Rebel is Right

Reassessing the Cultural Revolution

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The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution by Yang Jisheng, translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 768 pages.

This July, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrated its centenary. Next year will see the twentieth national Party congress, at which a successor to current leader Xi Jinping may or may not be designated. International attention has been focused on a new version of the Cold War between China and the United States. Meanwhile, domestically, the Party has launched a series of indoctrination campaigns, bombarding the masses with state-centered narratives of history, while tightening control over the public sphere, online and offline.

Today it might be taken for granted that the Party’s National Congress is held every five years, but this frequency is quite recent and reflects the forces that have shaped the CCP over the last century. From the Party’s founding in 1921 to 1928, there were six National Congresses. Then there were big gaps, each of more than a decade, with the next three in 1945, 1956, and 1969. These are marks of Mao Zedong’s ascent during the war years, and his dominance after the Communists seized power in 1949. The current schedule was proposed in 1958 but not put into practice until Mao’s death in 1976. The ringleaders of the coup that followed held a National Congress in 1977, revamping the Party’s leadership and basic structure.

The CCP’s emphasis on regularity is a response against Mao-style personal tyranny on the one hand, and popular mass protests since the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre on the other. Deng Xiaoping’s slogan “Stability is the top priority,” first declared in February 1989, became a convenient way for the state to bring society under control. Since then, the annual budget for “stability maintenance” has risen and expanded to encompass more recent “anti-terrorism” excursions in minority regions, such as northwest Xinjiang province, where Uyghurs and other Muslim communities are targeted. The same logic of stability has conditioned the Party itself, though this has received less attention. Adherence to formality is now a hallmark of the CCP’s internal management. Today’s leaders like to evoke Mao, but their working style is in stark contrast to his own, especially during the Great Leap Forward and the early phase of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), when Mao sought to bypass the Party apparatus and reach the masses directly.

China’s leaders today spent their formative years during the GPCR, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, and the party Xi commands is very much the product of that tumultuous decade. Yet GPCR-related documents are sparse in the Party’s copious official online archives. In the newly revised, official brief history of the Party, the GPCR is lumped together with the post-1949 era; together, they are painted as twenty-seven years of daring socialist experimentation. Mao is positively commemorated, as is his wife Jiang Qing. In recent years, some of the model operas written under her guidance have even been reenacted in Shanghai and Beijing to give the youth some revolutionary education. What has been deliberately omitted, or simply covered up, are the victims of the GPCR.

Writing about the GPCR is not impossible in China—but publishing is more complicated. The few public accounts that exist are by authors who have specialized in the topic since the 1980s. They largely follow the line set then by Deng Xiaoping, who promoted criticism against the GPCR while silencing those who held Mao personally responsible for its excesses. New names have not been allowed into the field in decades. That said, those who publish abroad or in Hong Kong, or post their writings online, are not persecuted. There are even several e-journals dedicated to the GPCR within China, run by self-trained scholars, though most terminated publication around 2016, when Xi tightened his grip on free expression. The journalist Yang Jisheng published articles on the GPCR in the influential liberal journal Yanhuang chunqiu (China through the ages) where he has also been an editor. This journal, too, was forcefully “rectified” in 2016. At the end of the author’s note of his new book, The World Turned Upside Down, Yang acknowledges many scholars and online databases in China, attesting to the serious interest in the GPCR among the Chinese. Yet, as the subtitle, “A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,” indicates, Yang’s book is meant to be a comprehensive account of a subject that deserves the world’s attention.

China’s leaders today spent their formative years during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

This is Yang’s second book to be translated into English. The first, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (first published in 2008 and translated in 2012), won prizes and brought him international recognition. Where earlier studies had mostly relied on foreign intelligence, his pathbreaking work was the first to draw on secret documents from official archives within China. Though the Great Famine of 1958–1962 resulted from Mao’s fantastic industrialization project, the Great Leap Forward, it has, unlike the GPCR, not been officially recognized as a man-made disaster. Most of its victims, estimated at fifteen to forty-five million in total, were peasants who left hardly a trace in the public record. In fact, Yang’s own father was starved to death during the famine, a traumatizing experience which he connects to the regime’s policy in the book.

