I Escaped Chinese Totalitarianism. Now It’s Coming To America


I grew up in what I call post-totalitarian (that is post-Mao) China. 

Mao, the ruthless and cunning tyrant, ruled China for nearly 30 years, from 1949 to 1976, the year of his death. It was a period when China was soaked in blood, famine, and mayhem, as Mao (not Stalin or Hitler) produced the deadliest regime in modern human history — a fact much of the western world is unaware of. But the darker shadow Mao cast upon the Chinese nation is a loss of humanity ensuing from scores of mass movements marked by endless persecutions, denunciations, and false confessions. The loss of spirituality, human dignity, and interpersonal trust is profound and irrevocable. The nation that survived those savage mass movements has learned to be cynical, calculating, and deceptive.

From a very young age, I was puzzled by the pervasive inequality, unapologetic unfairness, and privileges reserved for the Communist Party members that were palpable in every corner of Chinese society. Being the child of illiterate parents who struggled to feed the family through a series of menial jobs, I faced in society and at school blatant prejudice and discrimination. Meanwhile, I was troubled to see the so-called “people’s servants” (i.e., governmental officials) wantonly abuse power to accumulate wealth and dictate the lives of those around them with tyrannical edicts. 

Those experiences served as the earliest evidence that the propaganda I would often read in textbooks or hear in the state-run media was untrue. They left me questioning whether the Communist Party had actually made China free and equal, as they claimed. 

In truth, this Communist Party does not conceive of the Chinese people as beings of intrinsic value, but only objects of utility. For the CCP, the Chinese people are no more than the building blocks of the country’s GDP. And the people, either having learned that the regime is a brutal dictatorship or being thoroughly brainwashed to equate the country with the Party, won’t bother to fight for their rights; they play along. 

The Chinese nation is but a lie. By either quiet and passive compliance or deliberate calculation, everybody is confirming the system. 

Allan Bloom, in The Closing of The American Mind, writes that every educational system has a moral goal in accordance with the nature of the regime and for the purpose of producing the right kind of human beings that best serve the regime. “Aristocracies want gentlemen, oligarchies, men who respect and pursue money, and democracies lovers of equality.” 

My generation spent most of their school years during the 1990s and the 2000s, a time when China was ruled by a tiny group of oligarchs in an extremely opaque organization called the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. This group finds ideologies such as Maoism or Marxism to be only transparent propaganda schemes. What they truly respect and desire is money, period. Making a living is not enough; making a living in luxury and ease is the goal. Several decades later, my fellow Chinese people have transformed from peons to dedicated consumers with impressive purchasing power who gladly acquiesce to legal and political deprivations.

The state runs the school as boot camps. The educational system is centered on training the most skilled and efficient laborers, as well as on indoctrination for the sake of total control of the regime’s subjects. Certain history needs to be buried or distorted. One will not read in textbooks an accurate account of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), let alone have a hint of knowledge of dozens of other mass movements of a smaller scale. The Great Famine (1959-1961) and the Tiananmen Massacre (1989) vanished without a trace in the collective memory. 

Since day one at grade school, I found classes bizarre and boring because all efforts were oriented not towards true learning but “gaokao” (the national college entrance test). Questions of “why” were not encouraged, or needed. Substituted for learning in the classroom was memorization of the standardized answers. Substituted for beauty and imagination were naked utilities that made all subjects not only dull but barren. In the end, memorization and repetition crowded out wonder. The willingness and ability to think sank into atrophy, rendering my countrymen more pliable and manageable. 

For me, Chinese schooling was suffocating — not merely because of the rote pedagogy that many Chinese students would complain about, or political propaganda that made me cringe — but more importantly, that it was a spiritual desert where the soul is not led out towards something external, beautiful, or noble.

Then at the age of 16, I came across a book in a bookstore that explained how the American school was a special place, which, unlike its Chinese counterpart, was devoted to the cultivation of the enduring longings of the human soul.  To assist in man’s hunger to know, to understand, and to seek truth, was its highest mission. Students were challenged to think the unthinkable, to question convention, and to debate each other on ideas. The longing for a spot in one of those classrooms began to torment me.

I wanted to escape a culture that had no respect, or use, for truth but only money and power. I finally made my way out in 2015 when I attended the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. 

I felt I had died and gone to heaven during my two years at SPP. I had the best teachers one could hope for. But in a way, SPP also sheltered me from the larger reality in the rest of the Western world. 

It was in 2017 when I was first alerted to the attack on freedom of speech that had taken place against Jordan Peterson a year earlier. I was then stunned to see social justice warriors attack — sometimes physically — conservative speakers for alleged “hate speech” (i.e., the speech they hate). The administration shut down events or disinvited speakers in an attempt to placate the angry mob. Meanwhile, they aggressively inculcated a cult of narcissistic victimhood on campus. Infantilized American adults are delicate or brittle, cold and entitled, highly irritable and irritating, easily outraged, poorly trained and profoundly uneducated.

I could not believe all that was happening in a civilization that has in the past nurtured liberal thinkers such as John Stewart Mill. I could not believe this was the same America once distinguished by its cowboy spirit. 

In 2019 when I was in the second year of my doctoral program in political science, I noticed the catchy phrase “white supremacy” mushrooming in the media and on campus. Nobody offered a definition or supplied evidence, but all cultural elites were speaking the narrative to students and media consumers, propagating it as the biggest threat to America. 

In retrospect, the threat of so-called white supremacy served as a stepping stone for the ascendency of secular religions, by that, I mean the ideology of intersectionality that preaches competitive victimhood. And DEI and CRT that preach division, hatred, and revenge. 

Then, in late 2020, I was flabbergasted to see the American replication of the Chinese Cultural Revolution on full blast. The stunning similarity of the rhetoric and tactics between BLM and Antifa rioters who raised their fists and Red Guards who hold high the Little Red Book is terrifying.  

In my first essay published in November of that year, I wrote, “One must wonder how long will it take before the revolution creeps into households and regularly has people turn on one another?” Little did I know that it didn’t take long before so-called “cancel culture” blossomed in 2021. 

In recent years, I look, in dismay, at the cultural war throwing this great country into mayhem. It angers me to see the American left continue to replicate the Chinese Cultural Revolution in America, turning good people into informers, liars, and opportunists. As a person who verses herself in the literature of totalitarianism, especially Mao’s China and the totalitarian ideology, I refuse to give any charitable reading of the leftists. To call them hypocrites is a gross understatement because when drunk in power, totalitarians have no sense of shame. 

Then there was also a personal lament — I fled from a hard totalitarianism (i.e., Xi Jinping’s China), only to find myself in an emerging soft one where thinking is discouraged, dissent persecuted, and ideological loyalty the prerequisite for flourishing in the institution of higher learning. 

I am deeply worried about the direction America is heading not merely because the totalitarian state takes away freedom. Many have yet to learn that it also destroys everything in humanity that is noble, decent, and ethical.

Habi Zhang is a doctoral student in political science. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Law & Liberty, The American Mind, The Imaginative Conservative, and more. 

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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