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Cultural Revolution

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (文化大革命) was a period of Chinese history which began in 1966 and was officially declared ended in 1969. However, most historians in the People's Republic of China now date the Cultural Revolution as ending with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao encouraged revolutionary committees containing Red Guards to take power from the state and party authorities. Victims of the Cultural Revolution included Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.

The background for the Cultural Revolution began with the disastrous Great Leap Forward between 1959 and 1961. In the 1959 Lushan meeting of the Central Committee Peng Dehuai criticized Mao's Great Leap Forward, initiated the year before, as plagued by mismanagement and "petit-bourgeois fanaticism." Unwilling to admit to any mistakes, especially from the left, Mao formed an alliance with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, in which he granted them day to day control over the country in return for framing Peng (accusing him of being a right opportunist). Among their reforms was a partial retreat from collectivism.

Although in the aftermath of this economic calamity, there was a strong effort within the Communist Party bureaucracy to retire Mao from any real power and turn him into a figurehead, by 1962 Mao felt he could not avoid dealing with the very problems with the Great Leap Forward, Peng pointed out. In 1963 he initiated the Social Education Movement. Mao admitted to some mistakes, while generally defending the Great Leap forward. One great irony of the Social Education Movement is that it called for grassroots action, yet was directed from the very top (Mao). This movement, aimed primarily at school children, did not have any immediate effect on Chinese politics - but it did influence a generation of youths upon whom Mao could draw on for support in the future.

By 1965, Mao and Liu entered into a conflict over how to manage or salvage the Great Leap Forward and perhaps the revolution itself (expressed in Liu's ten points and Mao's twenty-four points). As with many other revolutions, the question was: could the Party or the government provide a space for debate and difference, or would it descend into Jacobinism? Peng's fate foreshadowed what was to come. Mao wanted to break Liu's position in the Party. Since the Social Education Movement failed to do this, Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution. It began in the Winter of 1965 with an article by Yao Wenyuan, a Shanghai journalist that criticized a local play, Hai Jui Dismissed From Office. According to the article (solicited by Jiang Qing at Mao’s request), the play was a veiled criticism of Mao for having engineered Peng's fall. Mao arranged for the review to be widely circulated and by 1966 it had been reprinted in newspapers throughout most of the country, with the exception of Hunan and Beijing. In a feint, Mao called on Peng Chen, the mayor of Beijing and a political rival, to censure the journalist, whereupon Mao had a pretext for dismissing the mayor and a host of other officials.

Convinced that the Communist Party and the Chinese government had become too bureaucratized, Mao then called upon idealistic students to form bands of Red Guards and to have them seize power and fight authority. Police and government were ordered not to intervene. The result was total chaos, as different factions of Red Guards and various parts of the government were at war with each other. An estimated 30 million people died. Particularly hard hit were members of the Communist Party and the government who were targeted by Red Guards and Revolutionary Committees.

By 1969, the PRC was nearly in total chaos. Alarmed by the breakdown in public order, Mao himself ordered an end to the Cultural Revolution and ordered the People's Liberation Army to forcibly disband the Red Guards.

After the death of Mao, the rightist elements of the Communist Party seized power and arrested some of the leaders of the Cultural Revolution, who were known as the Gang of Four. In order to mobilize the public opinion in order to consolidate power, a brief period of political liberalization known as Beijing Spring was allowed in 1978.

Historians within the People's Republic of China now consider the Cultural Revolution to be a period of political turmoil to be avoided in the future and to have been a serious mistake by Mao Zedong. The lesson which the government of the People's Republic of China has drawn from the Cultural Revolution is that the Communist Party must remain in control of society and it is bad to let political divisions in the political elite be reflected in mass mobilization.

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