In the mid-1960s, Communist China was struggling to cement itself as a world power. After the unsuccessful Great Leap Forward campaign in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in which millions of peasants tried to make iron and steel in backyard furnaces, dictator Mao Zedong blamed economic failure on “rightists” who were trying to reinstate capitalism. The Chinese Cultural Revolution began in 1966 as a social and political movement to destroy any remaining bourgeois elements in the country. For several years, millions lived in fear as any accusation of anti-communist sentiment could result in a person being harshly persecuted or worse. Upper-class workers were frequently sent to rural communes to engage in hard labor as part of “reeducation” in communism.
Setting the Stage: The Chinese Civil War
The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921, near the end of the Russian Civil War and the resulting creation of the Soviet Union. A rivalry quickly emerged between the Nationalists and the Communists in China, with brief alliances to combat mutual foes (warlords in the 1920s and the Japanese in the late 1930s) collapsing and warfare re-erupting. After the end of World War II, however, the Chinese Civil War commenced after neither group could come to a power-sharing agreement. The Communists were popular in the countryside, while the Nationalists controlled the official national government and all major cities.
Due to corruption, the Nationalists quickly lost popularity with the public. Despite Western military aid to prevent China from falling to communism, the Nationalists were defeated by the autumn of 1949 and fled to the island of Formosa, which is today the nation of Taiwan. On October 1, 1949, communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed mainland China to be the People’s Republic of China. Many in the West refused to acknowledge the new regime and regarded Taiwan, which was the Republic of China (ROC), as the official state of China. Almost immediately after winning control of China, the communists aided neighboring North Korea in the Korean War (1950-53), further earning the ire of the west.
1958-62: The Great Leap Forward
After the Korean War, China was still a largely agrarian nation. Wishing to compete more directly with the West, Mao Zedong pursued a policy of rapid industrialization and, ideally, resulting economic growth. In the mid-1950s, he encouraged farming families to engage in cooperative farming with nearby families, pooling their resources. Quickly, private property was abolished, and the cooperatives became larger and larger. Initial increases in economic output, combined with anger that the Soviet Union’s new premier, Nikita Khrushchev, seemed to be criticizing the strict Marxism of Joseph Stalin’s era, convinced Mao Zedong to more aggressively pursue economic growth through collectivization.
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In 1958, Mao Zedong announced the Great Leap Forward as part of China’s new five-year plan. Farmers were encouraged to work around the clock in the spirit of advancing society and creating a communist utopia. To advance the state, collectives even built smelters to melt iron implements and craft them into new steel tools. Unfortunately, the revolutionary zeal did not pay off: many farming policies were misguided, and the homemade smelters did not make usable steel. This resulted in devastating famine by 1960. Refusing to accept any blame for the misguided policies, Mao Zedong accused those who reported problems of being “rightists” who were opposed to communism.
Early 1960s: Sino-Soviet Split
Simultaneous with the failure of the Great Leap Forward was the collapse of previously-close relations between China and the Soviet Union. The Soviets were alarmed by the misguided reforms of the Great Leap Forward and reneged on previous agreements to provide China with nuclear weapons. China soon complained that Soviet attempts to engage the West in arms talks amounted to supporting Western imperialism. In 1960, all Soviet technical aid for China’s nuclear development programs was halted. China did develop its first atomic bomb in 1964, trailing the Soviets by fifteen years and the American Manhattan Project by nineteen years.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the Soviet Union agreed to the United States’ demands to remove nuclear-capable missiles from Cuba, was seen by China as a sign of weakness in the face of capitalism and imperialism. Conversely, Khrushchev viewed Mao Zedong as a radical whose aggression would lead to a world war. In 1963, the Communist Party of China accused the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of “revisionism” and abandoning the principles of Marxism. This resulted in severed ties between the two communist powers that would remain until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
May 1966: The Chinese Cultural Revolution Begins
Hearkening back the revolutionary zeal of the Great Leap Forward and detesting the “weakness” of Soviet liberalization policies under Khrushchev, Mao Zedong began the Chinese Cultural Revolution on May 16, 1966. Officially titled the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” the movement was intended to be part of a purge of any remaining “rightists” who were allegedly holding China back from becoming a communist utopia. Some members of China’s communist elite, including Mao Zedong’s wife, argued that the people had become complacent and needed a re-introduction to revolution.
The movement began swiftly with rank-and-file citizens, including students, encouraged to call out and accuse those who were suspected “rightists.” Similar to the Great Purge in the Soviet Union, this resulted in a period of paranoia where virtually anyone could be accused of being an enemy of the state for virtually any reason. Young people, especially students, were made “Red Guards” and given significant powers to detain and attack suspected “rightists.” Students and soldiers were encouraged to read Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” of political ideology and aggressively pursue any who might be against the revolution.
Red Guards and Struggle Sessions
With little direction from Mao Zedong or other top leaders, the Cultural Revolution quickly devolved into local violence. A common occurrence was a struggle session, where accused enemies of the state (capitalists, elites, or shirkers of work) were publicly criticized and even beaten. Those accused often had to cower and accept fault, engaging in self-criticism, or else be beaten. Many of those charged with crimes against the state had allegedly done trivial things like complain about the government or local conditions.
Struggle sessions were common due to mob rule, where those as part of the mob felt emboldened due to anonymity. Young people may have been extra zealous due to the unusual ability to act out against traditional authority figures, such as professors and job supervisors. As in the Great Purge of the Soviet Union, many may have been motivated to accuse others of crimes as a way to further their own status. Some of those subject to large struggle sessions would later be sent to prison.
