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10-08-2015, 22:44

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

But Mao was not yet ready to abandon either his power or his dream of an egalitarian society. In 1966, he returned to the attack, mobilizing discontented youth and disgruntled party members into revolutionary units known as Red Guards who were urged to take to the streets to cleanse Chinese society—from local schools and factories to government ministries in Beijing—of impure elements who in Mao’s mind were guilty of “taking the capitalist road.” Supported by his wife, Jiang Qing, and other radical party figures, Mao launched China on a new forced march toward communism. The so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution lasted for ten years, from 1966 to 1976. Some Western observers interpreted it as a simple power struggle between Mao and some of his key rivals such as head of state Liu Shaoqi (1898–1969) and Deng Xiaoping (1904 –1997), the party’s general secretary. Both were removed from their positions, and Liu later died, allegedly of torture, in a Chinese prison. But real policy disagreements were involved. One reason Mao had advocated the Great Leap Forward was to bypass the party and government bureaucracy, which in his view had lost their revolutionary zeal and were primarily concerned with protecting their power. Now he and his supporters feared that capitalist values and the remnants of “feudalist” Confucian ideas and practices would undermine ideological fervor and betray the revolutionary cause. Mao himself was convinced that only an atmosphere of constant revolutionary fervor (what he termed “uninterrupted revolution”) could enable the Chinese to overcome the lethargy of the past and achieve the final stage of utopian communism. “I care not,” he once wrote, “that the winds blow and the waves beat. It is better than standing idly in a courtyard.” His opponents, on the other hand, worried that Mao’s “heaven-storming” approach could delay economic growth and antagonize the people. They argued for a more pragmatic strategy that gave priority to nation building over the ultimate Communist goal of spiritual transformation. But with Mao’s supporters now in power, the party carried out vast economic and educational reforms that virtually eliminated any remaining profit incentives, established a new school system that emphasized “Mao Zedong Thought,” and stressed practical education at the elementary level at the expense of specialized training in science and the humanities in the universities. School learning was discouraged as a legacy of capitalism, and Mao’s famous Little Red Book (a slim volume of Maoist aphorisms to encourage good behavior and revolutionary zeal) was hailed as the most important source of knowledge in all areas. Such efforts to destroy all vestiges of traditional society were reminiscent of the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France, when the Jacobins sought to destroy organized religion and even replaced the traditional Christian chronological system with a new revolutionary calendar. Red Guards rampaged through the country attempting to eradicate the “four olds” (old thought, old culture, old customs, and old habits). They destroyed temples and religious sculptures; they tore down street signs and replaced them with new ones carrying revolutionary names. At one point, the city of Shanghai even ordered that the significance of colors in stoplights be changed, so that red (the revolutionary color) would indicate that traffic could move. But a mood of revolutionary enthusiasm is difficult to sustain. Key groups, including party bureaucrats, urban professionals, and many military officers, did not share Mao’s belief in the benefits of “uninterrupted revolution” and constant turmoil. Many were alienated by the arbitrary actions of the Red Guards, who indiscriminately accused and brutalized their victims in a society where legal safeguards had almost entirely vanished. Whether the Cultural Revolution led to declining productivity is a matter of debate. Inevitably, however, the sense of anarchy and uncertainty caused popular support for the movement to erode, and when the end came with Mao’s death in 1976, the vast majority of the population may well have welcomed its demise. Personal accounts by young Chinese who took part in the Cultural Revolution clearly show that their initial enthusiasm often turned to disillusionment. According to Liang Heng, author of a book titled Son of the Revolution, at first he helped friends organize Red Guard groups: “I thought it was a great idea. We would be following Chairman Mao just like the grownups, and Father would be proud of me. I suppose I too resented the teachers who had controlled and criticized me for so long, and I looked forward to a little revenge.” 4 Later, he had reason to repent. His sister ran off to join the local Red Guard group. Prior to her departure, she denounced her mother and the rest of her family as “rightists” and enemies of the revolution. Their home was regularly raided by Red Guards, and their father was severely beaten and tortured for having three neckties and “Western shirts.” Books, paintings, and writings were piled in the center of the floor and burned before his eyes. On leaving, a few of the Red Guards helped themselves to his monthly salary and his transistor radio.