However, in spite of his loss of political power, Mao still had enormous prestige among the people, especially among the rank and file of the Party and the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army. The people to a considerable extent were unaware of the conflict at the highest levels of the Party, and the Party leaders could not openly confront Mao without provoking political division and conflict. As Meisner observes, “Mao had lost control of the Party, but he was hardly powerless” (Meisner, 1999:255).
Mao emerged from political seclusion in January 1962, when he delivered a speech to 7,000 provincial and district Party leaders. The speech harshly criticized the bureaucratic tendencies of the Party in the post-Great Leap years. Mao repeated these views at the Central Committee’s Tenth Plenum in September 1962. He called for a massive ideological education campaign for Party members and the people. The Party, deferring to the considerable prestige of Mao among party members and the people, approved his proposal for a Socialist Education Movement. However, the Movement did not accomplish its goal of raising the revolutionary consciousness of Party members and the people, for it encountered the subversion of high Party officials and the apathy of the people (Meisner, 1999:256-58, 273-79).
Mao’s proposal stood against the prevailing mood of both the Party and the people. Party leaders and high state functionaries, behind a façade of radical Maoist rhetoric, “were preoccupied with social order, administrative efficiency, technological progress and economic development” (Meisner, 1999:268). Accordingly, Party members and state functionaries “increasingly ignored the Maoist political ethic in favor of a bureaucratic vocational ethic” (Meisner, 1999:268). At the same time, the urban masses possessed a modest consumerism, oriented to the acquisition of such items as watches, bicycles, radios, and sewing machines. In the countryside, there was a revival of traditional customs, including religious festivals, money marriages, and gambling (Meisner, 1999:268-69, 301).
In spite of the limited accomplishment of the Socialist Education Program, Mao continued to call the people to action against the Party leadership. In January 1965, Mao convened a national work conference that emitted a document known as the “Twenty-three Articles,” which called on the people to focus on “people in positions of authority within the Party who take the capitalist road” (quoted in Meisner, 1999, 277). “We must boldly unleash the masses,” he declared (quoted in Meisner, 1999, 277). “It was,” writes Meisner, “in effect, a declaration of war against the Party bureaucracy and its top leaders” (1999, 277).
Whereas most Party leaders believed that the Party educates and leads the people, Mao believed in the revolutionary spontaneity of the people, such that the Party was both student and teacher of the people. Viewing the political apathy of the people in the period 1960-1965 as a temporary phenomenon that resulted from disappointments and setbacks of the Great Leap Forward (see “The emergence of Maoism” 1/18/2018), Mao sought to rekindle the revolutionary spontaneity of the people by appealing directly to them, bypassing and standing against the Party (Meisner, 1999:172, 276-77, 279-80, & 282).
Mao’s 1965 call to the people launched what Maoists called the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” which was conceived as a war against those high members of the Party and the state who possessed bourgeois consciousness. As proclaimed by the Central Committee of the Party on August 8, 1966, at a meeting in which many non-Maoist leaders were excluded (Meisner, 1999:319), “Our objective is to struggle against and overthrow those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road. . . The main target of the present movement is those within the Party who are in authority and are taking the capitalist road” (Asia Research Center, Ed. 1968, 395, 399). Meisner writes that “the underlying Maoist assumption in the Cultural Revolution was that the existing state and Party apparatus was dominated by ‘bourgeois ideology’ and thus was producing capitalist-type socioeconomic relationships in society at large” (1999:315). Symptoms of the phenomenon during the Liu government included increasing inequality in income and status between, on the one hand, managers, technicians, professional, intellectuals, and privileged urban industrial workers, and on the other hand, peasants and temporary contract workers (Meisner, 1999:300).
As interpreted by the Maoists, the problem was an enemy within, and even worse, at the highest levels. Poisonous weeds were destroying the socialist state and Party, and thus the socialist society. The solution was the mobilization of the people and the raising of political consciousness, restoring socialist ideals and proletarian ideology, so that the people could identify the poisonous weeds and uproot them. By uprooting the poisonous weeds, the socialist party, state, and society could be purified and renewed (Meisner, 1999:307-8, 315; Asia Research Center, Ed. 1968, 89-204).
