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How Reds Smashed Reds

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Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images
Chinese schoolchildren wearing Red Guard armbands in a National Day parade during the Cultural Revolution, Harbin, Heilongjiang province, October 1, 1966

July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but beating people is no big deal.” A few weeks later Mao himself heard a report about a mass meeting in Beijing at which Red Guards “struggled” against “hooligan” students. In those days “struggle” included physical violence. Walder describes in his revealing Fractured Rebellion how the Chairman made clear his impatience with anyone who warned that the Red Guards were going too far. “I do not think Beijing is all that chaotic,” he said. “Students holding 100,000-person mass meetings, capturing assailants, getting all panicked. Beijing is too civilized.”

Mao set the tone,” Walder writes.

The authorities should turn a blind eye to violence as an inevitable by-product of revolutionary mobilization. This was translated into official directives…. The targets of the red guards were left virtually defenseless.

This meant being defenseless in the face of beatings, torture, murder, or suicide. During the Cultural Revolution, Walder emphasizes, losing could be fatal.

Mao unleashed this violence, according to many accounts of people who were close to him, because he feared that after his death, as with Stalin, his successors would turn on him and dismantle communism. Enemies of the revolution, Mao proclaimed, some of them in the open, others concealed, must be “rectified,” an anodyne-sounding word used to describe dreadful deeds. Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard and Michael Schoenhals of Lund, leading authorities on the Cultural Revolution, note that much of what Mao said was gobbledygook or opaque, puzzling even to those closest to him, who feared that at any moment they could become his victims. This enabled the Chairman to hint strongly that some extremely violent acts must be committed but contend later that he had been misunderstood. In 2003, a Harvard seminar on Mao heard from one of his secretaries, Li Rui, that “Mao was a person who did not fear death and he did not care how many he killed.” In Mao’s Last Revolution, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals quote Mao praising Hitler: “The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are.” Indeed, because of Mao, MacFarquhar has written, “The Cultural Revolution bore the mark of Cain from birth.”1

Andrew Walder, too, has written a great deal about the problems surrounding the Cultural Revolution. He claims in his newest book that the mass movements of the period “remain inadequately documented and poorly understood,” and recognizes that Mao “had in mind something much bigger, more disruptive, and potentially much more enduring” than most observers realized at the time. The Chairman was prepared to risk everything to create

a mass movement in which the people themselves would identify, criticize, drag out, and punish those whose actions and words had betrayed the revolution and “Mao Zedong thought”…[and] gain revolutionary experience that would ensure commitment to Maoist ideals for another generation.

It is not a mere conceit of foreign scholarship on China to continue to focus on the Cultural Revolution. Almost thirty years ago the Chinese Communist Party itself declared:

The “cultural revolution,” which lasted from May 1966 to October 1976, was responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic. It was initiated and led by Comrade Mao Zedong.2

This was not the worst time for China after 1949; during the famine between 1959 and 1961 at least 30 million people starved to death and many surviving children were stunted. The Party has yet to confirm this catastrophe, caused by Mao’s destructive notions about agriculture. But fear of something like the Cultural Revolution happening again helps to explain the determination of Deng Xiaoping and his aged colleagues—some of whom, like him, had been “dragged out” during the terrible decade—that the Tiananmen demonstrations had to be smashed. “Instability” remains a Party code word for the years between 1966 and 1976.

In the West, for some enthusiasts the Cultural Revolution was regarded as fascinating and inspiring. There was a romance about the Red Guards in 1960s America. Many radicals conflated them with student demonstrators against the Vietnamese war in the US, France, and Britain. It must be recalled that there were China specialists, Lucian Pye of MIT and Canberra’s Pierre Ryckmans—“Simon Leys”—to name two of the most eminent, who did not swallow the Maoist line, as well as some journalists like Joseph Alsop; such skeptics were often scorned, and refugee accounts of persecution on the Mainland were dismissed by Mao enthusiasts with a shrug: “What do you expect from refugees?”

Now we know how widely and deeply violence bit into Chinese society from 1966 to 1968, as many thousands of young people, inspired by Mao, called themselves Red Guards and followed the general order given by Mao and his close confederates to attack the four “olds” of Chinese society—customs, culture, habits, and ideas. While at first museums were ransacked and books destroyed, the Red Guards soon turned on intellectuals, teachers, and Party functionaries, and on rival groups of students.

