably make excuses for Communist dictatorships where conformity is official policy, enforced with all the resources of the State. The Cultural Revolution was perhaps the 20th century's most ambitious and bloody attempt to destroy individuality itself, and the guy who organized it still has his portrait up in Tiananmen Square. In a world content to appease these totalitarian dictators, we need people like Fan Shen to tell their stories.

Perhaps the saddest thing about dictatorship is that it drives the brightest, most innovative thinkers away. Fan Shen simply couldn't handle the doublethink and brutality anymore, and he spent years trying to come to a land where ambition and individuality were encouraged, not denounced. China's loss is America's gain.

Damian Penny is the author of the widely popular blog Daimnation!.

Buy Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard at Amazon.com for only $15.72 (37% off)

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