Mao Zedong issued the first ideological salvo of the Cultural Revolution, a tumultuous political campaign that would go on to consume China in bloodshed, torture and chaos for almost a decade, and change the country forever.
Mao’s declaration condemned the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the army and the government for having been infiltrated by “representatives of the bourgeoisie” and “counter-revolutionary revisionists.”
“It was a social explosion of an unprecedented scale,” says Frank Dikotter, author of the new book “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History.”
Hundreds of thousands of people were killed as the country fell into what Dikotter describes as civil war, with different Red Guard and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) factions fighting each other, and millions more were displaced and traumatized as society broke down around them.
China’s ‘lost generation’ recall hardships of Cultural Revolution
Following the unmitigated disaster of the Great Leap Forward — in which tens of millions of ordinary Chinese died as a result of Mao’s policies — the Chairman was at perhaps his most vulnerable point since the end of the Second World War.
With his May 16 declaration, Mao sought to unleash the power of the people against his enemies in government.
What began in the universities of Beijing soon spread to wider society, with Mao personally writing a big-character poster entitled “Bombard the Headquarters” calling for an attack on the “command center of counter-revolution.”
“He pretty much asked the people to attack the Party, which we’ve never seen before or since,” says Dikotter.
“Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Un, none of them would ever think of asking ordinary people to attack the very machinery they themselves built up.”
On August 18, 1966, more than a million Red Guards gathered from all over the country in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. At the rally, Mao loyalist and defense chief Lin Biao told those assembled to attack “counter revolutionaries” and destroy the Four Olds of customs, culture, habits and ideas.
“There were endless numbers of people, who when they are asked by Mao to criticize Party members, simply can’t wait,” says Dikotter.
“There were so many pent up grievances caused by years of Communist rule. All those who suffered in the Great Leap Forward, workers in factories living in appalling conditions, victims of early campaigns and purges, and they really do denounce many of these Party leaders.”
Throughout this period, Dikotter says, Mao was “trying to create chaos in order to keep pretty much everyone on their toes.”
Even those who hated Communism, and knew they were being manipulated by Mao, embraced the opportunity to attack local cadres and Party officials.
Torture and suffering
Party officials were by no means the only ones targeted by Red Guards and the newly empowered citizenry.
Thousands of ordinary people — denounced as class enemies and counter revolutionaries — were abused, tortured and killed.
Many were forced into “cowsheds”, makeshift detention centers in which they were forced to perform manual labor and recite Maoist tracts and were regularly subject to beatings.
“After a few months in the cowshed, I could feel my emotions being dulled and my thoughts growing more stupid by the day,” writes Peking University professor Ji Xianlin in his memoir “The Cowshed.”
His experiences during that time were a “dizzying descent into hell,” Ji writes.
But they were not uncommon. Ji and other, sometimes very elderly, professors and teachers were beaten, spat upon and tortured in rallies and criticism sessions that could last hours.
In Daxing county, on the outskirts of Beijing, cadres ordered the extermination of all landlords and “other bad elements,” Dikotter recounts.
“Some were clubbed to death, others stabbed with chaff cutters or strangled with wire. Several were electrocuted. Children were hung by their feet and whipped.”
More than 300 people were killed, with their bodies thrown into disused wells and mass graves.
China's leaders during the Cultural Revolution: Premier Zhou Enlai, Chairman Mao Zedong and Defense Minister Lin Biao wave during a military parade on Tiananmen Square.