1967: Military Takes Control, but Struggles Continue
The revolutionary zeal only got worse in 1967. On January 1, a group of newspapers proclaimed that the entire leadership structure should be overthrown if they did not completely accept Mao Zedong’s philosophies. This shifted the focus of Red Guards on government leaders rather than simply fellow peasants and expanded the movement. This expansion resulted in the rise of different political factions. Workers also began to strike en masse, claiming that they were being exploited by their managers.
In late January, Mao Zedong ordered the military to support the leftist movement to quell the growing chaos. This effectively gave the military, under the direction of Mao Zedong, increased control over local governments. Red Guards would now be under the control of the military and effectively lose much of their power. Unfortunately, the rise of political factions meant that this attempt to restore order was not well-received: whichever faction was not given political power in a province by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) accused the PLA and other factions of being counter-revolutionary. By late spring, some Red Guards were even accusing PLA leaders of being rightists.
1968: Down to the Countryside Movement
Many “elites” who were purged during the Cultural Revolution were not imprisoned and executed, as occurred in the USSR during the 1930s, but rather sent for re-education. As the PLA restored some order from the violence of the Red Guards, a new initiative took place in 1968: the Down to the Countryside Movement. Urban elites were sent from the cities to rural farms to perform manual labor. Allegedly, part of this motivation was to break up the Red Guards, which were largely composed of urban college students. Between the PLA stepping in and the Down to the Countryside Movement, Mao Zedong could retake control of the Cultural Revolution.
Critics felt the movement was largely ineffective, with peasants and urban “elites” rarely mixing in the countryside. Many Western historians viewed the movement as a convenient way to solve many urban problems, such as overcrowding. It was also a way to purge suspected rightists and keep them away from political power without risking further violence. In fact, after continued Red Guard violence during the summer of 1968, Mao Zedong decided to dissolve the organizations. The Down to the Countryside Movement can be seen as a pressure-release valve on the Cultural Revolution that allowed Mao Zedong to protect his leadership structure from young radicals and other potential threats.
1969: 9th National Party Congress & Rebuilding
The National Party Congress that met in April 1969 adopted the revolutionary fervor of the Cultural Revolution. Lin Biao’s speech on April 1 quoted Vladimir Lenin and accused the Soviet Union of betraying Lenin’s teachings. Biao went on to praise the ongoing cultural revolution and went on to be chosen as Mao Zedong’s successor during the Congress. Some later criticized this hand-picking of a premier’s successor as anti-communist. Many former Red Guards felt that the Congress had abandoned the revolution, leaving them cast aside.
To some, the Ninth National Party Congress was the formal end of the Cultural Revolution, with Mao Zedong having consolidated power and restored his damaged reputation from the Great Leap Forward. The Central Cultural Revolutionary Group was dissolved, with its powers taken by the General Office. Additionally, the Congress purged two potential rivals to Mao Zedong’s power, Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, ensuring the premier’s total control over the state. Thus, the Congress is typically seen as a tremendous political victory of Mao Zedong.
1971: The Lin Biao Incident
In 1971, despite having consolidated his power at the Ninth Party Congress in 1969, Mao Zedong allegedly became increasingly paranoid about rivals once more. Lin Biao, the handpicked successor, was in charge of the PLA and had insulated it from many Cultural Revolution reforms. Between 1970 and 1971, it is believed that both Mao Zedong and Lin Biao came to view each other with suspicion, with Mao fearing his successor springing a military-backed coup and Lin Biao fearing a purge of military leaders. In the summer of 1971, many believe that Lin Biao was planning an assassination of Mao Zedong, allegedly using the PLA air force.
What actually occurred remains a mystery to this day. On September 13, 1971, a plane carrying Lin Biao, family members, and close associates crashed in Mongolia, likely en route to the Soviet Union to defect. It is believed that Lin Biao had triggered the coup and been unsuccessful, choosing to flee rather than face execution. The mysterious death of Lin Biao damaged Mao’s power and prestige, as it made it known that he still faced some internal opposition. This allegedly increased Mao Zedong’s paranoia and health problems, as he was in his late seventies by this point.
Aftermath: An Aging Mao Zedong Befriends the West
Ultimately, the Cultural Revolution was not an economic or political success. Although Mao Zedong remained the undisputed premier of China, Lin Biao’s attempt to defect to the Soviet Union had made him look weak, especially given his advanced age. Fear of the Soviet Union, especially after the undeclared 1969 Sino-Soviet Border War, allegedly led Mao Zedong to seek political dialogue with the United States. The US, under President Richard Nixon, was eager for a chance to gain a diplomatic edge over the USSR by showing friendship with China.
In 1972, Nixon met with Mao in China in a historic move, becoming the first US president to visit the country. The summit opened diplomatic relations between the two giants. Politically, the summit benefited both leaders, as Nixon was seen as being a shrewd Cold War negotiator and opening up a new trading partner, while Mao could ward off Soviet aggression by gaining US diplomatic and trade support. However, it is unlikely that Nixon’s administration would have made such a move while the Cultural Revolution was still ongoing, as “Red China” would have been seen as too radical and violent for normalized relations. Thus, the Cultural Revolution may have delayed China’s normalization of trade and diplomacy with the West for at least five years.