Students were the first to respond to the call to organize and mobilize and to expose and discredit the “capitalist roaders” within the Party. The Maoist inspired rebellion began on May 25, 1966 at Beijing University, when students led by a young philosophy professor posted a manifesto on campus walls denouncing the university president. Mao proclaimed his support for the action, and soon “rebel student groups were organized with extraordinary rapidity and in bewildering variety at schools throughout the country” (Meisner, 1999:316).
The student rebellion quickly divided into two factions, both of which shouted Maoist slogans and proclaimed fidelity to Mao. On the one side, there were the most radical Maoist critiques of bureaucratic privilege formulated by youth whose families were from the pre-revolutionary ruling and privileged classes. They resented the favored position with respect to political office and educational and employment opportunities of others of their generation whose families were from the peasant and working classes. On the other side, there were rebel student groups organized by the majority faction of the Central Committee of the Party, which had sent organizing teams to the universities. The Party-supported student rebel groups, many of them the children of persons in high positions in the Party and the state, sought to deflect the rebellion away from the “power holders” and to target instead “bourgeois authorities,” that is, individual professors, intellectuals, and writers. And the Party-supported groups attempted to redirect the attack toward students with “bad” class backgrounds, that is, whose families were from the landlord and capitalist classes or from the well-to-do sector of the peasantry. Students from working class and peasant families whose parents had not attained a high position in the revolutionary order tended support equally the two factions (Meisner, 1999:315-18).
The struggle, sometimes physical, between the two factions of the student rebellion continued through June and July of 1966, with the Party-sponsored groups having the upper hand. In late July, Mao, over the objections of Liu Shaoqi, ordered the withdrawal of the Party organizing teams from the universities and schools. With less dictates from the Party, the students organized “Red Guards,” which did not leave behind, however, the political-social divisions among the students. The Red Guards spread rapidly. “In early August of 1966, young students wearing armbands bearing the characters for ‘Red Guard’ appeared on the streets of Beijing. Within a few weeks, and with the encouragement of Maoist leaders in the capital, Red Guard groups were organized in virtually every university and middle school in the land” (318). On August 18, a million youth arrive at Tiananmen Square, where they were received by Mao, who thus became the “Supreme Commander” of the Red Guards (Meisner, 1999:318). From that date until November 26, twelve million Red Guards traveled to Beijing to be welcomed by Mao in eight mass rallies (Meisner, 1999:323).
In the subsequent months of 1966, Red Guards unleashed a violent, indiscriminate, chaotic, and anarchistic crusade in many cities. Meisner describes the phenomenon:
Millions of Red Guards, carrying portraits of Mao . . . and waving copies of the Chairman’s “little red book” . . . , marched through the streets of the cities and traveled over the country and through the countryside in a campaign against all symbols of the feudal past and the bourgeois influences of the present. Museums and homes were ransacked, and old books and works of art were destroyed. Everything from ancient Confucian texts to modern recordings of Beethoven were sought out and thrown into dustbins. . . . Hapless citizens wearing Western-style clothes or Hong Kong-style haircuts were attacked and humiliated, as were those possessing old Buddhist and Daoist relics. The Cultural Revolution soon began to destroy people as well as culture. As the Red Guard assault moved from uprooting the “four olds” [old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes] to attacking “power-holders,” Party officials and administrative cadres were “arrested” and paraded through the streets in duncecaps, forced to confess their “crimes” at public rallies, and often physically as well as psychologically abused at struggle sessions. Not a few were beaten to death or driven to suicide. The brunt of the attack was borne by intellectuals, who were the most vulnerable and the most defenseless (Meisner, 1999:321-22).
