The Cultural Revolution

Conversely, the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) was Mao's attempt to purge China of anything deemed corruptive to the revolutionary cause. The government and local citizens suppressed anything considered western, American, or European, and anything that promoted capitalism or democracy. Homes were invaded, dissidents were imprisoned in reeducation camps, and prisoners were executed for their crimes against the state. This damaged China's economy and led to the persecution of tens of millions of people. Historians estimate up to 20 million people were killed.

Read this text on the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. Make a timeline of these events. How does the Cultural Revolution compare with the Great Leap Forward?

The Cultural Revolution

1966: The 16 Points and the Red Guards

Chinese propaganda book entitled "Long Live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution"

On August 8, 1966, the Central Committee of the CCP passed its "Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," also known as "the 16 Points". The resolution defined the Cultural Revolution as "a new stage in the development of the socialist revolution in our country". It declared:

Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and endeavor to stage a comeback... At present, our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic "authorities"…

The policy expanded the existing Red Guards student movement and elevated it to the level of a nationwide mass campaign, calling not only students but also "the masses of the workers, peasants, soldiers, revolutionary intellectuals, and revolutionary cadres" to carry out the task by writing big-character posters and holding "great debates". The decision granted extensive freedom of speech to criticize those in authority and unleashed millions of young people who had been intensely indoctrinated in Maoist thought since the establishment of the PRC. Red Guard units were formed throughout the country, throwing the universities into turmoil and threatening politicians deemed to be "capitalist roaders".

Beginning August 16, 1966 millions of Red Guards from all over the country gathered in Beijing to see the great Chairman Mao. From the top of the Tiananmen Square gate, Mao and Lin Biao made frequent appearances to approximately 11 million adoring Red Guards. Mao praised their actions in the recent campaigns to develop socialism and democracy.

Figurine of professor in a dunces' cap

For two years, until July 1968 (and in some places much longer), Red Guards and other student activists expanded their areas of authority. They began by passing out leaflets and posting the names of suspected "counter-revolutionaries" on bulletin boards. They assembled in large groups, held "great debates" in which Mao's enemies and their own professors were bitterly criticized, and staged numerous "revolutionary" plays. The debates soon evolved in public "struggle sessions" of criticism and coerced "self-criticism" from suspected counter-revolutionaries.

Although the 16 Points forbade "physical struggle (武斗)" in favor of "verbal struggle" (文斗), the above-mentioned "struggle sessions" often led to physical violence. Party efforts to curb the violence stopped short of police action, and sometimes appeared to encourage "physical struggle". On August 22, 1966, Mao issued a public notice which forbade "all police intervention in Red Guard tactics and actions". Those in the police force who dared to defy this notice, were labeled "counter-revolutionaries". In September, all Red Guards were encouraged to come to Beijing over a stretch of time, giving Mao's further imprimatur to their actions. Their fees, including accommodation and transportation, were to be paid by the government.

On October 10, Lin Biao publicly criticized Liu and Deng as "capitalist roaders" and "threats," setting the stage for a widespread purge of the Party. Former defense minister Peng Dehuai, an early critic of the Great Leap Forward and a rival of Lin, was brought to Beijing to be publicly displayed and ridiculed. He was then purged from the Party.

1967: major power struggles

On January 3, 1967, Lin Biao and Jiang Qing collaborated to launch the "January Storm," in which many prominent Shanghai, municipal government leaders were publicly criticized and purged. As a result, Jiang's partner Wang Hongwen rose to power in the city and its CCP apparatus. In Beijing, Liu and Deng were once again the targets of criticism. This began a major political struggle among central government officials, who seized the Cultural Revolution as an opportunity to accuse their rivals of "counter-revolutionary activity". A similar phenomena emerged among local Party cadres.

On January 8, Mao once again praised the struggle against the "capitalist roaders" in a People's Daily editorial, urging all local governmental leaders to engage in "self-criticism," and in the criticism and purging of others. Purge after purge followed in China's local governments, some of which stopped functioning altogether. Involvement in some sort of public "revolutionary" activity was essential to avoid being purged, and it, too, was no guarantee. At the same time, major Red Guard organizations, sometimes well armed, now began turning against each other in factional struggles and attempts to prove which units were the most revolutionary.

On April 6, Liu Shaoqi was openly and widely denounced by the large Zhongnanhai Red Guard faction. This was followed by a counter-protest and mass demonstrations, most notably in Wuhan on July 20, which dared to denounce Jiang Qing's behavior as "counter-revolutionary activity". She quickly flew to Wuhan to criticize the general in charge of the Wuhan area, Chen Zaidao, and on July 22, Jiang Qing took the bold step of directing the Red Guards to replace the People's Liberation Army when needed. Red Guard units began seizing weapons from local armories, and violence escalated.

1968: purges and curtailing the Red Guards

Poster of Mao as a sun god.

Mao as a sun-god in a poster from the Cultural Revolution

In the spring of 1968, a massive campaign promoted the already-adored Mao Zedong to a god-like status. Hundreds of millions of copies of Mao's Little Red Book were published and posters depicting him in messianic poses became ubiquitous. At the same time, a consensus began to develop in the Party that the Red Guards were going too far, and that the military must establish order. On July 27, the Red Guards' power over the army was officially ended and the central government sent in units to protect many areas still being targeted by Red Guards. A year later, the Red Guard factions were dismantled entirely. In any case, from Mao and Lin's point of view, their purpose had been largely fulfilled.

In early October, Mao began a purge of national level Party officials. Many were sent to the countryside to work in labor camps. In the same month, at the Twelfth Plenum of the Eighth Party Congress, Liu Shaoqi was "forever expelled from the party," and Lin Biao was made the Party's Vice-Chairman, second only to Mao. Liu Shaoqi was sent to a detention camp, where he died in 1969. Deng Xiaoping, was sentenced to a period of re-education three times and eventually found himself working in an engine factory, until he was brought back years later by Zhou Enlai. Most of those accused were not so lucky, and many of them never returned.

In December 1968, Mao began the "Down to the Countryside Movement," which lasted for the next decade. "Young intellectuals" living in cities were ordered to the countryside. Most of these were recently graduated middle-school students. This move was largely a means of moving Red Guards out of the cities to the countryside, where they would cause less social disruption, although it was explained in terms of creating revolutionary consciousness by putting these city-bred students in touch with manual labor. The educational system in the cities was brought to a virtual standstill.