Last week, the world witnessed Donald Trump’s supporters storming and breaching the U.S. Capitol, stoked by his defiant speech claiming the election had been stolen from him. I watched the videos online with my heart in my throat — the ecstasy of the participants, the chaos and the violence, and the presence of hysteria; they reminded me of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution that happened in China during 1966–76.
The Cultural Revolution is one of the greatest tragedies of the modern world. Initiated by Mao Zedong in 1966, the Cultural Revolution resulted in widespread factional struggles. Published speculations about “unnatural deaths” during this period have ranged from a low of 250,000 to much higher than 15 million. In a recent study based on data collected from local gazetteers, Andrew Walder estimates that the Cultural Revolution has produced from 1.1 to 1.6 million deaths and 22 to 30 million direct victims of some form of political persecution. The extraordinary toll of human suffering during the Chinese Cultural Revolution is greater than some of modern era’s worst episodes of politically induced mortality, such as the Soviet “Great Terror” of 1937–38, the Rwanda massacres of 1994, and the Indonesian Coup and massacres of suspected communists in 1965–66.
How Violence Started
Leadership transitions have created some of the most dangerous moments in authoritarian regimes, and now democracies. Many scholars believe that the origins of the Cultural Revolution should be understood through the lens of Mao’s personal goals to change the succession. Roderick MacFarquhar argues that the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s answer to the urgent question of how to prevent a revolutionary degeneration that was happening in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev and increasingly evident in China after the Great Famine when some of Mao’s closest colleagues were prepared to adopt “capitalist” methods to rescue the country. Distrusting his likely successor, Liu Shaoqi, Mao needed a major effort to dislodge Liu and put another successor in place.
The early period, and also the most chaotic period, of the Cultural Revolution was from 1966 to 1969. In August 1966, Mao encouraged urban middle school and college students to form Red Guard groups to attack “class enemies” and the party. Millions of teenagers whose schools were closed formed numerous Red Guard groups based on their class backgrounds, geographic locations, and personal ties and quickly launched a reign of terror in most cities.
Because of Red Guards’ visibility and large number, earlier works on the Cultural Revolution often explained the violence as a result of group conflict. Both Michel Oksenberg and Ezra Vogel immediately noted evidence that a series of social constituencies mobilized to advance their claims in the early period of the movement. Many scholars describe this period in the language of mass insurgencies in which various groups organized to press their interests and make demands against government authorities.
As some recent studies show, however, the public officials themselves were a major player in causing the chaos and violence as they were in widespread rebellion against their superiors. For example, beginning in January 1967, lower-ranked officials, with the help from the People’s Liberation Army, Red Guard groups, and urban workers, started to seize power by sweeping aside party and government leaders and formed what they called “revolutionary committees” in various cities to exercise authority.
At the peak of the Cultural Revolution (1967–68), China descended into a state of what Mao later described as “all-round civil war” as social groups turned against each other to do battle for dominance and cadres in party and government organs were themselves fighting for power. According to Mao, “Everywhere people were fighting, dividing into two factions; there were two factions in every factory, in every school, in every province, in every county.”
Political polarization, augmented by the supreme leader, fueled group conflicts in all walks of life.
Legacies of Violence and Persistence of Cleavages
There are many reasons why this type of state-induced violence erodes the social fabric of a country. One of them is that the cleavages created and intensified during the violence last a long time.
In China, it has been more than 40 years since the Cultural Revolution ended. However, the wounds from the Cultural Revolution still exist today. Many studies that used oral histories show that many victims of violence can vividly remember what happened to them and their families during the Cultural Revolution. The experience made them distrust people outside their immediate families.
My study shows that state-induced violence has a long-lasting effect on citizens’ political attitudes almost a half century later. My survey respondents who grew up in areas that witnessed more violence during the late 1960s are less trusting of current national leaders and more critical of the political regime, condemning the country’s lack of democracy and freedom of expression.
One reason why violence can influence people for a long time is that families talk about it. My research shows that the younger generation who did not witness the violence are still influenced by it if their parents discuss political issues at home. Having experienced violence, parents have good reasons to tell their children not to trust political leaders.
There are still fundamental differences between authoritarian regimes and democracies. Mao stayed in power for ten more years after he inflamed the violence. There are no institutional mechanisms to impeach or check the power of a dictator. But the tragedies of China’s Cultural Revolution have implications for our understanding of politics today. The mob was over, and some rioters have been arrested; the divide it has inflamed may haunt this nation for a long time.