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

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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.

More than 30 teenagers stormed into the 51-year-old widow’s home and began to smash it up, destroying clothes, antiques, records, paintings and furniture, burning books, and defacing walls and mirrors with political slogans. Nien Cheng herself was seized; she would spend the next six and a half years in captivity.

Her story was far from unusual. In Shanghai alone, tens of thousands of homes were attacked in this way, and many of their terrified residents were beaten to death or committed suicide. Red Guards also killed cats and other pets they considered a bourgeois affectation. Yet rather than being the work of a rabble, a lawless mob, this was an officially sanctioned movement encouraged by Mao Zedong and his inner circle. It was the sharp end of China’s Cultural Revolution.

By the spring of 1965 Mao, the 72-year-old son of a small-time landowner in south-central China, had held a commanding position within the Chinese Communist party for over three decades. He was one of its founder members in 1921, and had emerged as the core leader in the mid-1930s. After the party seized power in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China, he had stamped his personality and his programme on the politics and policies of the new state. In the late 1950s Mao had also come to assert his own claim to leadership within the international communist movement, which had split as a result.

Mao had long been the focus of a cult of personality. One of the era’s songs – almost its national anthem – came to define his status. “The east is red,” it began, “the sun has risen, China has brought forth Mao Zedong… he is the people’s saviour.”

But the ‘Great Helmsman’, as he was also called, was now worried about the future – and he was particularly concerned about his own legacy. It was Mao who, in 1958, had steered the party into a pell-mell race to the future, a rapid process of agricultural collectivisation and a nationwide programme – the Great Leap Forward – to increase industrial production to overtake Britain’s and match that of the US. The result was disaster: an estimated 30 million people died from starvation.

The colour of cats

By 1965 Mao had been forced to step back from hands-on leadership as more pragmatic colleagues tried to reconstruct the economy, though he remained powerful in his position as Communist party chairman. Men such as state president Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who managed day-to-day affairs, were also veterans of the movement, and no less ruthlessly committed to its goals.

Deng famously articulated his approach in July 1962 by quoting a pithy proverb from his home province, Sichuan: “It does not matter if a cat is yellow or black, as long as it catches mice.” During the civil war of 1946–49 the communists’ Red Army had not always fought a conventional struggle, he continued, but had adapted its strategy to the specific conditions in which it found itself. That flexibility had led to its ultimate victory. In restoring the economy after the ravages of the Great Leap, the party needed to be equally pragmatic.

The cat would change colour in the re-telling, and became white and black as the phrase was repeated. But for Mao this thinking seemed to exemplify the approach of a new bureaucracy that was losing another, much more important tint: revolutionary red. Under the leadership of Liu, Deng and others like them at all levels in the party and state, the Chinese Communist party appeared to be in danger of losing its ideological purity and its political ambitions, instead prioritising economic growth.

Was capitalism being restored? Was the revolution being compromised by a new elite that had captured the party and government and sidelined him? These questions plagued Mao, who had also been shocked in 1956 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had denounced and damned his own predecessor, Stalin. Was Liu Shaoqi the Khrushchev of China – and was Mao heading for the same fate as his erstwhile Soviet counterpart?

So the chairman sprang a trap – and everybody in China was caught up in it. He brought into play the young and the disaffected, and mobilised them to back his bid to restore the primacy of his own vision. In 1966, with strong support from the ambitious army chief, Lin Biao, Mao began a sustained assault on his own party and the state with a programme formally described as a ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’.

The spark that lit the touchpaper of the Cultural Revolution was a play – or, more specifically, a critique of a play. Hai Rui Dismissed from Office was a historical drama in which the eponymous chief adviser to a Ming-dynasty emperor was dismissed for publicly criticising the ruler. The problem was that the play came to be seen as an allegory for modern events.

