In May of 1966 a volcanic movement erupted in China. Starting with a series of blasts against “anti-party and anti-socialist elements” by the Army newspaper Liberation Army Daily, it soon led to huge demonstrations in China’s high schools and universities where the center of the anti-Mao conspiracy was alleged to be. University officials were fired; students mounted huge demonstrations. Classes were cancelled, and a major revision of the curriculum was announced. So disrupting were the changes that no new students were accepted for the Fall 1966 semester. As the uproar intensified, prominent Party leaders were purged one after another. In June and July the movement slowed down somewhat and the Central Committee met in its eleventh plenary session (the first plenary meeting since September 1962). But hardly had the meeting ended and a communique been issued when a new mass movement erupted. Thousands of young students swarmed into the streets and formed “red defense guards.” Their most startling slogan was “defend Mao Tse-tung,” implying that his power had been seriously threatened. Mao Tse-tung, who for over six months had been absent from the public scene, reappeared among the crowds and was greeted with delirious enthusiasm. The young guardsmen pinned the armband of the red defense guards on his sleeve.
The press, which printed virtually nothing but news of the great upsurge, ridiculed the “old men” who had wormed their way into positions of power, and gangs of young people swarming out into the streets began attacking anything that appeared old, bourgeois, or foreign. Religious institutions, both Buddhist and Christian, were attacked; old people were reviled in the streets; foreigners and overseas Chinese were mistreated; party officials, including some in high positions, were severely criticized. As the movement got out of hand, the leaders called for discipline and the use of persuasion rather than force. This vast movement, officially called the proletarian cultural revolution, was publicly proclaimed as a great attack on feudal and bourgeois vestiges in Chinese life.
The outside world was shocked and puzzled. Neither it nor the Chinese themselves had anticipated anything of the sort. During the Spring tourists had continued to come into China and more were expected during the Summer; they had generally reported a relaxed atmosphere (though less so than in years past because of the Vietnam war) and had been free to wander about. Suddenly Peking terminated all tourist programs, withdrew visas, and China began to draw into itself. Reporters stationed in Peking cabled details of what had happened, but could not figure it out.
There have been scores of big campaigns in China’s past, but no convulsion like the “proletarian cultural revolution.” Party officials have repeatedly been subject to criticism from the masses, but never before have the leaders called directly on the masses to support them against their internal enemies. Moreover, the new red defense guards appeared to be overwhelmingly made up of students from the high schools and universities. It was also clear that widespread purges in the party …
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An Exchange on China January 12, 1967