By contrast, there is a considerable body of international scholarship on the GPCR. Two major recent histories are Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhal’s Mao’s Last Revolution (2006) and Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 (2016). There have also been impressive studies with a narrower focus, including Andrew G. Walder’s work on the Red Guards and Joel Andreas’s on the “red engineers”; Yang Su’s Collective Killings in Rural China during the Cultural Revolution (2011); and Yiching Wu’s The Cultural Revolution at the Margins (2014). Yang’s new history thus serves as an addition, rather than a breakthrough.

Culture Wars

The GPCR was deliberately incited by Mao in mid-May 1966 as a movement against the dominance of a new cultural and bureaucratic elite inside the Party, who were accused of “revisionism”—the perceived abandonment of class struggle. The usually efficient Party apparatus, led by PRC vice president Liu Shaoqi, initially tried to follow Mao’s lead. But it was crushed two months later when Mao mobilized young students, the infamous Red Guards, to break ranks and attack suspected “class enemies” during the “Red August.” Grassroots organizations sprung up across the country in response to Mao’s call. Of these, he placed particular hope in Shanghai workers’ initiatives to form a new kind of government. Instead, chaos ensued until mid-1968, with bloody fighting between “rebels” believing in Mao’s principles on one side, and “conservatives” supported tacitly by the military on the other.

When order was eventually restored, military personnel were incorporated at every level of the government. Liu Shaoqi was banished and died a lonely death in 1969. The “Gang of Four”—Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen, led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing—rose to prominence in national politics in the later stages of the GPCR. While Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping were put in charge of reviving the national economy, they were constrained by the Gang, which had Mao’s backing until his death in September 1976. One month later, the Gang was arrested in a coup, bringing the GPCR to an end.

The tumult caused an enormous loss of human life. Many died in the first round of violence at the hands of Red Guards, but even more were killed from 1967 to 1969 by rural militias operating with the support of Party leaders eager to restore their authority. Estimated casualties of the GPCR range around two million, with tens of millions more persecuted, including those “rebels” who found themselves enemies of the Party post-1969, as well as the estimated seventeen million people who were sent to the countryside to receive “reeducation” from peasants.

Yang witnessed the GPCR first-hand as a college student. At the age of twenty, in 1960, he left his village in central China and arrived at Tsinghua University in Beijing to be trained as an engineer in automobile production. Identified as a promising activist, he was appointed the Communist Youth League secretary of his class and recruited into the Party in 1964. When he was scheduled to graduate in 1966, the GPCR closed down every school in the country. Favored as he was by the Party’s establishment, Yang would not have been a typical Red Guard, though he did join the moderate rebels out of resentment against bureaucratic functionaries. The rebel factions at his school merged, reshuffled, and splintered for about two years, culminating in the notorious “one hundred-day” violence in spring 1968, during which several students were killed.

By then, Yang had left campus. He joined the Xinhua News Agency and was stationed in the neighboring city of Tianjin. In the years after the Cultural Revolution, he embraced the Reform Era and began critically reflecting on the history of the People’s Republic under the Party’s rule. From the late nineties onward, he wrote several books, many of which were published in Hong Kong, about China’s path in the Reform era, and also the Tiananmen Massacre. He attacked the Party’s bureaucratic class for its grip on power and for nipping away at the economic reforms that had benefited so many Chinese people.

On rare occasions in the new book, Yang draws on his memories of the GPCR in Tsinghua. He has good reasons to train his eyes on his alma mater. China’s two leading universities, Tsinghua and Peking, were playgrounds that Mao experimented on with his final revolutionary project. In a 2012 article written about the memoir of a Tsinghua student rebel leader, Yang analyzed Mao’s handling of the GPCR campaign at the university. Surveying the first three years of the revolution, he observed an inflection point: in 1966, Mao accused Liu Shaoqi of carrying a “bourgeois reactionary line” by parachuting cadre-led work teams to campuses to suppress the student rebels. Yet by the summer of 1968, Mao himself dispatched external forces to Tsinghua to stop factional infighting. A year later, after the ninth national Party congress, the new leadership issued an “order” (mingling) prohibiting any new rebel organizations. Only three years into the upheaval, the massive bottom-up movement that Mao had encouraged was no longer its driving force. In The World Turned Upside Down, Yang expands this interpretation in order to illuminate the era’s two distinct phases.

