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The Cultural Revolution 50 Years Later

The Cultural Revolution 50 Years Later

How did the Cultural Revolution begin? What were its driving ideas? And what were its effects? Dr. Frank Dikötter addressed these questions at the second annual China Forum in Washington, D.C., on October 19, 2016.

Precisely when did the Cultural Revolution start? Why not pick the First of June, 1966, when the People’s Daily publishes an incendiary editorial called “Sweep Away All Monsters and Demons”? That’s the starting point. People are told that counter-revolutionary elements, capitalist roaders, and revisionists have infiltrated the state and the Party, and people are now asked to stand up and flush these enemies out. As if this is not enough excitement, it also comes to light, soon, that four leading members of the Communist Party have been placed under arrest, including the mayor of Beijing, a man called Peng Zhen. Apparently, under the very noses of the people, he tried to turn the capital into a citadel of revisionism. Most people at this stage, of course, wonder, “How is it that after so many years of endless purges, there are still enemies within the very ranks of the Party?” Still, most of them realize that the number one revisionist is, of course, the Soviet leader and Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. Everybody knows this very well. In 1956, Khrushchev had started de-Stalinization. In a secret speech, he attacked Stalin for the horrors of the 1930s and, of course, for the cult of personality. Mao viewed this as an attack on himself. He, after all, was the Stalin of the People’s Republic. Two years later, Khrushchev proposed the notion of peaceful coexistence with the imperialist camp, which many true believers around the world viewed as a betrayal of revolutionary principles.

Now this is what happened, I believe. Mao, obviously, did not like what happened under Khrushchev. But he must have thought, “How could one man, Nikita Khrushchev, single-handedly engineer a complete reversal of fortune, of policy, in the mighty Soviet Union?” Stalin was not defeated by Hitler, yet a few years after his death Khrushchev demolishes his entire legacy. I believe that Mao thought the answer was in culture. In 1917, the Bolsheviks had pretty much taken the assets of the capitalist class. The same happened in 1949 under Mao. The capitalist was gone, but capitalist ideas were still to be found everywhere. And it’s these ideas that somehow allowed a few at the very top, like Khrushchev, to erode and ultimately subvert the entire Stalinist system. So here is what Mao proposed: Let us get rid of all ideas that smack of a feudal-superstitious-bourgeois-capitalist past. Let us have a Cultural Revolution.

That, in a nutshell, is the idea of the Cultural Revolution. But of course Mao was trying to do something else as well. He was concerned about his own legacy. He viewed himself as a great revolutionary. Once Stalin died in 1953, he thought he would be the one to take over leadership of the socialist camp, which of course, did not happen. Mao’s first attempt to steal the Soviet Union’s thunder was in 1958, when he launched the Great Leap Forward by changing every man and every woman, by transforming everybody in the countryside into foot soldiers in giant armies to be deployed day and night to transform the economy, Mao thought he could somehow catapult his country past the Soviet Union. People were herded into giant collectives, which Mao believed was the golden bridge to communism. Of course we know tens of millions of people died during this experiment.

So the Cultural Revolution is really Mao’s second attempt to become the pivot around which the socialist camp revolved. Lenin had launched that Great October Socialist Revolution. Now Mao would have a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Mao would be the one who inherited, defended, developed Marxism-Leninism into something called Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought. A grandiose idea. But there was, of course, also something else going on, namely that Mao used the Cultural Revolution to get rid of his own enemies within the Party. Already in 1956, a mere week or two after Khrushchev had given his secret speech, Zhou Enlai slows down the pace of collectivization in China. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping very much criticized the cult of personality. Mao Zedong Thought is deleted from the party constitution at the end of 1956. But surely Mao’s star is at its very lowest in 1962, at the very end of this disaster that is the Great Leap Forward, when some 7,000 cadres convene from all over China in Beijing to discuss the disaster of the Great Leap Forward. Rumors are doing the rounds of those who believe that Mao is innumerate, deluded, possibly dangerous, or those who want him to take responsibility. And no doubt a number of leading officials would want him to step down.

Mao goes on the counterattack right away, in August 1963. We tend to see the Cultural Revolution as something that starts in 1966. But from 1963–66, there’s a Socialist Education Campaign meant to root out all capitalist ideas and practices from the countryside, most of all, in schools—primary schools, secondary schools, universities. Young people are schooled in class hatred. Lin Biao makes available a Little Red Book that students have to read. At every level the society is permeated by a notion of class hatred so when that editorial in the People’s Daily is published on the first of June ’66 many young people have being indoctrinated for two, three, four years. They are itching to lash out at imaginary class enemies. This Cultural Revolution starts on the first of June. Over the summer, students start scrutinizing the backgrounds of their own teachers, trying to find out whether or not they may harbor bourgeois ideas or hide a counter-revolutionary past. Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, the two I just mentioned, send in work teams. Now they believe some of these students have gone too far; they are placed under arrest. Mao is in the South, observing all of this from a distance. He returns to Beijing at the end of July, and instead of supporting his two colleagues, who have arrested a number of students for criticizing the Communist Party of China, actually turns against them and decides that they’ve been trying to suppress the student movement and establish a dictatorship. Mao corners his two close colleagues, and encourages students to rebel: “To rebel is justified!”

