WINSTON-SALEM — Lei Zhang says he moved from his home country for a reason, and it wasn’t a trivial one.
Lei was born in China in 1966. It’s a historically significant year because it marks the beginning of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s notorious Cultural Revolution, a campaign to reinvigorate the Chinese people’s communist spirit after the largest man-caused famine the world has ever known.
Mao’s collectivization of agriculture, known as the Great Leap Forward, resulted in 30 to 40 million dead from famine between 1959 and 1961 alone. Subsequently, Mao was faced with the people’s (understandably) waning zeal for communism and the infamous cultural revolution was born. So was Lei.
For 10 years Mao’s Red Guards, mostly students, roamed the streets of China targeting dissidents, independent thinkers, and especially teachers. The latter were often subjected to ‘Struggle Sessions, by their own students, beaten, often to death, and in some cases cannibalized in the name of Mao’s revolution.
In 1976 the Red Guards were finally put down by the military, having become untenable even for Mao. The Cultural Revolution had claimed another one million Chinese lives. Moreover, the chairman had made clear that the ‘questioning intellectual’ was enemy No 1.
“There was no free speech, you could not share values or thoughts if they were not Mao’s values and thoughts,” Lei said in an interview with Carolina Journal.
Lei was 10 years old. In spite of the chairman and the Red Guards, he wanted to be a scientist and teacher. Now he’s a physicist and college professor, as well as a citizen of the United States.
In 1994, after completing schooling in China, Lei immigrated to the U.S. as a graduate student attending Florida International University to earn what would become one of several intellectual degrees.
“I moved to the United States in early 1994 as a graduate student. So I spent three years at Florida International University and after I earned my master’s degree in astrophysics there, I moved to Louisiana Tech.
“So, at Louisiana Tech I received a second master’s degree in math, and then I moved to Texas to the University of Texas-Arlington, and I finished my Ph.D. in applied physics over there.”
After earning his Ph.D., Lei worked in Silicon Valley until a 2002 opportunity to teach brought him to North Carolina.
“I joined with Elizabeth City State University, where I taught physics,” Lei says. “And then I moved to Winston-Salem State University in 2005 as a tenure-track associate professor of physics. I’ve been at Winston-Salem State University for almost 16 years.”
Along the way, in 2013, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. As such, the elections of 2014 were his first opportunity to vote in a Democracy, something the Chinese immigrant born under Mao’s Communist Revolution did not take lightly. He voted, “for candidates that supported freedom,” and so began the scientist’s discerning approach to American culture and politics.
In the years since, but especially in the past few, the professor of physics says he has observed the rise of social justice movements, Woke ideology, and most recently Critical Race Theory with a profound sense of foreboding. From his perspective, the principles underlying these American movements are striking in their similarity to the Cultural Revolution into which he was born. As a result, his sense of civic duty has evolved. It is not enough to merely vote, he thought, he must speak out.
“The ideology, the CRT, I thought, this is very bad because it is the same as in China under Mao,” Lei proclaims. “The only difference is, in China Cultural Revolution it is your status in community, your class, but in CRT it is your identity, your race.”
The growing influence of Critical Race Theory and woke ideology in education, culture, and politics more generally has caused alarm across the country. In North Carolina, political figures such as Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and N.C. Senate Leader Phil Berger are calling to ban the incorporation of such theories into public school curricula, as the State Board of Education and several prominent county school boards are voting to adopt elements of the ideologies as part of the public school curriculum.
Critics argue that CRT, and the associated ideology, are pernicious in its prescription for race relations, but also antithetical to the principles of the American ethos and codified in our nation’s founding documents. What may be an academic exercise in a college course on esoteric ideology, is something altogether different to parents when it becomes a tenet of a standard education curriculum.
A June Civitas Poll shows that nearly two-thirds of North Carolina voters believe schools have become more politicized in recent years, and voters favor transparency initiatives to guard against indoctrination in the classroom by teachers sharing political beliefs as part of their instruction.
“Luckily, I have not yet had any problem with this in my own classrooms,” says Lei of his courses at Winston-Salem State University, one of North Carolina’s historically black universities.
“It is physics, so it is different than like a history class, or literature class, but even in math, you have people now say, ‘Math is white supremacy,’ or that calculus was invented by this man of this race so it is oppression. This is stupid! But I am lucky my students come and learn and we keep politics out of the classroom.”
But Lei does see the effect the cultural movement has had on speech in general among faculty.
“You cannot speak out,” he laments. “People in universities are mostly liberal, and so liberal politics go into the classrooms, but you cannot speak out to say this is wrong because they will have an effect. Even though no one says anything, people know who is liberal teacher, who is thinking differently. It is the free speech, no free speech that makes it so this is so dangerous. If you do not have free speech you are not free.”
Beyond the college campus, Lei worries lessons taught in K-12 classrooms may be most ominous.
“When they tell kids, kindergarten, 5, 6 years old, that they are bad because they are in this race, or they are oppressed if they are in this group, and children cannot disagree, this is very bad because they cannot change their skin color or where they are from. They did not choose to be this race or that race, they are Americans, we are all Americans, and if we are fighting each other over this ideology, I agree with that when people say that this will destroy America.
“This is what happened under Mao and the Cultural Revolution. All the kids from very young are always told every day about you are in this status so you are low, and they teach to only love Mao and revolution. If you disagree or say something different they punish you, but not like men and women who may get punished, but they re-educate you to believe in Mao. You have no free thought.”
In North Carolina, a Democrat majority on the State Board of Education voted to adopt new social studies standards that incorporate elements of critical theory throughout K-12 education. County schools boards in left-leaning districts such as Durham, Wake, and Mecklenburg have embraced the inclusion of such principles in K-12 public schools. Select state lawmakers and high-profile elected officials such as Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson have made combating such influences in our schools a top priority.
Lei cautioned that time is of the essence in terms of heading off a future that’s decidedly unAmerican. In thinking of his childhood, he notes that censorship of speech, the “approved narratives,” and the pitting of Americans against one another based on collective groups, rather than individuals with inherent worth and personal liberty, is hard to unwind if it goes too far. Once the cultural and political changes implicit in CRT spread too far, he says, people will be scared or too powerless to resist even more complete societal changes.
Though he admits he fears we may have passed that point already, he feels called upon to keep speaking out in defense of the American values that so many take for granted. Lei has become active in local and state politics to raise the alarm about what he deems a fundamental threat to American freedom.
He talks to other Chinese-Americans who lived under Mao and with which he shares a sense of knowing what is to come. He talks to lawmakers, activists, parents, voters, and whoever else might listen to his admonishments related to Critical Race Theory and woke schools of thought pervading culture and politics.
Lei Zhang — a man that endured and escaped Mao’s China, to become an independent, intellectual, free-thinking college professor in America — says he could never be free in China.
He left that place for a reason, he said, and now he desperately wants everyone to know that the reason seems to now be here, with us.
In concluding the interview with CJ, Professor Lei Zhang pledged to continue speaking out in defense of American freedom, and against what he views as a scourge of ideological movements like Critical Race Theory that he sees as turning the Great American Experiment into a Maoist Redux.
He worries Mao’s haunting everything from culture, to politics, to education here in America.