The failure of China’s Great Leap Forward strengthened the hands of moderates in the ruling Communist Party who favored a more centrally planned style of development. Seeing his position within the party threatened, Mao Zedong re-asserted his authority in 1966 by launching the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. An unrelenting barrage of propaganda presented this as nothing less than a move to reclaim the heart and soul of the nation, which Mao claimed had been contaminated by ‘revisionist’ elements and ‘bourgeois’ influences. History, however, enables us to see Mao’s initiative for what it truly was: a brazenly successful ploy to hold on to power which masqueraded as an exercise in revolutionary fervor.
Mao’s principal shock troops in this program of ideological cleansing were the Red Guards, radical young activists recruited from secondary schools and universities who were blindly obedient to the Chairman’s every whim. Unleashed on the long-suffering Chinese population, which was still recovering from the Great Famine, these youthful zealots rampaged around the country, brandishing Mao’s Little Red Book of doctrinal exhortations while railing against the ‘Four Olds’ of thoughts, culture, customs and habits. Anyone in a position of authority was deemed suspect and liable to harassment, torture or even arbitrary execution. The more educated you were, the greater the danger; members of the intellectual and urban elite were dispatched to the countryside and forced to work in the fields and on construction projects.
The behavior of Red Guard units soon led to chaos and civil unrest. After two years Mao had to call in the army to restore order, and thousands of Red Guards were sent to remote areas of the country to be re-educated’ among the peasantry.
Death toll: There is still considerable denial in official circles regarding this episode in China’s history so accurate figures for casualties in the Cultural Revolution are hard to come by. Deaths – from random violence, purges and factional fighting – were almost certainly in the millions, possibly as high as 20 million.
You should know: The Cultural Revolution lurched on, in a rather more restrained form, until 1976 when the death of Mao Zedong and the subsequent scapegoating of the Gang of Four (including Mao’s wife Jiang Qing), who were blamed for its mistakes, marked its eventual demise.