Yang acknowledges that a majority of the GPCR’s rebels did not act on independent judgement but rather blindly worshiped Mao. At the same time, he underscores that they were also the primary victims of the era’s political persecution. Putting everything together, he views the GPCR as a triangular power struggle between the rebels, the bureaucrats, and Mao, who wavered between the two, only to sacrifice the former and suffer defeat at the hands of the latter. Yang sees the bureaucrats’ final victory in Deng Xiaoping resurfacing as China’s leader in the Reform Era.

My Name is Red

Nowadays, the scholarly consensus is that the GPCR began with the Party’s May 16 Circular of 1966. The circular identified bourgeois subversion as the primary danger facing the Party, and it framed the goals of the new revolution as a “class struggle” against “revisionists.” However, the Circular was transmitted through Party channels and was not shared with the general populace until a year later. For the masses, whom Mao aimed to mobilize directly, the opening came on the evening of June 1, when the central broadcasting station read aloud what Mao described as “the first Marxist-Leninist big character poster.” Written by a group of young teachers at Peking University, it was a critique of their superiors. But in what sense was this poster Marxist-Leninist? As if to answer the question, four days after the radio broadcast, the People’s Daily published an editorial quoting from a speech Mao gave in the 1940s, in which he says that the “rationale of Marxism, no matter how many issues involved, can be boiled down to one sentence: rebel is right.” Peking University’s teachers represented the spirit of rebellion.

In his effort to undermine official Party channels, Mao publicized a letter he wrote on August 1 in support of a group of students from Tsinghua University’s secondary school, the first to call themselves “Red Guards.” Four days later, Mao forced Liu Shaoqi to reverse a Party decision condemning an incident of student violence against professors and Party cadres at Peking University that June. This sent an explicit signal, encouraging violence toward “class enemies.” On August 18, Mao embarked on his first review of Red Guards at Tiananmen Square. A photo of him receiving an armband from a female student was published in newspapers throughout the country, accompanied by the story that he had encouraged her to be militant. Over the next three months, Mao held eight such events with millions of youngsters, who traveled from all over the country to Beijing for free. Meanwhile the People’s Daily ran commentaries hailing the “revolutionary spirit” of the Red Guards in smashing the “olds.” Mass organizations, which proliferated in schools across the country, also called themselves Red Guards, taking pride in militancy or violence, and rejecting the Party’s weakening authority at the provincial level.

Yang acknowledges that a majority of the GPCR’s rebels did not act on independent judgement but rather blindly worshiped Mao.

Yet the term Red Guards was ultimately kept alive for about two years only. It was used primarily when the old kind of “class enemies”—former landlords, counterrevolutionaries, Rightists, leading scholars and artists, and so forth—were the ones being targeted by the GPCR. For Mao and Jiang Qing, the term rebel remained far more important than Red Guard. While they eventually stopped using both terms, they never openly denounced the latter concept. (Denunciation of the “rebels” only became official policy under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s.) Still, Yang tells us that Mao himself parted with the “rebels” in mid-1968, and that the “rebels” of the early GPCR years were among those who suffered the most in attacks that occurred after this point.

The shifting status of the term rebel highlights the two phases of the GPCR. Yang cites Mao’s remark that the first two and a half years of the GPCR were the period of “great chaos under Heaven,” and the remaining eight or so years were to bring “great order under Heaven.” This characterization is perhaps slippery. It might be more useful to borrow Richard Rorty’s concept of movements and campaigns; a campaign is “finite, something that can be recognized to have succeeded or to have, so far, failed,” while movements “are too big and too amorphous to do anything that simple.” To be sure, in the years before and during the GPCR, there was no linguistic distinction between movement and campaign. They were all called political yundong. From late 1968 on, however, yundong acquired a more restricted meaning, often used in reference to specific policies or ideological themes, in other words, more akin to a campaign.

