How can a cultural revolution be started?

Mao's Cultural Revolution: The last cruel coup of a despot

50 years ago, in May 1966, Mao Zedong called for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The brutal campaign by which China's dictator incited his people against one another lasted ten years.

They waited for hours in the darkness, crowded together, in the heart of the Chinese capital. By one o'clock in the morning they had already gathered in the vast expanse of Tian'anmen Square. Wrapped in makeshift gray and green uniforms, dug out of their parents' clothes boxes. The red guards were emblazoned in large gold symbols on the red armbands. And then at dawn on August 18, 1966, Mao Zedong stepped onto the podium above the Gate of Heavenly Peace. “Long live Mao!” Screamed the more than one million fanatical schoolchildren and students until their voices failed. Mao's “little generals” were the first radical executors of his last cruel coup, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

The campaign lasted ten years, from May 1966 to October 1976, which turned an entire nation against one another, plunged into chaos and whose wounds have still not healed even today, 50 years later. The brutal result: one and a half to two million dead, 30 million politically persecuted and 100 million people indirectly affected by the excesses. Behind this was Mao's political calculation - "the vision of a socialist world free of revisionism and the shabby, vengeful intrigues against true and imagined enemies", writes the historian Frank Dikötter in his book "The Cultural Revolution. A People's History ". With the cultural revolution he tried to position himself as the historical pivot of a socialist universe.

The aging despot reacted to domestic and foreign policy developments. Mao saw himself threatened by the “revisionist” tendencies of his big brother, Russia: In 1958, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev questioned the leadership style and personality cult of his predecessor, Josef Stalin, and advocated a “peaceful coexistence” with the West. Mao feared that he might face the same fate as the once undisputed man at the top of the communist world. He saw his political legacy in danger. Not least because his opponents blamed him for the “great leap forward” from 1958 to 1962. The industrialization experiment claimed 45 million lives. Mao now planned perfidiously to eliminate "the Khrushchevs" from within their own ranks.


Red Terror. The official starting shot of the Cultural Revolution was given in 1966 with a declaration by the Communist Party Politburo, the "Communication of May 16". The directive warned of “counter-revolutionary revisionists” who had infiltrated the party, government and army and wanted to transform the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The storm was started by a radical group led by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. In various constellations, the dictator's confidants were to play a key role in steering the revolution, most recently in the form of the ultra-left gang of four. Even party leaders, such as President Liu Shaoqi and China's later head of state Deng Xiaoping, initially had no idea that they themselves would be denounced as capitalists.

This arbitrariness is like the blood-red thread that will run through the following decade: The counter-revolutionaries of today were venerated as martyrs tomorrow. No one but Mao could be sure of his position. First of all, the founder of the People's Republic chose schoolchildren and students as his greatest allies in order to eliminate internal opponents. They were easy to manipulate and ready to fight for him - to the death.

The first command to "sweep away monsters and demons" was given to the masses with an editorial in the People's Daily on June 1st. Two months later, on Red August, the movement was in full swing when the party called on youth to destroy the Four Elderly - ways of thinking, customs, habits and culture. In their mission to expose class enemies, the Red Guards raged across the country. They smashed temples and churches, burned books and ancient art treasures, humiliated, tortured and murdered. At the end of August, around a hundred people were massacred every day in Beijing alone - and Mao watched. The young people found legitimation for the violence in Mao's basic work, the “red Bible”: “Revolution is not a dinner party,” they said. "It cannot be done elegantly and gently."

The violent assault on China's feudalist and imperialist past resulted in a monotonous uniformity - simple clothing, proletarian haircuts, simple meals were required. At the same time, a fanatical Mao cult ignited. The great helmsman was everywhere: on posters, as a statue, in loudspeaker announcements that were always ringing. But a real hype broke out around plaques with his portrait. Up to five billion badges are said to have been produced.


Army in power. After the explosion of the student Red Terror, workers joined the fighting in 1967, and the People's Liberation Army marched out to support the “revolutionary masses”. Rival factions massacred one another, split into supporters and opponents of the army. Each group was convinced that it was one of the true loyal to Mao. When the violence threatened to escalate in the summer of 1968, Mao drew a line: de facto, the army took over command, the People's Republic more and more resembled a military dictatorship. The chairman sent the disgraced Red Guards to the country to be “re-educated”. Between 1968 and 1980, 17 million young Chinese were banished from the cities. There was no prospect of them living in the villages where 200 million people were chronically malnourished.

After the fall of the Wall, Mao's henchmen found new enemies in the party: traitors, apostates and western spies. Anyone with ties to other countries was suspicious. Cadres across China used the opportunity to settle old scores, accusing the persecuted of fabricated crimes - also to meet quotas. Around 170,000 Chinese had been harassed by autumn 1969. 5,400 people committed suicide out of desperation, were beaten to death or executed. A little later, in 1971, the party targeted the ordinary population in an anti-corruption campaign. But she should not be killed, but made compliant. One in 50 citizens was affected by this last major purge of the Cultural Revolution.


Silent revolution. That same year, the mysterious plane crash of China's number two official, Lin Biao, heralded the beginning of the end. When Mao Zedong died on September 9, 1976, a large part of the population had already broken away from the ideological chains of the Maoist decades. For ten years the chairman had tried to penetrate the core of the citizens, sow distrust and destroy communities in order to secure absolute loyalty. But while Mao continued to play his power games, many secretly resisted: book circles and religious groups emerged, families grew even closer together.

The rural population, far from the escapades in the cities, broke away from the grip of the party. It was "a silent revolution", writes Dikötter, when China's farmers gave up the planned economy. Local cadres were helpless in the face of the millions who began to revitalize the black market, divide up collective land, and run underground factories. “No cultural revolution, no economic reform”, judge China researchers Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals in their book “Mao's Last Revolution”. “The Cultural Revolution was such a disaster that it sparked an even greater cultural revolution. The ones Mao tried to prevent. "

With the fall of the Gang of Four, whose members were blamed for the madness, the spook was over. When the party leadership officially announced the arrests of the population on October 14, 1976, the sky over China was filled with the colorful light of the fireworks until late at night. The Cultural Revolution ended as it began: with cheers and denunciations.

("Die Presse", print edition, May 15, 2016)