The early years of the People’s Republic of China were particularly catastrophic. Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949, internal struggles, conflicts with neighboring countries, the political battle with Western powers, and the dictatorial policies of leader Mao Zedong generated a scenario with dire consequences for civil society.
In 1958, amidst enormous local and international tensions, Mao implemented a series of economic and social policies that he called the “Great Leap Forward,” intending to transform the traditional Chinese agrarian economy through rapid collectivization of land and a rapid process of industrialization.
Significant changes to the rural order included the creation of people’s communes, the prohibition of private farming, and the development of intensive projects based on mass labor.
But the immediate consequences were far from what was expected, and historical records show that it was a total failure, causing the starvation of some 50 million peasants.
Both the international community and internal sectors of the CCP identified the measures imposed by Mao as the cause of the economic/social disaster that China was experiencing, which forced him to leave the presidency in 1959.
Mao accused those who pushed for his withdrawal as traitorous capitalists and continued his attack with the subsequent Cultural Revolution. It not only served to change the party structure, which he considered bourgeois and sympathetic to capitalism but also to keep alive the revolutionary spirit to recover the influence lost after the failure of the Great Leap.
The Cultural Revolution in China was a political movement that affected virtually every socio-cultural aspect throughout the country. The declared objective of the political guidelines of the campaign was to preserve Chinese communism and the so-called “Maoist thought,” after eliminating all remaining elements considered capitalist and/or traditional in ancient China.
Origin of the movement that empowered the Chinese Cultural Revolution
After the Great Chinese Famine, President Liu Shaoqi and General Secretary Deng Xiaoping supported the idea that Mao be removed from actual power as head of state and the Chinese regime but retain his ceremonial and symbolic role as chairman of the Communist Party of China. They tried to marginalize Mao by taking control of economic policy and asserting their political rights. Mao responded to Liu and Deng’s moves by launching the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966.
The Cultural Revolution constituted a decade of political and social chaos caused by Mao Zedong’s attempt to use the Chinese masses, especially the youth, to reassert his control over the Communist Party and national politics.
Its bewildering complexity and unfathomable brutality were such that to this day, historians struggle to make sense of the events that transpired during the period.
Mao found in the youth the decisive factor of his revolution, convinced that the sectors that “sold out to capital” and associated with the bourgeoisie were concentrated in the elderly.
Thus, Mao called on the nation’s youth to purge the “impure” elements from Chinese society and revive the revolutionary spirit that had led to victory in the civil war 20 years earlier and the formation of the People’s Republic of China.
The Cultural Revolution continued in various phases until Mao died in 1976, and his tormented and violent legacy continued to reverberate in Chinese politics and society for decades after.
In August 1966, Mao ordered the nation’s schools and universities closed, calling for a mass youth mobilization to rebuke the current party leaders for their adoption of bourgeois values and lack of revolutionary spirit.
In the following months, the movement quickly intensified and took on a life of its own. Students formed paramilitary groups called Red Guards and attacked and harassed members of China’s intellectual and elderly population.
Objectives of the Revolution and the destruction of the ‘Four Olds’
The revolution aimed at sections of the CCP, putting obstacles in the way of the unlimited power to which Mao had acceded.
“Our aim is to fight against and smash those in authority who are taking the capitalist road … to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system,” read an early directive.
The guidelines of the revolution not only indicated this group of people as a target to attack but also included all ideas associated with traditional Chinese culture, including art, religion, philosophy, and all forms of expression linked to the divine and pre-Communist society.
Mao managed to awaken a visceral hatred among young people against the most conservative sectors. It did not take much effort for millions of them to take to the streets in an organized way to persecute, murder, torture, and destroy every vestige of the traditional Chinese society of more than 5,000 years of history that they found in their path.
During the Cultural Revolution, tens of millions of people were persecuted and suffered all manner of abuse, including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, forced labor, sustained harassment, confiscation of property, and murder.
But individuals were not the only victims. China’s cultural heritage suffered irretrievable losses as relics, artifacts, and valuable historical documents were destroyed. In addition, cultural and religious sites were looted. All kinds of classical artistic expression were replaced by formulas whose sole function was to glorify the Party and the figure of the dictator Mao.