Many events between 1966 and 1968 turned out to resemble the repression during the worst periods of the Stalinist terror when Stalin counted on “the organs” to do his murderous work. On the whole, Russians in the towns and villages did not turn on one another. One of Mao’s achievements was to persuade Chinese to do just that. This is plain in the book Wild Swans (1991), in which Jung Chang vividly showed how the children of the Party elite in Sichuan province manhandled their hitherto respected, even loved, teachers. A seventeen-year-old student spelled this out to those who held back from attacking the teachers:

Chairman Mao says, ‘Mercy to the enemy is cruelty to the people!’ If you are afraid of blood, don’t be Red Guards!” …The rest of us fell silent. Although it was impossible to feel anything but revulsion at what he was doing, we could not argue with him. We had been taught to be ruthless to class enemies.3

Chang says that while she feared what might happen to her if she objected to the violence, “One could feel devoted to Mao without perpetrating violence or evil,” and she admits that she was “keen” to be a Red Guard.

Walder observes that previous scholars, including himself, believed that “Red Guard factions…represented different social constituencies, and their political orientations were derived from their social positions.” He now disagrees, and concentrates instead on the Beijing Red Guard factions in particular and their conflicts. “Student factions perceived…political opportunities…as revealed by the mass media and Maoist officials. Throughout the two years of the movement, these signals were frequently ambiguous and contradictory, and at key points they were reversed without warning.” This eventually led, as he shows, to Red Guard factions in Beijing turning on one another.

Yet as Jung Chang points out in Wild Swans, the behavior of Red Guards in Beijing was mild compared to what took place in other parts of China. In 1967, in the Guangxi Autonomous Region, activists killed many thousands more people than had died during the war against Japan. With next to no objections from anyone, some of the victims were dismembered and eaten. “Anything was acceptable,” writes Zheng Yi in Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China (1996), “as long as it was in the name of class struggle and proletarian dictatorship.”4 No one ate anyone else in China’s capital.

Walder’s book, the first on the Beijing Red Guards, concentrates entirely on the movement in the capital’s universities and schools and the conflicts among them, mighty subjects in themselves. Not only were there more university students there than in any other Chinese city, but Beijing’s students, who were immediately made aware of Mao’s demands, were the first to mobilize, and much of what they did became models for the rest of China. Walder, however, notes Beijing’s particular circumstances. In all of China in 1965, on the eve of the great upheaval, in a population of 750 million, there were only 674,430 students in institutions of higher education. Of these, one sixth, or 111,000, were in Beijing. They were an elite group, as were the students in some of the high schools. But while the universities drew their students from around the country, those from the elite high schools were the children of Beijing’s political class. Both groups were prominent in the Beijing Red Guards.

Throughout China, students lived in what Walder calls “a highly closed system.” Graduates of schools and universities were assigned the jobs that they were likely to hold for life and in which their entire lives would be monitored. Students’ grades were important, but equally so were the political records of both the students and their families: “A political error in this system could have costly and irreversible consequences for one’s future…there was no exit from the system.” A family’s political status was inherited by the child and depended in great measure on the family’s hukou, its official household registration, which was virtually unchangeable and defined the political classification of a family through the generations. There was little chance of promotion in this system, but the danger always lurked that an entire family could be banished, most terribly, to a rural hukou, a fate that even Red Guards would have feared could apply to them, and eventually did.5

Walder does not ignore interviews with former activists, but he explains that they are often misleading and must be checked against written documents. Interviews could

never accurately establish the timing and sequence of events…. Interviewees can recall vivid anecdotes and offer interpretations that in isolation seem highly authoritative, but I have often found that they are convincingly refuted by the documentary record, revealing inaccuracies, half-truths, and self-serving myths that would otherwise intrude directly into the analysis.

In addition to published sources, Walder includes wall posters, handbills, and other unofficial statements. Additionally, he writes, since the late 1990s extensive collections of factional newspapers, students’ chronicles, and transcripts of speeches to large and small audiences have become available in Beijing.

As for the student factions in the capital that went on to fight one another, often to the death, these centered on the campuses of the super-elite Beijing and Qinghua Universities. In both cases, though the students of the two universities were to become rivals, initially they were defying what they took to be the wrong political positions of student leaders who had been previously “anointed by Maoist officials to lead the student movement.” That rival factions of students emerged and often differed violently is at first glance surprising. After all, everyone worshiped Mao, “the Red Red Sun in Our Hearts, the Great Helmsman and Teacher.” It was the Chairman and his circle who ensured that the student militants dominated the student press and were supplied with money, transport, and plenty of advice and encouragement from the very top. They were immune from interference from the army or security organs—until Mao changed his mind. As Walder explains, “Mao’s call to criticize power holders reverberated through a hierarchy that directly linked large numbers of politically active students to the regime.” That being the case, “the puzzle is not how the students mobilized but why they were so bitterly divided.”

