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Survivors from Cultural Revolution is still seeking harmony in Hong Kong

Leaving the turmoil and having experienced great changes in political, economic and social ways, the three now keep fingers crossed for this haven for their next generations.

By Joanna Wong

It has been thirty years that Li Kwun-shing wipes the sweat off his face with his dirty hands and gets baked under the sun at different construction sites every weekday from early morning to dusk.

He has no other job option except working hard as a construction worker, which merely feeds his family of five.

“I have no culture, no knowledge, so no choice other than work as a ‘cattle’ and ‘horse’,” said the 52-year-old. “I cannot even be a postman because I don’t know English.”

Growing up under the Cultural Revolution in China, Li received little education but worked as farmer in the field and fisher in the rivers. Losing the golden period of learning and studying, when moving to Hong Kong in his 20s, he finds much difficulty in this highly educated city.

“I have no one to blame with,” said Li. “Should I ask the dead Mao Ze-dong to return me my childhood?”

Like Li, during and after the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese mainlanders have immigrated to Hong Kong to settle their lives and build their families. They find peace, security, sufficiency and values here, but are still suffering from the impact of the Revolution.

When recalling the pieces of memories in China, some may leave the past and look forward, while some may speak up and pass it on to their next generations. Yet they started to worry about the future of Hong Kong, which are taking similarities with the mainland.

The Cultural Revolution is a socio-political movement from 1966 to 1976 launched by Chairman Mao Ze-dong, who tried to regain control of the Communist Party after his retreat to the second line due to the failure of economic reform. He mobilised the proletarian masses to take up class struggle to destroy the old traditions and purge the bourgeoisie, intellectuals and anti-communists in order to build a purely communist society.

“It is wasting my youth and time,” Li said emotionally. “I am also one of the victims.”

Born in a river village in Sanshui, Guangdong province, Li grew up in a proletarian family, poor without property and much education, so he spent much time in farming work. Even though he went to primary school for few hours a day, he did not study with effort.

“We are not encouraged to study hard,” Li continued. “We are proud to be proletariat, having a clear background.”

Proletariat is highly valued in Mao’s era. The poster is written “long live the proletarian revolutionary line with Chairman Mao as its representative!” (Photo:

Proletariat is highly valued in Mao’s era. The poster is written “long live the proletarian revolutionary line with Chairman Mao as its representative!” (Photo:

And he was even proud to be Little Red Guard, “It is cool that we can wear red scarf although it was just an identity and we did nothing.”

Zou Qin, 50, grown up in the countryside of Sichuan province, also received little education from the farmer teachers and had to labour in most of her childhood. Having two meals of watery sweet potato congee a day, she was malnourished with only 25kg at 11 years old.

But Zou was not allowed to join Little Red Guard because of her rightist mother, giving her an unclear background.

“The blacklisted children were pitifully boycotted,” Li now feels sympathy to them. “It was not their fault.”

“We are grateful to escape from the chaos outside in the city,” Li said of living in his rather peaceful village. “The adults swore to Mao and the Party in the morning and night to show loyalty. Nobody is reluctant to follow.”

Intellectual youths were sent to the countryside in the 60s to 70s. Those in the photo are building a small hydropower station in 1971 in Jilin province. (Photo:

Intellectual youths were sent to the countryside in the 60s to 70s. Those in the photo are building a small hydropower station in Jilin province in 1971. (Photo:

Under the brainwashing propaganda and prohibitive access to outside world, Zou perceived everything as blessing. “Everyone loves Mao because he is the red sun, our saviour,” she said. “And we lived better than children in the US and Taiwan.”

“People could denounce anyone who had spoken something disrespectful to the Party,” Zou continued, “regardless of family members.”

She said, “If I were older, I might be one of them. Who knows?”

Li remembers villagers demonstrated on street and criticised landlords and rich farmers, who were included in “Five Black Categories” – the other three types were anti-revolutionists, bad-influencers and rightists.