A written critique was published claiming that the play was a thinly disguised attack on Mao. The emperor clearly represented Mao, it was alleged, while Hai Rui was one of China’s veteran leaders, former army commander Peng Dehuai. Peng had challenged Mao in 1959 over the disastrous results of the Great Leap Forward, and as a result had been disgraced.

Mao’s opponents were charged with attempting to suppress the critique – which the chairman had sponsored, and secretly helped prepare – and then with having commissioned the original play as part of a bid to undermine him and the revolution. They were alleged to be ‘revisionists’, as Khrushchev was also routinely labelled.

The first victim of the movement was Peng Zhen, the powerful mayor of Beijing and Politburo member, who was toppled in May 1966 alongside other senior figures in the city. But, Mao and his supporters wondered, how far had this rot spread? The revolution was under attack from within, they believed – from somewhere inside the leadership. How else had someone as senior as Peng Zhen been allowed to act, if not without the approval of “Persons in power taking the capitalist road”? This description was a coded way of identifying the culprits as Liu Shaoqi and other senior leaders including Deng Xiaoping.

Few pieces of theatrical criticism have had such an impact. Between 1966 and 1976, an estimated 1.5 million people died as a result of persecution or in bloody, armed factional strife, and tens of millions would face political disgrace or have their lives permanently altered. Liu Shaoqi was toppled, dying in disgrace in 1969. The country was turned inside out, parts of it collapsing into civil war. The economy was shattered – it was better to be ‘Red’ than ‘Expert’, claimed the slogans – and China retreated into a morbidly violent isolation.

On 5 August 1966 Mao issued a manifesto calling on revolutionaries to “bombard the headquarters” and defend the party from a “white terror” launched against it by “some leading comrades”. Answering his call with all the idealism and passion of their age came China’s young people.

Two months earlier, students at a middle school in the capital had formed a new revolutionary militia, the Red Guards, pledged to support Mao and attack his opponents. Endorsed by Mao, the new movement spread swiftly across the country as millions of young people flocked on to its trains to make political pilgrimages, to participate in mass rallies in Beijing or visit other sites of historic, revolutionary importance and to “share experiences” with Red Guards in other towns and cities.

Bourgeois victims

For several extraordinary months China was turned upside down as its young people launched a wave of attacks against perceived enemies in the party and in every political or social institution. Those enemies were seen everywhere – including in the homes of the ‘bourgeois’ such as Nien Cheng in Shanghai.

The widow of a former diplomat, she had become manager of the local branch of the British oil company Shell, and had recently retired from a post helping to wind up that firm’s interests. Nien Cheng had studied in the mid-1930s at the London School of Economics, where she had met her husband, and was a cosmopolitan, cultured patriot. She had toured Britain, speaking at meetings to rally support for China during the Japanese invasion, and she and her husband had lived in Australia for five years, where their daughter Meiping had been born.

Meiping grew up bilingual, like her parents; she learned to play the piano, and became a film actress. Nien Cheng ordered English books from a London bookshop, and stocked her pleasant house with wine bought on trips to the British colony of Hong Kong, and with valuable Chinese antiquities. She employed three servants and a gardener, and had a cat.

There certainly remained a gulf between the cosmopolitan world of city residents such as Cheng and her daughter and that of the majority of China’s people, who still lived on the land. Meiping had seen this first hand in late 1965, when she had been sent to live with a village family on Shanghai’s outskirts, and had been shocked at the conditions she encountered. But a bond of solidarity had nonetheless developed between the urban sophisticate and the impoverished villagers.

Such ties were torn asunder in the orgy of violence and destruction that engulfed the family after 30 August 1966. In the custody of the state, Nien Cheng was subjected to ‘struggle meetings’ at which she was denounced and forced to confess to political crimes, and spent six and a half years in solitary confinement. In June 1967 Meiping was kidnapped, beaten, tortured and killed by a Red Guard gang.

