Reign of the red terror

In 1966, China's leader Mao Zedong launched his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in an attempt to marginalise his rivals. In this he succeeded, says Robert Bickers, but at a truly horrific cost to his country...

Mao Zedong applauds a parade of Red Guards in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. These young militants followed Mao’s call in early August 1966 to defend the party from a ‘white terror’. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

When Red Guards arrived at the door of Nien Cheng’s house in Shanghai on the night of 30 August 1966, it wasn’t an unexpected inter-ruption. Throughout ‘Red August’, organised gangs of Chinese students had indulged in acts of destruction across China in the name of effacing ‘feudal’ traditions. Yet what followed still seems astonishing to record.

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