They were criticised in public interrogation, which they were put on a sharp tall hat and pushed onto the stage, then the audience would sneer, insult and beat them.

Chen Xing-pin, who lived in the Shantou city, Guangdong Province, can never forget these terrible scenes when he was seven years old.

“After denouncement, some were hanged on the electrical wires or trees. This is horrible. There was no rule, no moral,” he said of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. “Therefore, many people escaped to the mountains.”

Chen feels lucky to survive because his family, doing business in warehouse, was neutral with no stand and did not involve in any fractions.

However, many rightists committed suicide because of being unable to bear the persecution. Zou’s mother was one of them.

Feature CR_3

This kind of denouncement is forcing the rightists to imitate a jet, which they had to bow into 90 degrees and stand with hands at the back. They were not allowed to drink water and relieve themselves for a long period of time, but criticised by the audience, mostly young people in the photo. (Photo:

Due to actively expressing opinions on the Party and the family background of bourgeois, Zou’s mother was exiled to a distant village in Sichuan. She sent baby Zou to live with her mother then killed herself by drug.

However, Zou did not know her mother’s death until the end of the Cultural Revolution since everyone, including her relatives, was fearful of speaking sensitive issues and they executed absolute obedience to Mao and the Party.

During the ten years of political turmoil, 180,000 mainlanders came to Hong Kong, according to Hong Kong Statistics. Within the following two decades, there is an influx of averagely 30 thousand mainlanders per year, in which 1980 ranks the highest, incoming nearly 70 thousand Chinese immigrants.

The massive arrival of Chinese helps increase the growth of Hong Kong population, rising from the population of 3.8 million in 1966 to 5 million in 1980 and reaching 6 million in 1994.

“It’s very difficult and complex to come here,” said Li who applied to Hong Kong immigration office with the reason of taking care of his old grandfather here. After waiting for few years, he successfully immigrated in 1985.

“Of course I wish I could come earlier, or was born in Hong Kong,” Li continued, “but all depends on the situation and opportunity.”

Since 1980, the Hong Kong government repatriated all illegal immigrants to the mainland and abolished ‘reached base’ policy which allowed those who entered urban areas to stay, including Chen.

Chen was lucky to get the opportunity to sneak into Hong Kong by boat right before this policy in 1979.

They carried the aspiration for better lives in Hong Kong, escaping not only the unstable political condition, but also poverty.

“Hong Kong and the mainland are like the contrast between paradise and hell,” said Li. “Here are great freedom and lots of food, like yummy meat and mooncakes. You can buy and eat whatever you like.”

In China, all the food was rationed by the government, except some of their farm and fish products, said Li. His relatives sometimes brought them supplies from Hong Kong.

“You had no concept of feeling full as you just ate what you had,” Li added. “Now I am so sick of sweet potato.”

The Cultural Revolution caused severe damage to industrial and agricultural development since the participation of workers and peasants in the struggle and suppression of capitalism led to the decline in production. Industrial output decreased by 20% at the early years of the movement.

“During and after the chaotic situation in China, business was bad and unstable,” said Chen. “Some businessmen and intellectuals were persecuted, wasting their skills and lives.”

After meeting his Chinese wife in Hong Kong, they have worked hard for their family. The 57-year-old is now the owner of a grocery store. Some years earlier, Chen also drove bus in the morning then joined his wife in the afternoon. He now feels gratified to raise his grandchildren.

Chen Xing-pin and his wife have run their grocery store for ten years.

Chen Xing-pin and his wife have run their grocery store for ten years.

“Life was poor in China,” added Chen’s wife, who is busy in serving customers. “We earned and ate a little.”

Having experienced the dark side of the Cultural Revolution, Chen and his wife used to discuss the Chinese history with their children and let them know the truth.

“I never let my children work in the mainland,” said Chen. “You don’t know how to play their game.”