The changing nature of yundong during the GPCR can be seen in Yang’s arrangement of the book’s chapters. In the chapters dealing with the first two and half years, the reader is told of larger social forces shaping the big drama: the Red Guards; mass organizations; worker groups; the armed forces; and the interplay of all of the above in a particularly dramatic incident in the city of Wuhan in 1967. That summer, Mao was so confident about producing a new provincial government uniting rebel and conservative factions that he traveled secretly to Wuhan to swim in the Yangtze River as a public celebration. Instead, local military commanders, who had long supported the conservative side of the conflict, resisted orders relayed to them by Premier Zhou Enlai and deployed troops, putting Mao himself in danger.

In contrast, seven specific campaigns that took place across the rest of the decade are discussed in Yang’s next ten chapters. Of these campaigns, three were aimed at stabilizing the social order, and each left hundreds of thousands of victims, mostly former “rebels,” in their wake. The other four campaigns targeted high-ranking cadres who had lost Mao’s favor: theorist Chen Boda in 1970, Mao’s designated successor Lin Biao in 1971, Zhou Enlai in 1974, and then Deputy Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping in 1976. All of these yundongs, properly rendered as “campaigns” by Yang’s translators, were organized from the top down by operators under Mao’s immediate command.

Mao embraced socioeconomic back-wardness, which offered an advantage when it came to transforming the social order.

The focus of the Party’s ninth National Congress, held in early 1969, was to bring the disorder of the GPCR’s early years under control. Party organization, along with top-down commanding channels, were reinstated, local authorities were reestablished in the form of the Revolution Committee, and the armed forces became heavily involved in civilian administration. Most tellingly, the leadership group headed by Jiang Qing that had been involved in running the GPCR, was phased out. But Jiang herself became a member of the powerful new Politburo, representing the fresh “rebel” tradition of the GPCR, from then on commonly known as the “Cultural Revolution” faction. “Rebel” became an honorific for the fortunate minority that was incorporated into the new power structure, mostly at provincial levels. Grassroots “rebel” organizations, however, were strictly banned or criminalized. The post-1969 order recentralized political power to a greater extent than even before the GPCR. Only this time, it was under the tight control of the “Cultural Revolution” faction, guided by Mao.

What about the opposition? To Yang, they were all “bureaucrats.” But there isn’t much evidence that the four figures targeted in campaigns during the early 1970s found backing in the post-1969 administration. It was only in the Reform Era that “bureaucrats,” following Deng, took control of the country’s economic development and seized upon the opportunity to enrich themselves.

Utopia, No

The third side in Yang’s triangular scheme is Mao, whose utopian visions are said to be key. In the past, scholars have argued that the GPCR was merely an outgrowth of a power struggle between Mao and Liu. But then why would Mao go to such lengths to mobilize the masses and take extreme measures like paralyzing the government? This can only be explained, Yang argues, by considering Mao’s utopian politics. Going further, he contends that Mao had a specific vision of utopia that privileged the collective over the individual. For Yang, such an ideology inevitably leads to authoritarian terror—this is his ultimate critique of the GPCR.

Yang identifies three very different texts as the bases of Mao’s utopian blueprint: the May 7 Directive of 1966, the Principles of the Paris Commune of 1871, and the ancient Chinese concept of “Great Harmony” (Datong). In these texts, Yang identifies seven core aspects of Mao’s utopianism, from eliminating the division of labor and the trade of commodities, to holding general elections of representatives. Mao might have authentically believed in these ideals at some point. In practice, however, he repudiated them one by one. “Mao envisaged being able to recall public servants at will,” Yang comments, “but that would require an ultrapowerful individual higher than the public organs. Clearly, what Mao imagined was a totalitarian society ruled by a super powerful individual and with no rule of law.” And so concludes his discussion of Mao’s utopianism. Reading through the hundreds of pages of his history, one can find little connection between this supposed vision and the endless political machinations and power jockeying covered.

