MAJOR EVENTS PRECEDING THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION
A series of major events occurred before the Cultural Revolution, each the consequence of the one that preceded it. With each event, conflict accumulated until it reached a tipping point that created the even greater event of the Cultural Revolution.
THE ESTABLISHMENT AND SYSTEMIC CHARACTERISTICS OF THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA
After decades of war, Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at a three-hundred-thousand-strong rally at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on the afternoon of October 1, 1949. Instead of becoming a modern nation-state, however, the PRC combined Soviet dictatorship with traditional Chinese despotism and developed the following characteristics during its first seventeen years.
MAXIMIZING CENTRALIZED POLITICAL POWER
The highly centralized pyramidal power structure planted in the cultural soil of traditional Chinese despotism imposed tighter, finer, deeper, and broader suppression on China’s society and people than any emperor in history.
As the world’s largest cabal, the CCP ensured that the individual submitted to the organization, each level to the level above it, and the entire party to the Central Committee. All party members had to share the same faith in Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought and had to worship the same leader: Mao. As the sole ruling party, the CCP imposed this fealty on the general populace as well by penetrating every factory, workshop, and agricultural production team, and every government organ, school, and residents’ committee. Although this regime had a constitution, it was basically meaningless.
When the CCP found it impossible to resolve internal differences through consultation, discussion, and the submission of the minority to the majority, with Mao the final arbitor, it would resort to “line struggle” until one group prevailed as upholder of the “correct line,” and the defeated group was declared to hold an “erroneous line” and stepped down.
The CCP maintained power through the military and commanded the military through its Central Military Commission (CMC). Watertight discipline inspection methods controlled the thoughts and actions of every military officer.1
As CMC chairman, Mao commanded the gun that commanded the party, and as chairman of the CCP Central Committee, he controlled the entire populace through the bureaucratic system.
MONOPOLIZING THOUGHT AND TRUTH
Newspapers, broadcasting, and news services were all mouthpieces of the CCP Central Committee. Ordinary people were not allowed to learn of events outside China, or any negative news from inside China. Party officials ensured that social science research explained and expounded on official viewpoints and defended official error. Books that diverged from the CCP Central Committee’s views were removed from library shelves, and culture and art became the “cogs and screws” of the great revolutionary apparatus, deifying and extolling the Great Leader and creating a simulacrum of peace and prosperity. Repeated political campaigns forced China’s greatest minds to relinquish their freedom of thought and independent characters.
Mao was China’s sole thinker, and Mao Zedong Thought was the guiding ideology of all China’s people. Conditioned to blindly follow directives without understanding the rationale behind them, China’s people became politically ignorant.
STATE MONOPOLY OF ECONOMIC RESOURCES AND STRICT CONTROL OF ECONOMIC LIFE
Planned economy was considered a fundamental characteristic of socialism, but it worked only if executive power effectively controlled the economy.2 Under agricultural collectivization, everything produced by the peasants was purchased and marketed by the state, which managed industry and commerce and controlled all material goods. People relied on state allocation of everything they needed to sustain their lives.
Controlled economy was the economic base of totalitarianism and fertile soil for bureaucratic privilege. Under a highly centralized political and economic system, survival depended on bureaucrats who could arbitrarily allocate state assets and ration the necessities of daily life. A strict household-registration system ensured that the vast majority of China’s peasants never ventured far from where they were born. Employees of government organs and state-run enterprises had their housing and all their daily necessities allocated by their work units. Secret dossiers decided the fate of every cadre and worker.
The ruler and the ruled, the oppressors and the oppressed, the deprivers and those who were deprived were locked into an intensely conflictual crosshatch of bureaucratic power. And public resentment, when no longer suppressed, became a powerful force against the bureaucratic clique.
CONFLICT BETWEEN OFFICIALS AND CITIZENS IN A SOCIETY OF PRIVILEGE
Bureaucratic politics is a politics of privilege. By 1956, the wages of the highest-ranking party and government personnel were set at 36.4 times those of the lowest rank.3 (By way of comparison, the highest wage in the “corrupt” Nationalist government in 1946 was 14.5 times that of the lowest wage.)4 Officials enjoyed special housing privileges based on rank, as well as household staff, cars, office furnishings, health care, food provisions, and even exclusive summer resorts.5 Resentment simmered over these material reflections of privilege and caused considerable dissatisfaction in the lower ranks.
