Frank Dikotter maps the prolonged paroxysm of that figure who tormented China and sought to perpetuate his political legacy by destroying what he had himself created.
A person born in China in the year the People’s Republic was declared in October 1949 has seen the best of times and the worst of times. If things look very good today, they were very, very bad yesterday. In the first 30 years of the PRC, the country saw prolonged political campaigns helmed by then Chairman Mao Zedong sometimes aimed at transforming China, at other times to preserve his own power which succeeded in uprooting the old society, killing tens of millions, destroying careers and families, and creating civil war conditions.
Frank Dikotter, chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong is one person who has meticulously chronicled this. This is the third book in an outstanding trilogy, the previous volumes being Mao’s Great Famine about the 1950s famine that took upward of 40 million lives, and The Tragedy of Liberation, which told the story of how the revolution’s roots lay as much in popular assent as the extreme violence with which it dealt its perceived opponents. In The Cultural Revolution, Dikotter maps the prolonged paroxysm of that monstrous figure who tormented China and sought to perpetuate his political legacy by destroying what he had himself created.
These outstanding books are a necessary read for anyone seeking to understand the People’s Republic and the people who lead it. Many of them, like President Xi Jinping, were victims of the Cultural Revolution and no one, but no one who lived through it, remained untouched by it.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) targeted the very party that had perpetrated the first two events – the revolution and the Great Famine. The people who had ruled the country with an iron hand suddenly became the victims of a brutal purge which put not only comrade against comrade, worker against worker, but often children against their parents. Formal education was suspended, all knowledge was distilled in the Little Red Book that was carried by Red Guards who rampaged across the land, destroying anything they thought smacked of bourgeois culture, burnt libraries and books. In actual practice, the man manipulating them, Mao Zedong, had but one aim, purging the party, political system and the military of his enemies.
The GPCR moved in various phases – from the point following the Great Famine and Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin, when Mao worried about his own political mortality, to the formal launch of the attack on the party and the army in 1966, thence to its control by largely military officers under Lin Biao in 1968, ending in his mysterious death in 1971, and finally the phase of slow recovery that culminated in the death of Mao in 1976.
Throughout, and virtually till his death, Mao was the master manipulator: cold, calculating, seemingly whimsical, always willing to betray his closest confidantes, but in the driver’s seat, even in the periods when the vehicle of the People’s Republic was careening out of control.
Simultaneously with the “Red Phase” that began with the May 16, 1966 circular declaring that the party and the army had been infiltrated by “representatives of the bourgeoise”, students began an attack on their administrators in Peking University through the use of “big character wall posters”. By the end of the month, the Cultural Revolution Group – Mao’s attack squad – had been established, comprising of Chen Boda, as the secretary of the group, and the quartet that became later known as the ‘Gang of Four’ – Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, public security chief Kang Sheng, Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao.
The principal targets of the campaign were former defence minister Marshal Peng Dehuai, President Liu Shaoqi and Communist Party of China (CPC) general secretary Deng Xiaoping. Liu and Deng sought to pre-empt the chairman by sending work-teams into educational institutions to take charge of the movement, but the Cultural Revolution Group unleashed the more radical elements against them, terming them “rightists”.
By July, following his swim in the Yangtse and the slogan “Bombard the Headquarters”, Mao’s hand became clearer and Liu and Deng’s star began to fade. In an August rally, Mao reviewed a million-man Red Guard rally and in ensuing months over ten million of them had passed through Beijing. As these Red Guards fanned out, the country descended to civil war conditions, with radical workers seizing power from the party in places like Shanghai. Clashes took place across the country between the radicals and party officials, with the military entering the fray.
By mid-1967, efforts by the old guard, especially old marshals like Chen Yi, Ye Jianying and Xu Xiangqian pushed Lin Biao to let the army restore order. By mid-1968, the Red Guards were slowly brought to heel by the army.