The destruction of symbols of ‘Old’ (pre-revolutionary) China came to be a defining feature of the Red Guard movement. They attacked the ‘Four Olds’ – old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits – pillaging temples and churches, and destroying the artefacts inside. They renamed China’s streets, dispensing with ‘feudal’ names; they attacked and shamed people with western hairstyles or shoes fashionable in Hong Kong. One group announced that traffic lights should be re-sequenced, with a red light for ‘go’ – after all, was it not counter-revolutionary to believe that red meant ‘stop’?

Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, formed with him a ‘Cultural Revolution Group’ that now seized power. She took a leading role in setting an austere new cultural policy that authorised performance of only eight model plays and ‘revolutionary operas’. Foreign, ‘reactionary’ and ‘feudal’ music, art and literature were suppressed.

Disorganised chaos

Seeing the results of the ‘red terror’, Mao’s adherents modified their endorsement in 1967, but the chaos proved difficult to control. All over China people realised that there could be no riding out this storm. If they were not involved, they could not win – and if they did not win, they stood a chance of losing everything and being damned for life as ‘counter-revolutionaries’ or ‘black elements’. So faction fought faction to seize the ‘headquarters’ and defend the chairman. From 1967 to 1969 they fought with loudspeakers, pamphlets and posters; they fought with their fists, then armed with sticks and clubs; then they fought with guns, tanks and warplanes. Whole suburbs of major cities were wrecked.

As the country collapsed into civil war, Mao called on the army to step in, and Lin Biao’s forces imposed order on the warring factions, often with further violence.

A ‘Campaign to cleanse the class ranks’ followed; hundreds of thousands more were purged and many killed, as they were in further campaigns in 1970–72.

The Red Guards, idealistic heralds of the revolution, were brutally dispensed with, and millions of them were sent from the cities ‘down to the countryside’. For most of them, education had come to a halt in the heady summer of 1966. Though those days had offered unprecedented power and freedom – to travel, to criticise and to act – many of them came to find that their lives were wrecked as badly as those of their victims.

The course of the Cultural Revolution was byzantine in its twists and turns, but Mao Zedong achieved his core aims: those who he believed had been opposing him within the party were removed from office and disgraced. However, the violent energy that was unleashed threatened to tear the country apart, and order had been secured only by bringing in the army. In 1971 that order was threatened when Lin Biao – by then Mao’s anointed heir-apparent – was killed in a plane crash in Mongolia; it was claimed that he had been planning a coup, but balked and fled, dying when his plane ran out of fuel.

The blame game

The paralysing stasis that followed the exhausting events of 1966–69 ended only with the death of Mao in September 1976. Within a month his successor, Hua Guofeng, arrested the leading figures in the Cultural Revolution Group, including Jiang Qing. Many surviving targets of the movement, including Deng Xiaoping, were later rehabilitated and regained power.

In 1981 the party issued a ‘Resolution’ on party history. This concluded that the beliefs of Mao that inspired the Cultural Revolution were “entirely erroneous” and “conformed neither to Marxism-Leninism nor to Chinese reality”. Much of the blame was laid on Lin Biao, and on a ‘Gang of Four’ including Jiang Qing, though the responsibility of Mao Zedong was also acknowledged. Even so, it was famously concluded, his contributions to building socialism in China had been seven-tenths positive and only three-tenths negative.

Meanwhile, there has never been any meaningful calling to account of the perpetrators of the terrible violence wreaked during the Cultural Revolution. Their victims were rehabilitated – but the dead can never be brought back to life.

Robert Bickers is professor of history at the University of Bristol and author of The Scramble for China (Penguin, 2012). His new book, Out of China: Chinese Nationalism and the West from the First World War to the Return of Hong Kong, will be published by Allen Lane in April next year.

The Cultural Revolution: 10 key events

1921: The Chinese Communist party is established in Shanghai, its founding members having been encouraged by foreign agents of the Communist International (Comintern).

1949: Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government retreats to Taiwan. On 1 October Mao Zedong proclaims the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

1958:Mao launches the Great Leap Forward with the aim of overtaking the economic output of the UK and matching that of the US.

1959–62: Famine results in at least 30 million deaths. As a result, Mao is sidelined by Liu Shaoqi, and some policies of the Great Leap Forward era are abandoned. 

1966: The Cultural Revolution is proclaimed in May. Red Guards form and, after mass rallies in Beijing, begin attacks on the ‘four olds’ and ‘class enemies’, ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and ‘bad elements’.

1967: Red Guards seize control of the Chinese foreign ministry, and storm and burn down the British Mission in Beijing. Mao starts to move against them, ordering in the army to restore order.

1969: Chinese and Soviet military clash on their common border. Mass campaigns are launched in China to dig air-raid shelters and prepare for war. The Chinese army suppresses factional fighting.

1971: Concerned about its international isolation, China signals its desire to re-open relations with the US. President Richard Nixon is receptive.

1972: Nixon visits China and meets Mao. Other western powers follow suit.

1976: The Tangshan earthquake kills 500,000. Mao dies in September, and the Cultural Revolution Group (aka the Gang of Four) is arrested. The end of the Cultural Revolution is proclaimed.

Conflict and kitsch: Mao’s global legacy

The Cultural Revolution both appalled and enthralled observers overseas. As it first unfolded it was the subject of intense but puzzled scrutiny by expert China-watchers, but in the days of destructive rage in late August 1966, when reports emerged of Red Guard attacks on temples and churches, it garnered wider public attention. 

Maoist rhetoric, and the style and iconography of the Cultural Revolution, were widely adopted across the radical left in western Europe, North America and Japan. Radical students in West Germany, the Black Panthers in the US and hard-left factions in Italy all took Maoism seriously as a political programme, though the established international communist movement remained loyal to Moscow. Mao chic permeated further into popular culture, with Mao badges, Mao caps and Mao suits worn as style statements, not simply political ones. 

The Cultural Revolution also came to the streets of European cities with a series of violent incidents in which Chinese diplomats and students clashed with security forces in Paris, London and Moscow. 

The most significant set of events outside China took place in Hong Kong where, from May 1967, local communists organised a violent and sustained challenge to British rule. 

By the end of that year 51 people had lost their lives in a series of violent confrontations, shooting incidents at the border and a bombing campaign. The British authorities enacted emergency regulations to suppress leftist publications, and several editors and journalists were jailed. In response, in August 1967 Red Guards burned down the British mission in Beijing, manhandling the diplomats who were then prevented from leaving the country for a year. 

The Cultural Revolution and Mao’s political thought had a violent trajectory that diverged from the course of events in China. From 1970, Europe faced the terror campaigns of the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Italian Red Brigades. In 1980 the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement led by Abimael Guzmán, who had been trained in Cultural Revolution-era China, launched a bloody Maoist insurgency in Peru. By the time Guzmán was captured and jailed 12 years later, more than 50,000 were dead. A bloody 10-year civil war fomented by Maoist rebels in Nepal only ended in 2006. And the Naxalites, a Maoist group with origins in a 1967 uprising in West Bengal, still present a significant security threat to the Indian state. 

In China itself the Cultural Revolution remains in political limbo. The 1981 ‘Resolution’ remains the public verdict, but there has been no detailed examination of the course of events, despite brief official endorsement of ‘scar’ literature, a genre of memoirs that emerged in the 1970s dealing with the effects of the revolution. 

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That openness did not last. Today, archives remain closed and most histories and museums gloss over or simply ignore the years between 1966 and 1976. At a grass-roots level, informal initiatives document victims’ stories, but the topic remains so politically sensitive that there seems little chance of any loosening of political control. Most young Chinese know very little about the Cultural Revolution. The leadership’s legitimacy today is grounded in its nationalist credentials, and in its handling of the economy. Its dark past remains hidden.