The Red Guards had been useful to the Maoists, for they facilitated a purge of the pragmatists from the Party. But Maoist leaders in Beijing had not anticipated the disorder and division that resulted from the Red Guard movement, which as it unfolded constituted a threat to the established socialist order. Accordingly, taking into account “the almost total lack of discipline, the violent factionalism, the vandalism and sometimes outright hooliganism” of the Red Guards, Maoist leaders at the end of 1966 concluded that “the Red Guards had become a political liability.” They therefore took steps in 1967 to constrain the Red Guards (Meisner, 1999:323-24).
Coinciding with the wave of attacks and violence of the Red Guards, revolutionary organizations of urban industrial workers also emerged, inspired by the call for a Cultural Revolution. Workers had unequal employment conditions, in that contract and temporary workers lacked the social welfare benefits and job security possessed by permanent state employees. As events unfolded, factional differences among workers emerged, with the contract and temporary workers being more radical in their demands. In Shanghai, a coalition of revolutionary workers’ organizations seized power and removed public officials in January 1967, proclaiming the Shanghai People’s Commune on February 5. However, by this time, with many key pragmatists already removed from the Party, Mao and the Maoists in Beijing had become more concerned with the restoration of order. They therefore proposed the transformation of the newly proclaimed Shanghai Commune into a revolutionary committee, in which the mass organizations, the Party, and the Army would be represented. Such a tripartite structure was beneficial to the Beijing Maoists, inasmuch as it gave control to the provincial parties and the People’s Liberation Army, both of which were solidly in the Maoist camp and, in addition, were disciplined followers of the Chairman. In contrast, the newly constituted mass organizations were uncontrollable, inasmuch as they were factionalized between conservative mass organizations and those led by local radical Maoists. Mao’s proposal for a revolutionary committee on the basis of a “triple alliance” was implemented not only in Shanghai, but also in the resolution of popular power seizures in January in two other cities in the provinces of Shaanxi and Manchuria (Meisner, 1999:324-32).
In accordance with Mao’s concern for order, on January 23, 1967, Lin Biao, Minister of Defense and protégé of Mao, instructed the Army to enter into local political conflicts in support of the revolutionary Left, but with an orientation to the maintenance of order. As the Army entered factories and communes, it found itself unable to distinguish among the bewildering multitude of groups claiming to be the true followers of Mao. As a result, the Army generally intervened on the side of the organizations that appeared most capable of restoring order and maintaining production. In this way, the Army began to play an increasingly important role in the political conflicts of the nation, displacing the Party and the state (Meisner, 1999:333-35).
The restoration of order proceeded apace in the first three months of 1967, as “Mao moved to eliminate the anarchistic tendencies he had unleashed the year before,” seeking to constrain local radical Maoists (Meisner, 1999:335). The Army forcibly disbanded radical student and worker organizations, killing and arresting thousands. Harsh measures were decreed for assaults on Party members and state officials. A de facto alliance emerged involving the Army, the Party, and the more conservative mass organizations, with the intention of reestablishing the functioning of the state apparatus (Meisner, 1999:334-35).
But the conflict between the Party and the local radical Maoist organizations continued. Reacting to the repression of the radical mass organizations by the Army, a wave of popular violence broke out in May. Leftist organizations attacked the ministries of the state, and Red Guard organizations conducted raids on the offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Meanwhile, armed conflict between contending mass organizations emerged in factories, schools, and streets (Meisner, 1999:336).
In late August, with China sinking into anarchy and a possible civil war emerging, Mao concluded that the Cultural Revolution must be brought to an end. On September 5, 1967, conjointly with the highest officials in the Party, the state, and the Army, Mao issued a directive instructing the Army to restore order and prohibiting the people to interfere with the Army or to attack the Army or the government. To ensure compliance, public executions were carried out against instigators of violence. In July 1968, Mao summoned student leaders and informed them that the Red Guards should dissolve themselves. Subsequently, many students were sent to the countryside for reeducation, as were some Party members and state officials who had been most resistant to the Cultural Revolution from the beginning, to balance the political ledger (Meisner, 1999:339-42, 345).