But the end of the “Red” phase brought on an even worse “Black” phase of the GPCR which was nothing but a bitter struggle of various factions to take control of the country and the CPC. In this second phase, where Lin Biao was designated the heir apparent of the chairman in 1969, a systematic purge of the party was carried out and the party organisation handed over to new “revolutionary committees”. Peng and Liu were imprisoned and tortured to death, whereas Deng was exiled to a distant province to work in a tractor factory. Along with them, tens of thousands suffered a similar fate or internal exile, torture and imprisonment.
Then came a new turn: the very students who had led the GPCR were targeted and sent off to the countryside to be re-educated. Beginning in 1968, millions of students, including the present president, Xi Jinping, were sent off to the countryside and had to live under conditions of great deprivation for years. The educational system had virtually collapsed by now, as had civil society and the government.
Now there were new twists and turns with campaigns targeting “counter-revolutionaries”, but essentially the continuing struggle to gain dominance. The end of the Red Guards did not end the upheaval. Lin Biao sought to take charge by conducting vicious purges across the country that led to a fresh round of persecution, torture and death. Simultaneously, the Sino-Soviet clashes of 1969 led to a war fever, with the chairman ordering the country to prepare for war. This was the phase of more economic experimentation, which proved as disastrous as the Great Leap.
By and large, in contrast to the revolution itself and the Great Famine, the GPCR tended to be an urban phenomenon, despite the millions of young people who were exiled to the villages as part of the process. However, as the chaos subsided in 1968, there were efforts at pushing more radical ideas of collectivisation under the rubric “Learn from Dazhai”, a Potemkin-village-like effort to show off the revolution’s success.
An ongoing internal struggle
What is fascinating about the process that unfolded in 1962 was that, unlike Stalin, who simply shot or imprisoned those who he thought were against him, the Chinese drama was more elaborate. It was fought out in party committees, campuses, as well as the street, with the People’s Liberation Army preventing the worst and Mao himself manipulating organisations and individuals to ensure that the country did not collapse. This is what led to the slow fall of Liu from 1962 till his death in 1969. Likewise, Deng was purged three times before he resurfaced to take charge of the party following Mao’s death. The one steady hand right through was that of Zhou Enlai, who retained Mao’s trust and was never purged despite the efforts of the Gang of Four. Indeed, it was he who protected Deng and a number of others of the old guard, to the extent he could, given Mao’s mendacity, but he cannot escape indictment for playing the role as Mao’s instrument and spokesman in the persecution of many others.
Into this equation came the new American outreach, a cynical ploy by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon to use the Chinese to undermine the Soviet Union. But that is another story.
What makes Dikotter’s work important is the evolution of the CPC. Many believed that eventually, the PRC would imbibe Western liberalism and evolve slowly but surely to a Western-style democracy. Those hopes were belied by the events at Tienanmen in 1989. Despite talk of the inevitability of democracy by former premier Wen Jiabao in 2010, the CPC under Xi Jinping has begun adopting a harder line. Indeed, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is taking on the character of the purges of the days of yore.
The CPC was both perpetrator and victim in the GPCR. For that reason, Deng Xiaoping absolved Mao by adopting Mao’s own formulation for Stalin – he was 70% right and 30% wrong – for the chairman as well. He also institutionalised the inner party democracy that has ensured an orderly transfer of power every decade.
It remains to be seen as to how long the CPC can continue this way. It has a major challenge in maintaining its legitimacy in the era when social media has created a de facto “opposition” in China and the nature of its economy compels the country to open up to the world. So far, however, it has been successful, quarantining the country from the liberating effects of the world wide web and using an iron hand to stamp out political dissent. However, as the anti-corruption campaign has revealed, unchecked power corrupts. Societies have learnt that the best way to manage power is to have a system of checks and balances. But that is difficult to create in a one-party state where the party is the executive, judiciary and the legislature.
What the party leadership has been trying to do for the past decade is to modify this system to meet the demands of a modern state. So they talk about a quasi-Confucian system “with Chinese characteristics” where the CPC channels the best and brightest into a meritocracy and hopes they will enable the party to maintain its pre-eminence. Whether it succeeds or not, only the future will tell, but the portents are not particularly good.
Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation.