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Four decades ago, Mao launched chaos in China

A look back at the Cultural Revolution as its 40th anniversary nears

Four decades ago, Mao launched chaos in China

Forty years ago tomorrow, Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed China's infamous Cultural Revolution - a decade of terror and violence that continues to haunt both the country and its people.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, now known as "10 years of catastrophe," was to unravel into a disaster that claimed millions of lives and pushed China to the brink of economic and social collapse.
The movement officially began on May 16, 1966, with a directive from Communist chief Mao charging that "representatives of the bourgeoisie" had infiltrated all levels of the party and intended to establish a "dictatorship."
Complex motives
The motives for its launch are complex, although Mao's intention to eliminate people who threatened him politically is now seen as a stronger reason than his apparent desire to create social equality through eradication of a new class of exploitative bureaucratic rulers.
"Mao told people that he wanted to realize a fair and equal society. He deceived people by saying that (inequality) was due to his enemies," Xu Youyu, a philosophy professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told AFP recently.
Mao's main revolutionary tools were students and workers, who he rallied against party bureaucrats, intellectuals and other figures of authority accused of taking "the capitalist road."
Nine days after Mao's directive, a radical philosophy instructor at Peking University, Nie Yuanzi, put up a poster criticizing the university's administration for "suppressing the revolutionary masses."
It launched what was to become the vanguard of the revolutionary upheaval, the Red Guard movement of mainly students who went on to terrorize the nation.
The movement spread like wildfire to other universities and high schools across the country, shutting down the entire education system as teachers and intellectuals were beaten or tortured - often to death.
Mao's appeal to young radicals to "bombard the headquarters" in August 1966, unleashed a tidal wave of political persecution and violence, with that month coming to be known as "Red August" because of all the blood that was spilt.
Bands of Red Guards roamed the country with Mao's blessing, hounding "capitalist roaders" and destroying with fervor any objects deemed symbols of "feudalist oppression" such as cultural, art and religious relics.
When Mao reviewed one million Red Guards who packed Tiananmen Square for the first of eight times in August 1966, his cult status had reached its zenith.
"The Red Guard's were like God's army, they were Chairman Mao's soldiers," Lu Li'an, a former Red Guard who later spent 11 years in jail for turning on the movement, recalled to AFP.
The ferocity of the movement continued to multiply as rival radical factions fought pitched battles for control in the country's cities, plunging the country into a state of civil war.
The People's Liberation Army took their allotted task of disbanding all the "counter-revolutionary organizations" as carte blanche to smash militant groups opposed to their own organization interests.
In an effort to restore order, Mao in December 1968 ordered Red Guards and students to be sent to the countryside to be "re-educated by the impoverished peasants."
The violence petered out, although purges and power struggles continued.
Prominent political figures purged during the Cultural Revolution included Deng Xiaoping, who famously came back to succeed Mao as China's paramount leader, and then president Liu Shaoqi, who died in jail in 1969.
The end of the Cultural Revolution came just weeks after Mao's death in September 1976, when his immediate successor, Hua Guofeng, with the support of the Party's Politburo, ordered the arrest of the powerful Gang of Four.
In following years, the Gang of Four - the most prominent member being Mao's wife Jiang Qing - was blamed for leading the Cultural Revolution but scholars have suggested Mao's tacit endorsement rendered him just as guilty.
The official verdict came in a lengthy "resolution on history" in 1981 from the Community Party.
It proclaimed the movement was "responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party and the people since the founding of the People's Republic."
It said Mao made "gross mistakes." However it also stated his contributions were far greater, hence preserving the Chairman's stature as the "great leader" while maintaining the legitimacy of Party rule.
Millions, are believed to have died due to persecution, although academics say determining an exact figure is impossible.
What is indisputable is that while China is now experiencing its "economic miracle," the scars of the Cultural Revolution remain.
"The Cultural Revolution has caused invisible and irrecoverable internal injuries in people's minds," said philosophy professor Xu, also a former Red Guard.
"Most Chinese students forever lost their innocence, optimism and spirit of service and these were precious resources for China's modernization ... this is the Cultural Revolution's real tragedy."
SLOGANS OF THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION
"Revolution is not a crime! Rebellion is justified!." "Dare to think, dare to act."
Such were the slogans that stirred China's youth to rebellion during the Cultural Revolution - the words repeatedly blared over loudspeakers across the country, on the radio and printed in Party newspapers.
Accompanied by the personality cult of Chairman Mao Zedong, the chief instigator of the movement, millions were inspired by the propaganda to turn on their fellow citizens - even their own parents - during the decade of collective madness that seized the country from May 1966.
"The Mao cult involved a lot of sloganeering that served to bolster the myth surrounding him and ascribed super-human qualities to him," said Stefan Landsberger, an expert on Chinese propaganda at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Most youths carried with them the "Little Red Book" of Mao sayings, treating it with the piety normally associated with sacred texts of the world's major religions.
By engendering a god-like image of Mao, Communist Party propagandists ensured for Mao a loyal following among ordinary people, Landsberger said.
For example, the slogan of the "Four Greats," termed Mao as "the greatest teacher, the greatest leader, the greatest commander, and the greatest helmsman."
This slogan was unveiled when a million thrilled Chinese youths known as Red Guards gathered in Tiananmen Square for the first time to be reviewed by Mao during the early months of the movement on August 18, 1966.
Likewise the slogan of the "Three Loyalties," called for "boundless loyalty to Chairman Mao, loyalty to Mao Zedong Thought and loyalty to Chairman Mao's revolutionary line."
Slogans have a long history in China going back to the famous proverbs of the philosopher Confucius, who many believe served as the model for Mao's propagandists as they transformed Mao into a philosopher leader.
The more the party propagandists established Mao as a great leader, the easier it was for Mao to use the Red Guards and the Chinese people to destroy his political enemies, including those who opposed his policies and those who refused to accept his revolution.
An example of this also came in August 1966 when Mao issued his first Cultural Revolution "big character poster," or a political tract written in big Chinese characters, urging the Red Guards to rebel and "bombard the headquarters."
"'Bombard the Headquarters' became the slogan that justified wrestling authority from government officials who were 'capitalist roaders,'" Landsberger said.
The slogan led to countless officials and party cadres being persecuted for their "bad class background" as either land owners, bourgeois intellectuals or friends of Westerners.
Prominent "capitalist roaders" at the time included then president Liu Shaoqi, who died in prison in 1969 following severe persecution, and late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who survived the Cultural Revolution and lived to engineer China's opening and reform period.
Even during the waning period of the Cultural Revolution after Mao died in 1976, slogans were used to great effect to end the 10 years of chaos.
The slogan, "Smash the Gang of Four," became the nation's rallying cry as the four leaders of the revolution, including Mao's wife Jiang Qing, were arrested and jailed.
Even Deng, when he re-surfaced following Mao's death, used a slogan penned by Mao - "Seek Truth From Facts" - to bolster his economic reform agenda while insisting that facts rather than ideology should be the criteria for correct policy.
"But borrowing a phrase from Mao meant that Mao's influence was still there," Landsberger noted.


Updated : 2021-10-28 16:51 GMT+08:00