An estimated 400,000 people were killed during the Cultural Revolution, with most of it on the hands of the Army during the 1968 repression of Red Guard and radical workers’ organizations. In addition, there were enormous psychological scars. Meisner writes:
Millions of Chinese limped away from the battles and repression of the Cultural Revolution physically and psychologically scarred. Many were tortured and beaten in endless “struggle sessions” . . . . Children were persecuted for the alleged political sins (or social origins) of their parents, and parents were denounced by their children. Millions were arbitrarily arrested and sent to prisons and labor camps. . . . Lives were broken and careers destroyed (Meisner, 1999:354).
After September 5, 1967, the fundamental tasks were the reestablishment of the authority of the state and its ministries, under the direction of the Chairman of the People’s Republic, Zhou Enlai; and the rebuilding of the Party. After that date, Mao and Zhou cooperated in the efforts to rebuild the Party and the state as the institutions necessary to guide the country back to stability and order. By 1970, ninety-five percent of Party members who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution were restored to their positions. On the other hand, the purge of “ultra-Leftists” continued during the following years, inasmuch as they were blamed for the chaos of the summer of 1967 (Meisner, 1999:340, 343, 367, 371, 379-86).
During the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s key political opponents, Liu and Deng, had been removed from power, so that Mao regained political power. As a result, social policies during the period 1967 to 1976 had Mao’s political stamp, with an orientation to the reduction of inequality. In the countryside, there were greater restrictions on production by private family plots and on the free trade of peasant agricultural products in local markets. In addition, there was a program for rural industrial development oriented to agricultural production, renewing one of the programs of the Great Leap Forward. There emerged in the countryside small enterprises for the production of farm machinery, tools, and chemical fertilizers as well as food processing industries. By 1976, local rural industries were producing half of China’s chemical fertilizers and a significant portion of farm machinery. Moreover, small rural factories were producing cement, pig iron, construction materials, electricity, pharmaceuticals, and various consumer goods. More than 20 million peasants were converted into full-time or part-time industrial workers, greatly reducing the problem of rural unemployment (Meisner, 1999:346, 348, 352, 353, & 358-59).
Moreover, the period of 1967 to 1976 was characterized by the expansion of rural medical care. In the early 1960s, in the aftermath of the Great Leap disaster, 70% of China’s rural health clinics were closed. But after 1967, medical clinics and medical teaching institutions were established in rural areas, with a reduced program of study focusing on preventive medicine. In addition, the educational system was restructured, creating more opportunities for rural youth and the urban poor. There was a dramatic expansion in rural school enrollment, with a policy of local community control. Tuition fees and entrance examinations were abolished, and the part-time and work-study programs of the Great Leap were revived. In the universities, admission was based not only on entrance examinations and on academic qualifications, but also on social and political factors, such that preference was given to poorer peasants, workers, soldiers, and lower level Party members (Meisner, 1999:359-63).
Mao Zedong died in 1976, at the age of 82, following a long illness. With the post-1978 emergence of Deng Xiaoping to a position of de facto head of the Party and the state, the Party turned to an evaluation of the legacy of Mao. In a resolution prepared with the participation of four thousand party leaders and theoreticians during a period of fifteen months and emitted by the Party on June 27, 1981, Mao’s leadership of the revolutionary struggle and in the socialist transformation of the first seven years of the People’s Republic were recognized and appreciated. At the same time, the resolution maintained that that from 1957 to 1976, Mao made ultra-Leftist, utopian, and unscientific political errors, which were responsible for the economic disasters of the Great Leap and the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution. It affirmed that Mao’s contributions far outweighed his political errors, taking into account the fact that his leadership of the revolution had liberated the Chinese nation from foreign imperialism and had established the foundation for economic modernization (Meisner, 1999:291-92, 439-46).
Asia Research Center, Ed. 1968. The Great Cultural Revolution in China. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co.
Meisner, Maurice. 1999. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, Third Edition. New York: The Free Press.