He believes the working environment in the mainland is dangerous since the authorities and officials always control the power, using bribes and illegal means to earn profits.

“We all feel bad about China,” he said pessimistically.

“The mainlanders have no moral standard, such as jumping queue, shouting without politeness, bad behavior when travelling, unsafe milk powder, and not saving the wounded on street…” Li said with anger, listing various examples. “I feel helpless and painful seeing these.”

Zou also sees the value difference between China and Hong Kong when she arrived in Hong Kong in 1995 to marry her current husband.

“It’s obvious that Hong Kong enjoys freedom of speech and self-autonomy. You can access to anything and bad mouth anyone, including the Chief Executive,” Zou likes here a lot.

“I was only disappointed with the small flat, but when I gradually adjust, I discover the good heart and love of Hong Kong people who may be influenced by the Western thoughts and religion,” said the current housewife. “So I understand the Chinese who have no choice living under the greedy and selfish atmosphere.”

Feature Qin

Zou is afraid if the Chinese government would prosecute her because of her opposition to Mao Ze-dong and one-party rule.

Zou puts the blame on the one-party dictatorship and the Cultural Revolution, which destroy the Chinese culture and ethics from thousands of years. Although mindset is difficult to be changed, she is hopeful since more mainlanders have chance to reach out to the world and learn good values.

But Li is desperate, “There is no way out. Nobody can change the upper [leader] so the below [people] follow.” He refers the Cultural Revolution as absolute evil, harming many future generations.

While feeling Hong Kong a blessed place, the Chen couple sees the change of times. “Hong Kong is changing, more like China,” said Chen, pointing out the Cultural Revolution’s way of messing up the society and dividing people is now used in Hong Kong.

He said of the Causeway Bay booksellers’ disappearance, which five missing Hong Kong people publishing books critical to the Communist Party were found taken to the mainland by illegal means to receive interrogation or prosecution. “The government is creating fear and struggle within people that you must obey the authority and betray your friends for your own safety,” Chen said disappointedly.

Li is rather concerned with the decline of morality of Hong Kong youth nowadays. “How come students can surround and shout at the teacher with no respect? This is savage action,” He said of the University of Hong Kong students opposing new chairman who is appointed by the Chief Executive.

Regarding to the Mong Kok riot in the Chinese New Year, Li accuses the rioters of bringing violence to the society. “Hong Kong people are learning from the mainlanders, taking solely their self-interest.”

Like Chen, Li taught their children from their past and advises them not to commit immoral and illegal things, but treasure Hong Kong as a blessing field.

Li’s daughter Li Ka-man, 20, who shows less interest in history and politics, said, “I know he means good to us, but his past living environment is completely different to ours…And I don’t feel any impact [from the Cultural Revolution].”

On the other hand, Zou was reluctant to talk about her past to her family, “I only tell if they ask. It’s too sensitive and unhappy.”

Since her husband is pro-government while her daughter is active pro-democrat, Zou – in the middle stand – tries not to touch on Chinese-Hong Kong political issues, so as the Cultural Revolution, to avoid quarrels.

She also sent her daughter off to study university in the US before Occupy Central movement in 2014. “I am afraid that she will join it and get caught,” said Zou, recalling the happenings in June Forth Incident which the remaining student protesters were either exiled to boundary or sent to prison. “So I don’t want my daughter to receive this end.”

“And also like my mother,” Zou continued with tears in her eyes. “She is my biggest loss in the Cultural Revolution and my forever pain.”

“The memory [of the Cultural Revolution] cannot be faded out because it is my personal experience and has carved on my heart,” said Li. “But having been washed by this drastic turbulence, we know the pain and look forward to peace.”

cultural-revolution (2)_chart


Recommended links for further reading:

Cultural Revolution background

Quotations from Chairman Mao (Little Red Book)

Tragic scenes of denouncement in the Cultural Revolution



HKU research of Hong Kong immigration policy


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