On Aug. 8, 1966, during the “Red August” in Beijing, the Central Committee of the Party approved its “Decision on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” later known as the “Sixteen Points.” The points defined the Cultural Revolution as “a great revolution that moves the people to the soul and constitutes a deeper and more extensive stage in the development of the socialist revolution in our country.”
The implications of the Sixteen Points were far-reaching. It took what was initially a mere student movement into a massive nationwide campaign that galvanized workers, farmers, soldiers, and low-ranking party officials to rise, challenge authority and reform the “superstructure” of society.
Between August and November 1966, eight mass rallies were held involving more than 12 million people across the country, most of whom were Red Guards.
The regime paid the expenses of the Red Guards, a veritable army of young people ready to give everything for their leader, who traveled around the country exchanging “revolutionary experiences.”
Among the main demands of Mao’s followers was the destruction of the “Four Olds,” that is to say: the old pre-Communist customs, the old culture, the old habits, and the old ideas.
The revolutionary fever swept the country entirely within a decade, breaking nothing less than 5,000 years of history and tradition. So naturally, the Red Guards acted as its most prominent warriors.
The Red Guards
Red Guards was the name given to this group of people that, besides functioning as a vast army, was undoubtedly a political movement in defense of the radical communism proposed by its leader Mao Zedong.
It was mainly composed of university and high school students from all over China.
Between 1966 and 1968, Mao mobilized these super-indoctrinated youth to become the Cultural Revolution’s mainstay and combat the “elitist elements” of traditional society.
The Red Guards were the perpetrators of terrible actions, ranging from the systematic destruction of China’s historical heritage to public humiliation, imprisonment in “re-education camps,” torture, and murder of millions of dissidents and intellectuals.
The dreaded Red Guards army never formed a legal institution but rather functioned as a paramilitary group that carried out the dirtiest work of the Communist dictatorship during the early days of the Cultural Revolution.
Its original formation was at Tsinghua University in May 1966 by a group of students concerned about the university’s alleged bourgeois and elitist tendencies. From there, and with Mao’s strong support, the movement spread rapidly throughout the country.
In August of that same year, Mao formally gathered a million Red Guards at a rally in Tiananmen Square. He gave a distinctive armband to all members, explicitly recognizing and supporting their objectives.
Thus, the so-called Cultural Revolution began, and the horizon of its protagonists was set on completely destroying the “four old men.”
The Red Guards were also assigned to eliminate high-level CCP officials with conservative tendencies, which began a massive purge within the party.
However, there was much resistance to the Red Guards’ rampaging advance among the general population, especially among industrial workers and middle-aged peasants, who repeatedly decided to stand up to them, leading to severe conflicts that usually ended in Dantesque scenes of mutilated bodies and mass killings.
As the months went by, criticism within the party and society began to make itself felt, and Mao was forced to stop the movement, at least its most obvious actions. However, it is known that they continued their repressive activity with a lower profile throughout the Cultural Revolution.
Mao’s personality cult
The Red Guard marched through the streets all over the country, destroying symbols they considered “feudal, capitalist and traditional.” They named and renamed street signs, buildings, and historical monuments.
Millions of people in education, academia, media, literature, and art were abused, tortured, and killed after being accused of being “capitalist roaders” or “anti-revolutionaries.”
In addition, the Red Guards looted museums, temples, and churches and
destroyed books, ancient buildings, and millenary works of art.
Intellectuals bore the brunt of these attacks. An official report in October 1966 detailed that the Red Guards had already arrested 22,000 counterrevolutionary intellectuals by that time.
Parallel to the aberrant attacks, the revolutionaries sought to glorify the image of their leader Mao Zedong. An example of this was the dissemination of the famous “Mao’s little red book,” a manifesto of texts enunciated by him, which became one of the most printed books in history, acquiring a kind of sacred character for the communists who implemented it, and forced it to be used as a guide to solve any conflict or social, political or moral dilemma.
The book functioned among communist followers similar to that of sacred scriptures for believers. Scientists used to read the Red Book to solve their dilemmas, which had nothing to do with the massive indoctrination of the book’s contents, yet it was inspiring for them to read it and say that they had found the solution there.
The book was used during the Cultural Revolution to simplify ideology and ideological uniformity and as a weapon against those perceived as “class enemies” or “counterrevolutionaries.”
