Various theories exist as to why Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution. But there is generally a consensus – Mao felt his regime was under threat, and had to protect the power that had come into his hands only after decades of armed combat. Why did Mao feel he was losing his grip? Was someone trying to precipitate a coup? Did he see another peasant revolt coming – something that had toppled one Chinese dynasty after another over thousands of years? Or was he menaced by the imperialist and revisionist powers? I believe all of these concerns were on his mind, but none was of decisive importance.
Prior to the Cultural Revolution, Mao had already established himself as a supreme leader in the eyes of the population. Even if he wanted more prestige, that was no reason to start a revolution with devastating consequences on Chinese society and culture. While it is true that each Chinese dynasty was threatened at some point by peasant revolts and armed rebellions, this was also how Mao seized power in the first place. This is why after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao immediately disarmed the peasants through economic policies and propaganda. An avid reader of Chinese history, Mao understood the limitations of the Chinese peasants – unless they lived in absolute misery over many generations, and eventually had to sell their sons and daughters to make ends meet, the otherwise good-natured and timid Chinese peasants would rarely start an uprising. It is also absurd to assume Mao felt threatened by imperialist and revisionist powers; even though Mao had mistakenly thought the United States and the Soviet Union were about to invade China, he was never afraid of such an event.
I have no intention to defend Mao. I simply want to cast some doubt on the idea that Mao used the Cultural Revolution to defend his regime against various external threats. It would be easier to dismiss Mao as narrow-minded, a psychopath, or someone who became senile after turning 70 – that would be the end of the debate. But isn’t that a bit too convenient? After all, political movements similar to Mao’s Cultural Revolution also occurred in almost every country in the socialist camp, albeit on smaller scales. This means we cannot simply focus on Mao’s personality, but have to combine it with a deeper look at the institutional environment to identify the main cause of the Cultural Revolution. (Since this is not my area of expertise, I’m borrowing below from the consensus of scholars.)
As the founding father of the new China, Mao was more attached to his regime than anyone else. When he felt threatened, he would naturally rise and defend himself. But the threat had to come from within the regime, from among his own comrades. Had it been limited to certain individuals, Mao could easily have dealt with it by other means. However, he decided to start the Cultural Revolution. This is because, in Mao’s assessment, the threat to his regime and status was not just the incumbent president of China, Liu Shaoqi, or a few “bourgeois elements,” but a large number of party members who had become sympathetic toward capitalism. Mao understood at this point that his regime was no longer capable of rescuing itself by conventional means.
As an idealist, Mao had lost touch with the reality of China and the world after 1949. He knew the history of China like the back of his hand, but had poor judgement of the future of China and the world. Still, he thoroughly understood the weakness of his own regime. He realized his regime was rotting from within, and he saw his comrades taking advantage of the fruit of the revolution – this was a far cry from his ideal. Should he have waited till the people became fed up with corruption and had to take to the streets and overthrow the regime he had built up himself?
This has been a repetitive pattern throughout the history of China, and Mao would not let that happen. But Mao’s regime was fundamentally incapable of eradicating corrupted political elites. The several movements Mao initiated after 1949 had produced little effect. Mao subsequently invented a new strategy – to mobilize the population at the bottom to combat the bureaucrats and intelligentsia in the middle.
Mao clearly understood that when a regime starts to rot from within, the people will eventually take to the streets, to wipe out that very culture of corruption. But by the time that happens, the enemy of the people will no longer just be the corrupted officials, but the regime that gave birth to and harbored such corruption. Would Mao simply sit back and let that happen? Rather than waiting for the people to start a revolution, he decided to instigate the revolution himself and, under his own leadership, neutralize the corrupted and bourgeois elements in the middle. It was a battle to defend his regime by becoming the leader of a “spontaneous” grass-root movement.
What followed was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. However nostalgic some of the old Red Guards today may feel about that “spontaneous” revolution, they were no more than Mao’s puppets on a string. Throughout the Cultural Revolution, Mao was the only person who did not lose control over the turn of events.
Most of the evaluations of the Cultural Revolution today agree on this one point – it was a disaster for the Chinese people. But we can also ask another question – would Mao’s regime have survived without that disaster? If we had followed the path of the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, would we still be building “socialism with Chinese characteristics”?