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Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images
Party Secretary Wang Yilun, left, and another top Party official being denounced in Harbin’s Red Guard Square, August 29, 1966. The sign hanging from Wang’s neck accuses him of being a ‘black gang element.’

Answering that question is a major theme of Walder’s book. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, “work teams,” consisting of four hundred groups of party officials, 3,800 strong, were sent from the highest levels of the regime to visit all campuses and given instructions to destroy the “old.” The students at first welcomed them enthusiastically (partly because they saw the draconian measures meted out to those who deviated from what was ordered). But Walder writes that “the Beijing red guards nonetheless spiraled out of control.” One of the reasons for the disorder was that the work teams insisted that the existing campus Party leaders “stand aside”; as a result, the usual political networks to which the students had belonged quickly disappeared. The problem deepened if work teams changed their commands or were suddenly replaced by new ones.

In the survey of the range of work-team experiences, there is one common theme: in virtually all schools, regardless of the work team’s stance, power structures were fractured and their followers were divided against one another.” In every school, department, and classroom, the old power structures were those governed by the Party with its links to the center. When the two main university groups of Red Guards began fighting each other, each was concerned above all not to be crushed: the fear of losing preoccupied both groups for the next two years.

It was the high school students who invented the term hongweibing, Red Guards, for which Mao praised them. These younger students, unlike the older ones in the universities, were not broken up into factions by the work teams, and seem not to have been divided by rivalries. They were quick to invade Beijing’s neighborhoods where they vandalized temples and museums and terrorized local residents, “often with fatal consequences.” It is worth looking closely at Mao’s admonitions in this climate of zeal and confusion and the need to show one’s loyalty, the very conditions so well described in Wild Swans. The Chairman was widely quoted as having told his nephew and grandniece in 1966 that rules and regulations were irritating and should be rebelled against. “Here I want to say,” Mao said in congratulating a high school student leader, “that I and all my revolutionary comrades-in-arms have the same attitude. We enthusiastically support anyone in Beijing or throughout the nation who adopts the same kind of revolutionary attitude.”

Mao’s rhetoric sounded ferocious, but as MacFarquhar and Schoenhals have observed, it could be reinterpreted later to argue that the Chairman never said to injure, torture, or kill. At the time, what he said seemed clear enough to the students. In August 1966, Walder writes,

a wave of unrestrained violence swept over the city…. High-school students seized party secretaries, principals, teachers, and classmates and subjected them to violent beatings. Those who died as a direct result were a small percentage of those who suffered such mistreatment. At least eight high-school party secretaries, principals, or vice-principals were murdered or committed suicide during August. Teachers and other administrators bore the brunt of the assault; suicide and beating deaths were common, and in some schools several died in a single day.

Here is the language of a Beijing handbill:

Capitalist real estate owners (landlords), “respected” gentlemen and ladies, you are bastards, sons of bitches…. Before liberation you sucked our blood and sweat, fed off our flesh and blood…you are truly maggots, leeches…. Today, on behalf of the broad masses of workers, peasants, and soldiers, we open fire on you!

Two years later, in the summer of 1968, after the factions turned on each other, Red Guard violence reached its peak. One faction was led by Nie Yuanzi, a middle-aged woman official at Beijing University seething with resentment against some of her colleagues in the university administration. Several times married, a veteran of Mao’s guerrilla headquarters at Yan’an, she was well connected to the more heavy-handed sections of the security apparatus. Nie had won Mao’s praise in 1966 for the first wall poster, in May, that “is widely credited with inspiring the student rebellion that led to the red guard movement of August.” In late April 1968, her faction imprisoned 218 rivals who were beaten and tortured. Battles in which the Red Guards fought with roof tiles, spears, bricks, and Molotov cocktails escalated to the use of snipers on rooftops. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals quote a former Red Guard’s description of a procession of thousands of defeated Red Guards mourning the dead:

At the head of the procession were the tens of dead, their comrades holding their blood-soaked bodies aloft for everyone to see. The wounded followed, aided, too, by their fellow rebels, and young female revolutionaries were honored to carry the occasional severed bit of a body—an arm or leg or a hand…. They were proud to have risked their lives and would be willing to risk death again. They believed they were dying for Chairman Mao.

By then, Walder writes, “the red guard movement had limped to an inglorious end,” and Mao had had enough. On July 28, 1968, he summoned the Red Guard leaders, who found the Chairman surrounded by his principal officials. In words of deepest hypocrisy, ignoring his previous statements and encouragements, Mao said:

I say you are divorced from the masses; the masses cannot accept civil war…. Well, now we are issuing a nationwide directive, and whoever violates it, striking at the army, sabotaging transportation, killing people, setting fires, is committing a crime. If there is a minority who will not listen to persuasion and refuses to change, then they are bandits…. We will wipe them out.