The late historian Maurice Meisner took a different stance. In Marxism, Maoism, and Utopianism (1982), he argued that fighting for revolution in a largely agrarian country, Mao was at best indifferent to, and inherently suspicious about, the progressive quality of historical capitalism that Marxism takes for granted. Rather, Mao embraced socioeconomic backwardness, which offered an advantage when it came to transforming the social order. In other words, Mao valued equality above higher industrial development. He was trapped between this mindset and the imperative of China’s industrialization; that contradiction shaped the major campaigns and movements he initiated after 1949, including the Great Leap Forward and the GPCR. In each case, his utopian drive proved “ultimately abortive in both theory and practice,” Meisner writes, “contributing greatly to the political turbulence that marked the final two decades of the Maoist era.”

The word abortive is instructive here. Consider, for instance, the destruction of the oppressive pre-GPCR bureaucracy: a major goal of the GPCR. Both Yang and Meisner argue that the GPCR’s initial mass mobilization drew on popular resentment against bureaucrats, which Mao exploited with great success. This suggests that the bureaucratic machine was running at high efficiency, especially against political dissent. That is why the “first Marxist-Leninist big character poster” could not shake the apparatus, even with the aid of People’s Daily editorials. Mao left Beijing, assigning Liu Shaoqi to handle the GPCR. Some two months later, however, he returned and launched his first attack on Liu for his suppression of the masses’ revolutionary enthusiasm. Party plenary meetings were convened. Mass rallies were held in both Peking and Tsinghua universities to encourage the Red Guards. Some two months after the first poster, the Party’s formal guidelines for the GPCR, known as the Sixteen Articles, were finally issued to the public. This document denounced the “capitalist roaders” inside the Party for suppressing the rising mass movement and encouraged the masses to educate themselves.

But while calling on smashing the “old,” the Sixteen Articles also reaffirmed Mao’s authority and the power of the Party, placing clear limits on the meaning of “rebel is right.” This set the pattern of official discourse that went on throughout the GPCR: Mao was presented as the only legitimate representative of the Party and the Communist ideal. After Mao embarked on his first review of the Red Guard masses at Tiananmen Square, the movement grew proportionately with his personality cult. To “question everything,” Marx’s famous dictum, became popular for a while in the summer of 1966, though this impulse disappeared a few months later, giving way to a curious phenomenon. From 1967 to 1968, even during the worst moments of factional violence, the fighting parties would each claim their own side as most loyal to Mao. In this fashion, Meisner notes, Mao bolstered “his own claim as the source of essential political truths. He emerged . . . as both the leader of the Party and as the spokesman for ‘the people.’ In the latter guise, he could stand above the Party and its leaders by representing himself as the incarnation of the popular will.”

The anti-bureaucratic drive had been real enough, as was the masses’ response. Yet the structural setting meant that the “mass democracy” (da minzhu) Mao promoted could never become institutionalized as procedural democracy. Approval from “above” was—and still is—how the Party appoints officials. The fates of anti-bureaucratism and the rebel movement were thus tied, as Mao changed his mind and heart, sending the Army to restore order in summer 1968.

As for how the Paris Commune of 1871 influenced Mao, internal documents show that he mentioned it in private conversations in June 1966. Excited about the “first Marxist-Leninist big character poster,” Mao claimed that it was effectively the manifesto of a Beijing Commune. Officially, the first reference to the Commune appears in the Sixteen Articles, though Yang does not include this in his summary of the document, and Mao subsequently dismissed the notion of a Commune. Historically, that may be true. In January 1967, when Shanghai rebels were ready to found a Shanghai Commune, Mao vetoed the project. Instead, the banal title of “committee” was adopted. Nonetheless, the Sixteen Articles, and other events of August 1966, gave such concepts popular traction. The initial months of the GPCR were an intellectual catalyst. Lively young minds, encouraged by ideas coming from official channels, started exploring issues, including the relation between a commune and the state. Several lost their lives for asking too many sharp questions. Ironically, this political awakening informed the resistance to Mao’s deradicalization effort of 1968–1969. It also nurtured widespread distrust of his subsequent campaigns, which were mostly run by the “Cultural Revolution” faction of the Gang of Four.

