Cultural revolution in china: from ruins to turbo capitalism

Mao’s movement continues to shape Chinese society to this day. Sinologist Daniel Leese explains its causes and consequences in his booklet.

Mao Zedong’s visible influence: statue in Wuhan, China Photo: reuters

The Chinese Cultural Revolution took place literally in front of the eyes of the world public, but without providing a view behind the scenes. Its image is still dominated today by the mass marches of young schoolchildren and students between 19, who, on the orders of Mao Zedong, wanted to drive those "who took the capitalist path" out of office.

The Cultural Revolution acquired the image of a mass anti-bureaucratic movement that ended in an orgy of denunciations, violent people’s tribunals and armed factional fighting. The unrest continued until Mao’s death in 1976. The repression away from the public eye in the rural regions by newly formed revolutionary committees after 1968 claimed far more victims than the spectacular urban terror of the Red Guards. Between 1.5 and 1.8 million people were killed, and 22 to 30 million persecuted.

"Rebellion is justified!" With this slogan, unheard of for a Communist in power, Mao had taken the intra-party power struggles to the streets. The country had suffered some existential disasters since World War II and civil war.

The 1958-1961 "Great Leap Forward" campaign to overturn the urban-rural relationship in the world’s largest agricultural economy ended in the most horrific famine in human history, killing up to 40 million people. Communist propaganda tried to blame the misery on a chain of natural disasters; but in the top ranks of the party, Mao Zedong was blamed.

"Oxen mouths and snake breeding".

Mao began a game of political hazard. He singled out Chinese culture, with its reverence for age, tradition, and authority, as the main obstacle on the road to a classless society. His campaign began with a critique of theater, led to protests against authority in schools and colleges, and then targeted disfavored party officials, denouncing them as "ox-mouths and snake-breeders." Mao’s strategy could not have galvanized the youth if there had not been widespread discontent in society.

It was not only the youth in the hierarchical educational institutions who were dissatisfied. The rural population had to be happy when the iron rice bowl was filled. Education was out of reach for them. The rebellious students felt this when they were ordered to the countryside for discipline after 1968.

Mao called his enterprise the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution"; but when the movement actually reached the factories, conflicts among the workers threatened to turn into civil war. Time and again, the army, whose commander Lin Biao took the personality cult around Mao to extremes, had to intervene.

The Freiburg sinologist Daniel Leese succeeds on 128 pages in bringing the complex events of the Cultural Revolution vividly to the reader’s attention. Certainly, the specifics of Chinese culture and Sinicized Marxism, without which Maoism cannot be understood, are somewhat neglected.

Daniel Leese, "The Chinese Cultural Revolution 1966-1976." C. H. Beck, Munich 2016, 128 pages, 8,95 Euro

Not to be overlooked is the hint that the current generation of party leaders was involved in the confusing struggles of the Red Guards. Chinese turbo-capitalism has been built on the political ruins of the Cultural Revolution.

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