The Guangxi Massacre
Over the years, classified documents emerged that attested to certain atrocities committed during China’s Cultural Revolution. Among them, the terrible case of the Guangxi Massacre stands out.
Confidential Chinese Communist regime documents revealed during the 1990s detailed unprecedented savagery by the Red Guards in the Guangxi area, where tens of thousands of “traitors” were tortured, killed, and, worst of all, the attackers allegedly ate the flesh of their victims in chilling rituals.
Copies of the documents have been smuggled out of China by Zheng Yi, a prominent writer wanted by Chinese authorities, who now resides as an exile abroad. For years Zheng has recounted the events to raise awareness and expose those who were responsible.
“There are many varieties of cannibalism,” states one of the reports, “and among them are these: killing someone and making a late dinner of it, slicing off the meat and having a big party, dividing up the flesh so each person takes a large chunk home to boil, roasting the liver and eating it for its medicinal properties, and so on.”
The official record shows an estimated death toll of between 100 to 150 thousand people during the late 1960s in Guangxi. In the massacre, slaughter methods included “decapitation, beatings, live burial, stoning, drowning, boiling, group killings, disembowelment, digging out hearts, livers, genitals, cutting flesh, exploding with dynamite and more,” the documents state.
Cannibalism was recurrent during that period and not precisely because it was a time of famine. Instead, it was the maximum expression of the hatred, resentment, and violence manifested by communism in its Cultural Revolution.
According to classified documents, at least 137 people, perhaps hundreds more, were eaten by thousands of people who participated in the cannibalism that was generally carried out in public for people to demonstrate their revolutionary fervor and as a test of loyalty to their leaders.
After leaving China while waiting for his U.S. visa, Mr. Zheng cited an example from his research in Guangxi. He related that the first person to remove the meat from a school principal was the ex-girlfriend of the man’s son, in her eagerness to demonstrate that she had no sympathy for him and was as “red” as anyone else.
The incidents reported from Guangxi were the most extensive episodes of cannibalism in the world over the last century or more. They also differed from the others because those involved were not motivated by hunger or psychopathic illness.
When did it end and what effect did it have on China?
The Cultural Revolution officially ended when Mao died on Sept. 9, 1976, at the age of 82.
In an attempt to move on and avoid discrediting Mao too much, party leaders ordered that the chairman’s widow, Jiang Qing, and a group of accomplices be put on public trial as the masterminds of the chaos. They were known as the “Gang of Four.”
Jiang contested the charges on the grounds she had merely been “Chairman Mao’s dog,” but was nevertheless sentenced to death in 1981, which was reduced to life imprisonment. Finally, in 1991, she hung herself on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution.
Mao and his followers hoped that his revolutionary movement would make China an example of communism and convince its citizens of its goodness. However, the actual effect does not seem to have been as expected. Many claim that the Cultural Revolution paved the way for China’s adoption of a more capitalist-like system since the 1980s, although it never lost its dictatorial and repressive essence.
Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals wrote in their book on the period, Mao’s Last Revolution, “The Cultural Revolution was so great a disaster that it provoked an even more profound cultural revolution, precisely the one that Mao intended to forestall.”
Although it should be noted that there is one central point on which the Cultural Revolution did succeed for communist purposes, which is the almost total destruction of the incredible artistic and cultural legacy of Chinese ancestors over the preceding 5,000 years.
Traditional art and culture survived fads, trends, wars, and invasions, being passed down for generations dynasty after dynasty. But in an infamous decade, communism succeeded in its almost total destruction, forcibly imposing communist ideas, art, and culture over any expression linked to the traditional, religious, spiritual, or divine.
Chinese regime presents a distorted account of the Cultural Revolution
As has been the case throughout the history of communism, the Chinese regime took it upon itself to distort history through the official narrative to soften the facts about the catastrophic years of China’s Cultural Revolution.
The CCP has downplayed the violent events, deaths, and lawlessness of the regime during those years while justifying the obvious excesses of its top officials, such as Mao.
The new young people are indoctrinated with information that assures that Mao considered that the CCP and the country faced the danger of capitalist restoration. For that reason, he emphasized, “taking the class struggle as the key” and trying to prevent it by launching the Cultural Revolution.
At the same time, some trials were held, labeled by many as organized farces, to identify some culprits for particular outrages, accusing them of disobeying the general guidelines and thus freeing the CCP from any responsibility.