Of all the strands in Mao’s utopian imagination, the May 7 Directive of 1966 is often taken as the guiding ideal of the GPCR. Yang’s book provides a translation of (almost) the whole text. The ideas articulated therein are a mixture of the “Communist new man” and a loosely defined commune of self-sufficiency. The vision is collectivist. In a given setting, everyone will engage in direct production, while also having a primary occupation. The setting itself will function as a great school, training members so that, as it was elaborated in later years, the three discrepancies—between worker and peasant, town and countryside, and mental and manual labour—can be eliminated. This will ensure that capitalism has no chance of revival. “The Army should serve as a big school,” Mao said. People can “learn politics, military affairs, and culture. They can also engage in agriculture and sideline occupations and operate small factories to produce some of the goods they need as well as products for equal value exchange with the state . . . the Army has been doing this for decades, but now it is necessary to develop it further.”

Once deradicalization came on the agenda, however, Mao began to twist the Directory’s ideas. In late 1967, he issued a battle call against “selfishness” (dou si), which was deemed a tendency to oppose along with revisionism (pi xiu). The People’s Daily explained that since the PRC had eliminated private (si) ownership, the danger of counterrevolution or capitalist restoration now resided mainly in one’s consciousness. The same Chinese character si not only bound together structural and individual transformation, it made the latter a target of thought reform through self-criticism, diverting youthful energy inwards and away from rebellion.

At about the same time, the central leadership ordered all educational institutions to resume classes and to engage students in political studies and labor training. Those who should have graduated college in summer 1966, such as Yang, started to get job assignments. By the summer of 1969, most secondary school graduates were coerced, following the spirit of the May 7 Directive, to resettle in the countryside and receive “reeducation” from poor peasants. College graduates were sent to military farms, as the Army was the great school for revolutionaries. Meanwhile, cadres and State employees were sent to perform agricultural labor on a rotating basis. The communal vision of the May 7 Directive was subordinated to reconstructing a “Communist new man” through punitive measures.

Mao was never straightforwardly brutal during the GPCR.

Mao’s utopian vision for the GPCR has been a contested topic among scholars, especially when it comes to the second phase, the post-1969 years. In Yang’s account, all the struggles after that point appear to be about Mao’s anxiety, or paranoia, over questions of succession and preserving his political legacy, which often became farcical. For others, like Wang Hui, this was a period of rich, if neglected, theoretical debate. Meisner is the exception, who sees its abortive nature in the transition between phases. As he writes, the Party’s National Congress of 1969 sanctioned Mao’s theory of “continuous revolution under proletarian dictatorship.” But this was a change from “permanent revolution,” and Meisner detects pessimism in the change.

If we compare the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, it becomes clear that the former was launched on positive utopian terms, whereas the latter was full of fear of defeat. One was about marching forward, and the other was self-defense against a potential capitalist restoration. Mao’s heightened alarm about the disappearance of class struggle in the years preceding 1966, and his targeting of “capitalist roaders” with the Party during the GPCR, all derived from this anxiety. It rings a bell more dystopian than utopian.

Party Til You Drop

Mao’s retreat after 1969 was both ideological and political. That it was political is not only due to the power struggles between various factions inside the central leadership. The state was also being challenged on multiple fronts. The border war with USSR in 1969, the PRC claiming China’s seat at the United Nations in 1971, and the rapprochement with the United States in 1972—these developments once again impressed on Mao the urgent need for industrialization, which he had suspended at the outset of the GPCR. In 1973 and with Mao’s approval, China undertook projects worth billions of U.S. dollars to import industrial production lines. Yet in the same year, China was compelled to import cotton, due to declining harvests and a growing urban population. The total number of state employees, along with expenditures on wages and the total sale of grain stock, had all grown out of central planning’s control.

