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The Great Proletarian
Cultural Revolution in China,

After the truly catastrophic failures of Mao Zedong's attempt at central planning and control called The Great Leap Forward in which twenty to forty million people in north central China died of starvation Mao withdrew from active rule and left Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping to guide the economy to recovery.

Pronunciation of names
q=ch, x=sh, zh=sound in measure and treasure
Liu Shaoqi = Lyoo Shou chee
Zhou Enlai = Zhoh En Lahy
Deng Xiaoping = Dung Shou ping

All had been loyal Maoists but they no longer believed in the brand of radical fervor that Mao advocated. Under the new leadership there was a shift to an emphasis on expertise rather than ideological purity. There is some evidence, according to Harrison Salisbury, that Mao made a formal agreement with the three that he would give them free rein to bring about a recovery of the economy and that he would stay out of government and politics for five years.

Mao Zedong

In 1966, after spending years studying political economy and the classics of Chinese history, Mao was ready to act. Mao was disillusioned with the revisionist direction that the Communist Party was taking in the Soviet Union and saw China probably heading in the same direction. He gathered a bloc of radicals to aid him in his attack on the leadership of the Communist Party. These included:





Jiang Qing
before her days of radical chic

Jiang Qing
in her later years

Premier Zhou Enlai was not one of the radicals but he always deferred to and supported Mao.

Lin Biao was a factor in the power struggle but he was separate from the radicals and from the moderates. He was working toward his own eventual rise to supreme power. For material on Lin Biao's career see Lin Biao.

Lin Biao

Mao realized that it would not be easy to purge the Communist Party of its leaders. One misstep on his part and the leadership could effectively imprison him in some isolated palace and continue to rule in his name. It would take a social upheaval to keep the leadership disoriented and unsure of what actions to take. Although the Cultural Revolution was a disaster for China it was a brilliant piece of guerilla action on Mao's part in the power struggle he instigated.

In 1966 Mao staged a media event to indicate that he was still vigorous at 72 years of age and ready to resume leadership in China. It was a swim in the Changjiang (Yangtze River).

Mao Zedong
swimming (sort of)
in the Changjiang
(Yangtze River)

Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in August of 1966 at a Plenum of the Central Committee when he called for Red Guards to challenge Communist Party officials for their bourgeoisness and lack of revolutionary zeal. Articles in Party newspapers preceding this official launching introduced the concept of the Cultural Revolution.

Schools were closed to free students to join the Red Guards. The movement escalated but it also splintered into factions, all claiming fervent devotion to Chairman Mao. Mao promoted, or at least sanctioned, a personality cult that exceeded that created for Joseph Stalin. Lin Biao was a major influence in the creation of the personaliy cult for Mao.

The Team of Three

Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping

Mao first engineered the ousting of Liu Shaoqi from power. Liu was imprisoned and beaten. In 1968 he was taken to a solitary prison where he died sick and alone. Deng Xiaoping was removed from top offices but not imprisoned. He was sent to a remote factory to work as a machinist, a skilled he learned in France during his student days.

Deng as a student

Deng and his wife could communicate in their apartment only through written notes because their living quarters were bugged.

Deng as mature leader

Zhou Enlai remained in power but with waning influence over political events.

Defense Minister Lin Biao ordered the military to support the Cultural Revolution but disorder was emerging as different factions of the Red Guard and other radical movements fought each other for control of areas. In some cases these battles of the Red Guards and other elements of the Cultural Revolution involved fifty thousand people and were full scale military operations. When there occurred signs of impatience among the military in 1967 with the disorder of the Cultural Revolution, Mao ordered the military to suppress the movement. In 1968 Mao sent the Red Guards and other young people to the countryside supposedly for re-education by the peasants but in actuality simply to suppress the social disorder of the Cultural Revolution.

The turmoil and disruptions of the Cultural Revolution led to a decline in industrial production of 12 percent between 1966 and 1968.

Mao and his group of radicals were still in control of the government. Liu Shaoqi, the head of government of China, was deposed in 1968, beaten and tortured and died in 1969. In 1969 Lin Biao was officially designated as Mao's successor. Lin was the major creator of the personality cult of Mao. It was Lin who had the little Red Book of Mao's sayings printed up and distributed in the millions throughout China. Lin was the arch sycophant of all time.

Lin Biao as Minister of Defense instituted martial law in response to military clashes between Chinese and Soviet troops on the northern border at the Amur River (Heileongjiang, "Black Dragon River" in Chinese). Some feel that Lin Biao instigated these border clashes to give himself an excuse to declare martial law and enhance his control of the country.

Lin's actions prompted anxieties not only among those opposing Mao's radical group but even within the radical group. Mao's wife Jiang Qing opposed Lin but Chen Boda supported him. Mao purged Chen Boda in 1970 and in 1971 Lin Biao was killed when his airplane crashed in Mongolia while he was attempting to flee the country, apparently heading for the Soviet Union. Lin's choosing of the Soviet Union as the destination of his flight indicated that he did not see the Soviet Union as an implacable enemy that had been attacking China. Instead it indicates that Lin instigated the border clashes in order to declare a state of military alert that enhanced his power.

Lin was accused of plotting the assassination or kidnapping of Mao. Apparently Lin intended to execute a coup d'etat.

The top command in the army was replaced after Lin's fall. Zhou Enlai emerged more influential in the period immediately after Lin's fall.

Zhou Enlai

In 1972 both Mao and Zhou experienced health failures; Mao had a stroke and Zhou found he had cancer. To bring stability to the country Mao and Zhou brought Deng Xiaoping back to the Beijing government from his factory manager job. The radical group under Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, was still powerful enough to oppose Deng and Zhou. From the middle of 1973 to the middle of 1974 the radicals dominated the political events. But by the middle of 1974 the concern for the economic chaos led Mao to favor Deng. In the fall of 197 5 however, Jiang Qing and her group were able to convince Mao that Deng would not carry on Mao's visions for the future of China and in April of 1976 Deng was again removed from office.

When Mao died in September of 1976 a coalition of army and political leaders united and arrested Jiang Qing and her radical supporters, subsequently dubbed the Gang of Four. Deng re-emerged in 1977 as the paramount leader of the country.

The ill treatment of Deng Xiaoping was mild compared to that given to other top figures of the Communist Party, although it should be noted that one of his sons was pushed out of an upper story window and was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. As noted above, Liu Shaoqi, who was officially the head of government in China, and his wife were imprisoned and tortured. Liu's wife, Wang Guangmei, was lured by trickery out of her home and taken to a mass meeting and publically humiliated. Her captors dressed her in a skirt split up to hip level to imply she was a whore.

Wang Guangmei
the wife of Liu Shaoqi

Liu died from the beatings and his wife was imprisoned in solitary confinement for about a decade.

Liu Shaoqi

Peng Dehuai, the revolutionary general who was denounced as a counter-revolutionary by Mao when Peng asserted that the Great Leap Forward was not working, was taken captive by radicals during the Cultural Revolution and held for about a decade. He was beaten severely trying to make him confess to being a counter-revolutionary but refused to comply. He finally died without breaking under his ordeal.

The Chronology of the
Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
(Wuchanjieji Wenhua Dageming)

For the story of the rise of Mao see the Long March.

See the story of the episode of the Great Leap Forward.

For the story of an offshoot of the Cultural Revolution in Heileungjiang Province in North China see People or Monsters.

The thesis of this webpage was used as the debate topic for the University of Cambridge for one year in the 1980's.

For information on how Mao provided secret military information about the Nationalist Chinese Army to the invading Japanese Army during World War II see Homare

For other material on the history of China see the Economic History of China.

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