Eventually, Nie Yuanzi, together with other Red Guard leaders, was arrested and sent to prison.

Walder writes that his research has led him to conclude that “what is most remarkable about the Beijing red guard movement…is the extent to which the various mobilizations were ultimately defensive in nature.” One faction wanted to “nullify the potentially devastating impact of political verdicts lodged against its members…. [Another faction’s] mobilization…was in turn an effort to avoid being implicated in the recent political errors of the work teams and to prevent students hostile to it from taking power.”

As noted above, Walder rejects earlier explanations of the Beijing student movement. He argues that it was not simply an obedient tool mobilized by the Maoist leadership; nor did its factionalism spin out of control because the Red Guards represented different social constituencies with different opinions about how China was organized. Far from being a coherent social movement, he insists, what emerged was an episode of vast mass participation stirred into existence during the chaotic political situation engendered by Mao. He had replaced the Politburo with the Central Cultural Revolution Group, made up of his closest cronies; this body mobilized and directed the warring factions, placing informants within them and crushing Red Guards who stepped out of line. This was done so clumsily that the divisions deepened. As the violence increased, each side feared the deadly consequence: a “real prospect of physical harm…. The red guards were fighting not to lose.”

Yet lose they all did. By 1979, 16,470,000 “educated youth” had been “sent down” to the countryside.

But China’s nightmare did not end with Mao’s July 1968 meeting. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals write:

The dispersal of the Red Guards did not put an end to violence, but instead proved to be the prelude to an even wider-ranging campaign of terror during which even more people were tortured, maimed, driven mad, killed, or committed suicide.

By then, Mao was using the People’s Liberation Army and other official groups to forcibly suppress the Red Guards; their particular forms of brutality were no longer seen as useful but the Cultural Revolution continued, claiming millions of victims. This campaign, “cleansing the class ranks,” was directed by Zhou Enlai. For many reasons, some of them revenge or opportunism, deaths ran into the thousands throughout China. “The movement provided whoever happened to be in power with an opportunity to get rid of opponents.” Many in that generation never again believed in the Communist Party or much else.

In revolutionary China, the fear of losing may well have begun at Yan’an, Mao’s guerrilla headquarters long before the Communist triumph. The Red Guards were, after all, the actual or spiritual descendants of the men and women in and around the Yan’an caves. No one has described the atmosphere of fear that prevailed there as eloquently as David E. Apter and Tony Saich in Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic (1994)6. After interviewing 150 veterans of Yan’an, including “some very angry widows,” they noted that most had been persecuted for “crimes.” “Deviations to left or right, or both,” were seen as all the more heinous because those accused had previously been “official heroes of the revolution.” In 1966 the leaders who clustered around the aging Mao were largely old Yan’anites:

Each has, over the years, been betrayed and has betrayed, not once but many times…. They are plagued by guilty knowledge. For only they know what they have done to one another, both before Yan’an, when communist plotted against and killed communist…and when factions fought each other as surrogates for monopolistic truths…. Still thinking in terms of class struggle, they are frightened most of all of a war between civil society and the state.

This remains true in 2010, as dissidents disappear into jail or just vanish. The Beijing Red Guards imbibed their fears of being losers from their early childhood onward.

Elsewhere in China, Red Guards also fought one another; but more than fear of losing drove them. They fought over authority, legitimacy, and sometimes looted spoils. Walder acknowledges that “we should not automatically expect to see the same patterns [that prevailed in Beijing] among other social groups in other places.” He seems to lean hard on the writings of a Chinese scholar, Xu Youyu, a recently retired member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who was a high school student activist in Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution. Walder says that Xu “emphasized in considerable detail the differences between factional divisions in Beijing and in most outlying provinces.” The reasons for this distinction, Walder writes, “are a major subject for future research.” Much is still perplexing about the rampages of the Red Guards.

  1. 1

    Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution 3: The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961–1966 (Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 473.

  2. 2

    Resolution on CCP History (1949–1981) (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1981), p. 32.

  3. 3

    Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Flamingo, 1992), pp. 407–408.

  4. 4

    Translated and edited by T.P. Sym (Westview, 1996), p. 32.

  5. 5

    The ramifications of the hukou system and of the urban–rural divide have been comprehensively explored recently in One Country, Two Societies: Rural-Urban Inequality in Contemporary China, edited by Martin King Whyte (Harvard University Press, 2010).

  6. 6

    Harvard University Press, 1994.

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