What Was The Cultural Revolution?
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Politics and Activism

What Was The Cultural Revolution?

Looking back, 50 years later.

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What Was The Cultural Revolution?
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The Chinese government isn't talking about it, but it's all over Western media — why has the Cultural Revolution, a bygone era in Chinese history, been making the rounds in the news recently? Here are some common questions, answered.

Why is the Cultural Revolution in the news now?

May 16, 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the date commonly cited as the start of the Cultural Revolution. In fact, May 16,1966 marked the release of the document outlining Chairman Mao Zedong's intentions, but the revolution was not officially launched until August of that year, with the release of "Sixteen Points."

Why did it begin?

Mao believed that his fellow party officials were becoming overly moderate and promoting economic policies that could cause a new bourgeoisie to emerge. Having completed his term as president, he feared that he was losing power and was regarded as a purely symbolic figure. Mao aimed to displace those officials who challenged his ideology and power. He called for the radicalization of his people in a war on the "Four Olds" (old habits, manners, custom, and culture).

Was the Cultural Revolution violent?

Very.

Party officials certainly did not support their own displacement, so Mao sought support from below. As early as May 1966, students began to organize themselves into groups of "Red Guards," and by June, schools had begun closing so that students could focus on revolutionary activities.

Though Mao warned against unjustified violence, student groups continually intensified their efforts. Red Guards destroyed religious buildings and historical relics, warred with rival Red Guards using heavy weapons and publicly humiliated anyone suspected of being a counterrevolutionary. Documents indicate that torture was sometimes followed by cannibalism. The era draws frequent comparisons to the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France.

A well-known story of the time is that of Zhang Hongbing, who, in 1970, denounced his own mother as a counter-revolutionary for making critical remarks about Mao. Sixteen-year-old Zhang recommended that she be shot, and indeed, she was later publicly executed. He says in USA Today, "It took me 10 years to realize that what I did was wrong. At the time, I believed I was doing my duty as a member of the revolutionary proletariat."

In early 1967, the government invoked the People's Liberation Army to contain the escalating violence. However, after a period of peace, violence continued to break out intermittently. Eventually, in 1968, the Red Guards were dispersed by sending large groups of urban youth to the countryside under the pretense of broadening their revolutionary experience.

What was happening politically during this period?

Mao's successors die; succession battle ensues.

By the time the Cultural Revolution began, Mao had already passed the presidency of China to Liu Shaoqi. After Khrushchev's 1956 denunciation of Stalin and Liu's push for economic change, Mao became fearful that his future would mirror Stalin's.

Deemed "China's Khrushchev," Liu was imprisoned in October 1968, where he died the following year after being denied medical care.

Defense Minister Lin Biao worked closely with Mao during the Revolution and was named Mao's successor in 1969. However, tension mounted as Mao grew wary of Lin's eagerness to assume power; in 1971, Lin died mysteriously in a plane crash. The Chinese government maintains that he had been attempting to escape after an unsuccessful attempt at assassinating Mao.

Lin's death reopened the question of succession. Premier Zhou Enlai hoped that Deng Xiaoping, an official who had been displaced early in the Revolution, would become Mao's successor. Zhou and Deng also pushed for a return to stability by increasing trade and reviving education; Mao agreed in principle but feared that such actions would call into question the purpose of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, pushed back by assembling a group of radical politicians, dubbed the Gang of Four; until Mao's death in 1976, the Gang of Four and Zhou/Deng fought for power. Meanwhile, Mao searched for a successor who embodied both sides, to no avail. After Mao's death, Deng took over and purged the Gang of Four. Thus, the Cultural Revolution officially ended.

What happened after?

After Deng assumed power, China's economic policies liberalized. For instance, the "Open Door Policy" of 1978 promoted trade with the rest of the world by establishing special economic zones in China with fewer regulations on foreign trade. This led to economic growth.

Nonetheless, scars remained in Chinese culture — those who were school-aged during the Revolution remained uneducated, bureaucrats feared that introduction of new policies would lead to the persecution of anyone who had supported outdated policies and those who had brutally attacked each other during the Revolution needed to live and work together once again. Disillusionment with the government took over.

To close off further discussion, the Chinese government released an assessment in 1981: it denounces the Revolution and concedes that Mao made mistakes despite having a net positive contribution to Chinese history. In the 21st century, the Revolution is scarcely discussed.

In addition to linked sources, digital editions of "Encyclopædia Britannica", "Encyclopedia of Modern Asia" and "Encyclopedia of Modern China" were used for reference.

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