The Cultural Revolution took place in China in the period between 1966 and 1976. This was the time when Mao Zedong was the chairman of the Communist Party of China. Mao was responsible for the ‘Great Leap Forward’ which intended to transform China into a socialist and industrialized state from an agrarian country but its failure led to a food crisis and economic breakdown. This took away the stronghold of Mao on the party as officials began to lean towards capitalism.
As a counter attack, Mao launched “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. It aimed at removing the influence of capitalism and feudalism. The young population of the country was urged by Mao to form corps and carry out his vision. These corps called the Red Guards were sponsored by Mao and mainly consisted of students from schools and universities along with soldiers and workers. Mao believed that violence is the true sign of a true revolutionary.
The Red Guards were supposed to revive old values, customs, rituals, and ideas to strengthen the “Communist” identity. Everything that was cultural and traditional was to be replaced by Maoism. Buddhist temples, mosques and churches were destroyed along with their sacred texts as well. The Red Guards along with Mao also persecuted party officials who leaned towards bourgeois tendencies. The Guards publicly humiliated and tortured people who were accused of leaning towards capitalistic ideologies. The accused were mainly from highly educated and intellectual classes and included individuals such as teaching professionals and monks. These people were tortured, killed or sent to re-education camps. During the decade of the Cultural Revolution, estimates of 500,000 to eight million killings are reported. Millions of other lives were also disrupted.
Schools were shut down for a year and universities for about a decade. Media and public transport was taken over by the Red Guards. Voices of dissent were suppressed by threat and violence. Around 16 million educated people were sent down to work on the farms at the countryside. The youth was radicalized and the situation spun out of control. Foreign embassy diplomats were often attacked. International journalists were taken captive and tortured in jails. An official handbook of the Cultural Revolution was circulated. It was called the little Red handbook. It is said to be the most printed book on earth. It was a compilation of Mao’s quotes that provided the design for living the life of a Red Guard.
By 1967, several cities in China were in a situation of anarchy. In 1969, Lin Biao was appointed the successor of Mao Zedong. He tightened his grip on Chinese society through military force. Lin took advantage of tensions with the Soviet Union to implement martial law. He consolidated his hold over the party by getting rid of all potential rivals. Mao opposed this and this led to the downfall of Lin Biao. Mao’s health deteriorated in 1973 and what followed was political turmoil for succession that continued till 1976 when Mao died. This marked the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Cultural Revolution and Today’s Politics of China
There is no doubt that the Cultural Revolution changed China forever. Mao was succeeded by Deng Xiaoping as the chairman of the Communist Party of China. He affiliated himself with the ideals of Mao but the other top leaders wanted to move away from that identity. Deng was succeeded by Hu Yaobang who thought that the Chairman of the party has too many powers without any accountability and hence someone can easily exploit the post for their personal gains. So he helped in abolishing this post. Later leaders of the party were people who had suffered the most during the revolution and those who proudly carried the legacy of the Cultural Revolution were sidetracked. Many CCP leaders today belong to a generation that has seen the devastation and violence of the Cultural Revolution. Hence, there is a certain fear of repetition of history seen in the formation of policies of modern day China. The leaders fear that if a more liberal atmosphere comes into existence, a new revolution may take place.
How is the Cultural Revolution Remembered in China?
The Cultural Revolution is hardly remembered in public by government officials in China. They fear that the party will be held accountable for the atrocities during the period and will lose its credibility. The media is also quiet on it. It remains a taboo subject especially among people who have lived through it. Many people are still reluctant to confront and recount the violence mainly because they too were involved in causing it. The newer generation is not given much knowledge about it. The international media has given a lot of coverage to this revolution and criticized the leadership vehemently over time.
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