What Xi Jinping admires most of the GPCR is not the utopian visions that Mao shared with the masses at the beginning.

Mao’s retreat can be charted in the latter “campaigns” covered by Yang’s history. Up to 1974, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping were busy rebuilding the bureaucratic apparatus to carry out economic plans. But their efforts were resisted by the Party’s “Cultural Revolution” faction, who sought to prolong Mao’s fragmented visions, only absent his earlier confidence. Remnants of the May 7 Directive vision did indeed coexist with the restoration of old practices; the result was that both sides lost their rhetorical power. Conflicting orders coming out of the center in turn produced widespread resentment throughout the Party, as well as corruption. The situation contributed to popular discontent against the Gang of Four and popular support for Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. It led, eventually, to the coup against the Gang. Economically, at least one direct consequence of the overheating economy was a squeeze of agriculture surplus, suppressing peasants’ living standards at subsistence levels. This would become the pivotal point of economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping.

Since Mao’s death in 1976, China has experienced dramatic economic changes. Has the CCP changed as well? With nearly a hundred million members, it is now the second largest political party in the world. And only the Workers Party of Korea has been continuously in power for longer. As the CCP celebrated its centenary in July, some voices inside China wanted to emphasize the contrast between Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping; they accused Xi of returning to Mao’s GPCR line and betraying the path paved by Deng toward openness and reform. But this misses the continuity between Mao and Deng.

Exactly forty years ago, the CCP under Deng’s leadership passed its resolution on the GPCR, encouraging the nation to look to the future and leave the fervor behind, with no need for further examination or reflection. It is true that Deng himself suffered under Mao’s purges. In 1968, while being interrogated and tortured by Red Guards, his eldest son fell from a building window and was paralyzed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he saw the GPCR primarily as luan—chaos, or turmoil. When the pro-democracy movement broke out in Beijing in April 1989, Deng authorized a People’s Daily editorial that charged the protesters with arousing GPCR-style unrest. This shocked the students and Beijing citizens, for they saw it as a return to the ideological hypocrisy of the Gang of Four. The next day, protesters held what was then the largest non-official march in PRC history, even as the Army and police threatened to block them. This set the stage for the final showdown: the Tiananmen Massacre of June 4. Deng’s answer came in the form of bullets and tanks: the Party cannot be challenged!

Mao was never so straightforwardly brutal during the GPCR. When he took aim at some Party targets in 1966, the Red Guards and rebels were encouraged to “kick away the Party committee in order to make revolution.” Even in the years after 1969, Mao gave theoretical excuses for his campaigns against old comrades. But in practice, especially during the Gang of Four’s ascendance in the early 1970s, the Party’s grip on national political life became ever more pervasive. Deng’s reforms may have dismissed ideological rigidity and encouraged “thought liberation,” but he never let the Party lose power. This is the greatest legacy Xi Jinping received from both Mao and Deng.

When Xi is praised for, or accused of, imitating Mao in the GPCR, the similarities between the two are limited to the post-1969 phase, when the Party reclaimed its systemic control over the country. By the early 1970s, the Chinese Communist Youth League resumed its organizational work. There were no longer “Red Guards” in middle schools or higher educational institutions; they lingered on in only elementary schools, where young pupils were organized into the “little Red Guards” (hong xiao bing) group. Today, many nationalist internet users, sometimes known as the “little pinks” (xiao fenhong) for not being truly Red, are mistakenly viewed as China’s new Red Guards. But they are more like new versions of the “little Red Foot Soldiers,” who recoil the moment an authority turns on them in displeasure.

What Xi Jinping admires most of the GPCR is not the utopian visions that Mao shared with the masses at the beginning. Xi’s fascination, what he is most willing to take as the GPCR’s legacy, is the Party’s absolute authority over every aspect of national life. Against this, Yang Jisheng is determined to speak out. I admire Yang for his courage.

Chaohua Wang, a freelance critic and translator, writes in English and Chinese on politics and intellectual life in the PRC and beyond.

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