At a luxurious Beijing club called Yangfengjiadao, which opened in October 1958, senior central officials enjoyed the attentions of beautiful female performers from the army song-and-dance troupes and waiters, chefs, barbers, and pedicurists brought in from Beijing’s top hotels, as well as the protection of personnel from the Ministry of Public Security and the choicest food, even in the middle of the Great Famine. Many provinces, major cities, and even medium-size cities built “imperial tour homes” for Mao (and sometimes also for members of the Politburo Standing Committee) during the Great Famine, and guards ensured that ordinary people kept their distance. In early 1960, when the number of starvation deaths hit its peak, the CCP Central Committee’s North China Bureau “studied Chairman Mao’s works” at a guesthouse in the famous scenic area of Jinci, where cadres enjoyed chicken, duck, fish, pork, and exotic delicacies at every meal, and went to Taiyuan City to watch plays every evening. Once the Cultural Revolution began, a young provincial cadre named Li Fu, who had attended this “study session,” exposed this privileged lifestyle in a big-character poster and became a member of the rebel faction.6
Existing on different planes, with different perspectives, and enjoying different access to information likewise engendered mutual misunderstandings and suspicion between officials and ordinary citizens. Recognizing their vulnerability to the roiling populace beneath them, officials suppressed any hint of resistance, intensifying the alienation and opposition.
Striking down all “class enemies” through political campaigns deprived the regime of any checks and balances, and the problem of bureaucratism became even greater and more intractable. Mao then came up with the idea of using a mass movement to remold the bureaucratic system.
THE PROFOUND CRISIS BREWING IN THE YEARS BEFORE THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION
Under the totalitarian system, it was difficult to peacefully resolve problems of succession and distribution of power, so the system was preserved through suppression of the people and struggle within the bureaucratic clique. The Land Reform movement killed countless landlords,7 and the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries killed at least 710,000 blameless people.8 Unlike the Soviet Union, China carried out its suppression through mass movements, and “dictatorship of the masses” took shape in the political campaigns before the Cultural Revolution.
Serving as previews to the Cultural Revolution, the 1957 Rectification campaign appealed to the masses to “roast” bureaucrats, while the subsequent Anti-Rightist Campaign suppressed the “rebels” lured out by the rectification and turned more than half a million intellectuals into a political underclass. The Four Cleanups campaign, supposedly targeting capitalist roaders within the party, mainly purged grassroots cadres in the countryside and had no effect on the privileged strata. Every campaign gave bureaucrats an opportunity to attack dissidents, and ultimately resulted only in greater bureaucratic privilege and intensified conflict between officials and ordinary people and within the bureaucracy.
The paramount leader’s unchecked power made policy errors inevitable and almost impossible to correct. Repeated policy errors intensified social conflict as well as diverging views and conflicts within the leadership clique.
Succession of paramount power has always been the hardest problem to solve in an autocratic system, and the CCP’s succession crisis became increasingly apparent in Mao’s growing displeasure with his chosen successor, Liu Shaoqi. At a meeting with Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh in Hangzhou on June 10, 1966, Mao said, “One of these days Marx is going to call us over. Who knows if our successor might be a Bernstein, a Kautsky, or a Khrushchev?9 We have to prepare while there’s still time. In short, there are two sides to everything. It’s not enough that everyone is yelling ‘Long Live!’ right now.”10 By saying this, Mao was effectively undermining Liu Shaoqi’s status as his successor.
ESTABLISHING MAO’S ABSOLUTE POWER
Although the Cultural Revolution was rooted in the system of those seventeen years, it could not have been launched without Mao’s absolute power. The deification of Mao that began in Yan’an continued after the CCP took power through the efforts of central leaders such as Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, and Zhou Enlai, aided by social scientists, the cultural community, and educators. The deification and personality cult of Mao reached new heights at the Chengdu Conference in March 1958. Mao observed on March 10:
There are two kinds of personality cult. One involves appropriate worship of the proper things of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin; these we must worship, forever worship, and never fail to worship … The other kind is inappropriate worship, a blind worship without analysis … There are two objectives in opposing personality cult: One is opposing improper worship, and the other is opposing the worship of anyone but oneself.11
Others responded enthusiastically with pledges of loyalty. In a speech on March 18, Liu Shaoqi proclaimed:
The Chairman is much wiser than any of us; whether in terms of ideology, standpoint, work style, or methods, we all lag far behind. Our task is to sincerely emulate him, and we should not consider ourselves incapable of doing so. Of course, there are some areas in which we’ll find it hard to keep up with the Chairman, such as his rich knowledge of history and theory and his rich experience of revolution, as well as his powerful memory—all of this is beyond our learning.12
In January 1962, at the Seven Thousand Cadres Conference, with Mao’s prestige considerably undermined by the Great Famine, Lin Biao and Zhou Enlai put even greater emphasis on Mao’s personality cult. Lin Biao, who later masterminded the publication of Quotations of Chairman Mao, particularly distinguished himself with a fulsome sycophancy that was instrumental in creating Mao’s personality cult:
Mao Zedong Thought is a beacon for humanity and the most lethal weapon of world revolution; it is the universal truth that applies to the whole world … Whoever opposes Chairman Mao and opposes Mao Zedong Thought will be punished by the entire party, and loathed by the entire country.13
On the eve of the Cultural Revolution, Mao possessed absolute power that gave his words precedence over law, policy, and morality. Even those who subsequently killed themselves during the Cultural Revolution often left behind suicide notes declaring their loyalty to Mao.