At this moment, students start donning loose uniforms, red arm bands, declare themselves Red Guards, and vow to defend the Chairman to the very death. They declare war on the “Old World.” They go around overturning tombstones, tearing down temples, vandalizing cathedrals, attacking anything that smacks of the old world. In Shanghai alone, they carry out raids of over a quarter of a million private homes, burning any work that smacks of the past, confiscating everything else. But here’s the problem: Mao wanted these Red Guards to attack people in the higher echelons of power. But Red Guards start fighting amongst themselves. So in the autumn of 1966, Mao goes further. Much as he had incited students to rebel against the teachers over the summer, now he asks the entire population to join the revolution, and flush out the enemies lurking inside the ranks of the Party. It’s a social explosion on an unprecedented scale, as everywhere people harbored grievances and grudges against Communist Party members.

But of course, rather than neatly sweep away all counter-revolutionary forces, the so-called revolutionary masses becomes divided themselves. They’re divided over precisely who these enemies are, over what Mao Zedong has in mind. In January 1967, the army comes in, asked by Mao to support the true revolutionary left. The army, needless to say, is also divided. Different military officers support different factions. Before you know it, people are fighting each other in the streets with machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery. It’s a country on the verge of civil war.

This phase, where people are incited to attack Communist Party members comes to an end in December of 1968. New so-called Revolutionary Party Committees are established. They’re very much dominated by the army. From 1968 to the end of 1971, China is very much turned into a garrison state. These are black years.

These are the years when soldiers are there to oversee factories, government units, schools, universities. And the army, of course, does what it does best in Communist regimes: it carries out a series of purges. It starts by sending out millions of people to the countryside to be “re-educated” by the peasants and the farmers of the time, including extremely young people. This is followed by a nation-wide witch-hunt. The talk in 1969 is no longer about counter-revolutionaries or revisionists or capitalist roaders. It’s all about renegades, spies, traitors. Special Committees are set up to scrutinize the imagined enemy links of ordinary people and Party members alike. Anybody at any level with a link to a foreign person or power becomes a suspect. In Shanghai alone, some 5,400 people are hounded to their deaths. In Inner Mongolia, some 800,000 people are arrested, interrogated, and, of course, denounced in front of large numbers of assembled people. Torture chambers appeared across Inner Mongolia, which is very much the heart of darkness in 1969–70. There are, of course, more campaigns that follow against corruption. This is the point where if you merely inadvertently poke a hole in a Chairman Mao poster, you’ve potentially committed a criminal act. The point, of course, was to break down any form of loyalty, to make sure that everybody at every level has nothing but loyalty to the Chairman alone.

Now this phase comes to an end in 1971. The army is in charge, but of course the Chairman himself is aware that whoever is in command of the army can turn it against Number One. Lin Biao, head of the People’s Liberation Army, dies in a mysterious plane crash in September 1971. This is the end of what I refer to as the “Black Years.”

What we have here is very interesting. From 1971–76, we have what I refer to as the “Gray Years.” Ordinary people, in particular in the countryside, realize that the army has now been purged: Lin Biao is dead; a number of generals have fallen victim themselves to the Cultural Revolution. They understand that the very organization of the Communist Party of China has been very badly battered. They start doing what they’ve always wanted to do, what they tried to do in the 1950s, what they did at the very height of the Great Leap Forward in ’61 to pull themselves out of starvation. They return to the past. They return to their entrepreneurial selves. The soldiers are gone, the local party cadres have been badly damaged. There’s nobody there to force them to stay in these people’s collectives. So millions upon millions of ordinary villagers start opening black markets, operating underground factories, distributing collective assets. There’s still, of course, the fiction of people’s communes. But underneath, everything is divided according to households, then individuals. I call it a Silent Revolution.

The Silent Revolution means, that in places like Chuansha, the country just outside of Shanghai, by 1976 when the good Chairman dies, up to 75 percent of output is already industrial in nature. These farmers didn’t wait for Deng Xiaoping, in order words, to set up them their own factories and to thrive. They do this on their own. Deng Xiaoping himself comes to power in 1978, visits the country in 1979, and is seen as a hero. In April 1979, he insists that ordinary people go back to the people’s communes. He tries to enforce the command economy. It’s too little, too late. He can’t do it. Up to half of the land is already in the hands of individual households in provinces like Guizhou, Gansu, Anhui—you name it. In other words, what I’m trying to say is that the people are far ahead of the party. The architects of economic reform are the people, not Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping is pragmatic enough to realize that while people have been able to wrench basic economic freedoms away from the dead hand of the state, he can use the economic growth it produces to rebuild the Communist Party of China.

From here onwards, 1979 onwards, as the Democracy Wall is crushed in December in Beijing—there’s one witness in this room—all the way to 1989, when Deng Xiaoping commands tanks to roll into Tiananmen Square, the party lives in fear of its own people. These people have been able to wrench back basic economic rights, but their political aspirations will be repressed again, and again, and again. The massacre that follows in June, 1989 is a display of brutal power and steely resolve that sends a very clear message that pulsates to this very day. That message is, don’t query the monopoly over power of the one-party state.

Thank you.


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