Political elites who were targeted in the Cultural Revolution and some scholars seem to entertain the view that China would have been in a much better place if it weren’t for Mao’s political movements after 1949 and the Cultural Revolution that followed. In other words, hundreds of millions of Chinese were simply misled by Mao. While this might be pleasant to the ears of those who suffered in the Cultural Revolution, it is not a viable assessment of that period in history. I have to ask, after Mao passed away and was enshrined in the Tiananmen Square, who was leading the hundreds of millions of Chinese then, and where were we going anyway?
Almost every socialist country has experienced political movements similar to Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but none was as radical. Is this why China remains the only significant socialist power today? Some suggest China was saved by reforms and economic development, but this simply does not hold water. Even during the most successful phase of reforms, China was still lagging behind the Soviet Union and several Eastern European countries in terms of its living standards. I am not making any big claims. I simply want to say that whether the Cultural Revolution was a disaster depends on the perspective. It was a disaster for the Chinese people as well as the nation’s economy and cultural heritage. But if you look at it from the perspective of regime stabilization, the conclusion might not be so straightforward.
It is easy to judge history in hindsight. There is now a popular view that China’s economy would have been much more robust, and its living standards much higher, if it weren’t for the Cultural Revolution. There might be a ring of truth to this, but was China in 1966 without any difficulties? Did the Cultural Revolution happen out of nowhere? Were the institutions before the Cultural Revolution more evolved, more advanced, and more representative of the people? Did we have a better society? Can anyone claim there was no abuse of power that infuriated the people?
Based on my studies, officials back then were quite corrupted by their power and were indifferent to the suffering around them. Was the social system before the Cultural Revolution any more effective in containing the abuse of power, the disparity between the rich and the poor, and corruption than what we have today? In my recollection, a secretary at the people’s commune back then was like a small emperor, taking advantage of women under the pretense of “ideological work,” enjoying privileges unimaginable for the rest of us. Was China really such an ideal society before the Cultural Revolution? Or was it only ideal for those corrupted officials and political elites who later became the target of the angry people during the Cultural Revolution?
The brutality of the Cultural Revolution may have blinded us to the darkness that existed before it. While a lot of it is buried in history, we know where China is today. China is in a much better place now than in 1966, but a grass-roots nostalgia for Mao has been growing. Many young people are saying if Mao returned, they would start another Cultural Revolution. They would bring down the corrupted officials one by one and stamp on their bodies.
Young people who are calling for another Cultural Revolution may have little idea of what happened back then. This is not their mistake, but the fault of our society and institutions. We are not supposed to reflect on the Cultural Revolution these days; if we did we would perhaps gain some perspective. For most Chinese, when they think about the Cultural Revolution, their mind conjures up images of political slogans and scenes of public humiliation. The president of China died a wretched death. His wife was forced to wear a necklace made up of ping-pong balls. The provincial secretary’s home was raided. The governor had a board stuck on his back with his crime written on it. The details of their corrupted life were disclosed to the public. Party committee members across the country were humiliated. Their possessions at home, including gold and valuable artworks, were plundered. Intellectuals were targeted as well. Some officials had to move out of their villas, some lost their housemaids, some their chauffeurs. The offspring of the “bourgeois elements” in a country with the lowest living standards in the world had their privileges taken away, and were brutally beaten up by the Red Guards.
Is this what the Cultural Revolution is about? If you asked an average Chinese in the street now if they are prepared to have another Cultural Revolution. I can tell you this: not only are they prepared to have another revolution, this time they will line up all the corrupted officials and have them executed.
Even those intellectuals who are too aloof to be bothered with the lower segment of the Chinese population should understand that if such an opportunity presents itself, if the Cultural Revolution is to be revived in some form or another, the hundreds of millions of Chinese who are struggling to survive will bring all those officials, from a minister to a local mayor, to public humiliation, if not the guillotine, without any hesitation. Their revolutionary energy will not be any inferior to the energy unleashed during the Cultural Revolution. They will even defend themselves this way: “Last time we were duped by Mao and became his pawns; this time it is for us!”
The predicaments facing China in 1966 still exist today, because our social institutions have not changed that much. The ills an ordinary Chinese was aware back then of not only remain till this day, but might even be more severe. The frustration Mao felt at the time is also pestering the leaders today.
The piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. You can view the original here.