Mao’s works were the Chinese people’s bible, and the party called for everyone to read them every day. In 1967 alone, more than 91 million copies of Selected Works of Mao Zedong were published, as well as 369 million copies of Quotations of Chairman Mao. More than two billion Mao badges were produced by March 1969—an average of three for every Chinese citizen.14
Everything Mao said was considered the “highest directive” and was immediately transmitted to the accompaniment of gongs and drums for implementation to the letter. A single mistake in copying down a “highest directive” invited attack as a “current counterrevolutionary.” Mao’s brain replaced hundreds of millions of brains as people shouted, “Long live Chairman Mao!” at every meeting, and employees of every work unit stood before Mao’s portrait to “request instructions” every morning and “report back” every evening.
This deification of the supreme ruler to ensure the public’s absolute submission and the unobstructed execution of his decrees was fully in place just before the Cultural Revolution began.
THE GREAT FAMINE AND ITS MORE THAN THIRTY MILLION VICTIMS
From 1958 to 1962, China experienced a famine that resulted in some thirty-six million deaths.15 The direct cause of the Great Famine was the Three Red Banners, but its fundamental cause was the totalitarian system.
The Three Red Banners were the General Line of Socialist Construction, the Great Leap Forward, and the people’s communes. The General Line and Great Leap Forward were meant to spur rapid economic development but exhausted the nation through unrealistic economic targets. The people’s communes took agricultural collectivism to an extreme, and when the economic policies failed, the people’s communes collapsed and the peasants could do nothing to save themselves.
The policy errors that created the Great Famine continued for years without correction because China had no freedom of the press and no opposition party. Liu Shaoqi was in complete accord with Mao regarding the Three Red Banners in 1958, but Liu was quicker than Mao to perceive the truth and to try to turn policies around, and his faltering commitment to the Three Red Banners greatly displeased Mao. Attempts to trace responsibility for the starvation deaths intensified political infighting at the highest levels of government; and during the Cultural Revolution, Peng Zhen, Yang Shangkun, and Deng Xiaoping were accused of organizing the inspection of official documents to “look for errors and shortcomings of the Center and Mao Zedong.”16
The Great Famine was at issue in the launch of the Cultural Revolution in the cultural community.17 Mao claimed that in Yao Wenyuan’s “Critique of the New Historical Play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office,” “the critical point was the dismissal of an official,” specifically Peng Dehuai, who had been denounced at the Lushan Conference in an attempt to cover up responsibility for the Great Famine. The Great Famine was also the detonator of the Cultural Revolution in some localities. For example, a big-character poster put up at Zhengzhou University in summer 1996 described the widespread starvation deaths in Xinyang, and referred to Henan’s provincial party secretary Wu Zhipu as the “butcher of the people of Henan.”18 The famous economist Yang Xiaokai said, “The complete failure of Mao’s economic line in 1958 was the direct historical reason for the eruption of the Cultural Revolution.”19
The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s renewed attempt to create a utopia following the failure of the Three Red Banners that caused the Great Famine.
THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST RIGHT-DEVIATION
After Defense Minister Peng Dehuai submitted a written criticism of the Three Red Banners at the Lushan Conference on July 14, 1959, Mao castigated Peng and others as an “anti-party clique.” This was followed by a nationwide campaign against right-deviation during which millions of cadres and party members were denounced.20 In May 1962, Deng Xiaoping estimated “ten million denounced, and tens of millions of others affected.”21
At this point, the series of campaigns had sealed everyone’s mouth but Mao’s, and whatever he said was the highest directive. This not only increased the chance of Mao making mistakes but also contributed to hidden conflict within the party.
Copyright © 2016 by Yang Jisheng
Translation copyright © 2021 by Yang Jisheng
Map copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey L. Ward