How Reds Smashed Reds

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.