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Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the Communist Party of China launched an aggressive campaign to transform the nation by officially instating the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution with a decree on August 1, 1966. Chairman Mao and his government set out to institute socialism at the expense of any other ideology – capitalist, traditional or otherwise – by purging those who had taken the “capitalist road.” For more than a decade, Mao and his successors created a climate of fear in the process of consolidating political power.
The seeds of the Cultural Revolution were planted by Mao in the late 1950s with the Great Leap Forward, a concept by which the nation of China would quickly advance from its agricultural roots to become a country driven by the manufacturing industry and mechanization. Mao believed he could, in effect, have both a strong blue-collar workforce producing steel and a reduced number of farmers doubling their yields by introducing technology which had been widely available in the west for nearly a century. No one would notice the change, he reasoned, because food and crops would remain stable or increase while other commodities took off.
A year later, after months of making low-quality steel and lying about the quantities, local authorities were facing poor weather and civil unrest. The lack of agriculture had left many Chinese without food, most dramatically in the economically depressed plains far away from the coast. Millions would die by 1961 in the resulting Great Chinese Famine. Mao, forced to shoulder the blame for his failed policies, resigned his office in 1959, succeeded by moderate Liu Shaoqi as State Chairman.
Mao receded into the Communist Party and began working on refining his concepts for socialism as defined by Marx and Lenin. As the years passed, he systematically removed prominent military and government officials to install men he preferred, famously having Defense Minister Lin Biao accuse General Luo Ruiqing of being disloyal and investigating Luo until he attempted suicide. (The general was soon deemed unfit for service and replaced, leaving military command little choice but to follow Mao’s orders explicitly.)
By 1966, the Chairman had secured his position as the most powerful man in the Chinese Communist Party, advancing a new doctrine through six secret Politburo Central Documents claiming there were enemies within the party that “wave the red flag to oppose the red flag” aiming to “turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” That May, one of the declarations became public, leaving many intellectuals to cringe at what it might mean to face the “telescope and microscope of Mao Zedong Thought.”
Revolutionary sentiment mounted. After Peng Zhen had been purged from the Beijing Party Committee, the capital fell into chaos – one of Mao’s favorite tools for cleansing areas of ideological impurity. Ten weeks later, leadership of the Red Guard, students following the Chairman, informed Mao the removal of “bourgeois” elites from the party would be the correct course to follow regardless of any social or political consequences that followed. Satisfied with the response, Mao instituted the persecution of intellectuals and opposing factions as official policy on August 1st. Four days later, he published a manifesto entitled “Bombard the Headquarters” in the People’s Daily.
Targeting the reformers who had replaced him, particularly Liu Shaoqi, Mao condemned a “bourgeois dictatorship” working to suppress “the surging movement of the great cultural revolution of the proletariat.” When the Central Committee passed its “Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” on August 8th, the fate of those moderates who had risen to power since the Great Leap Forward was sealed. Liu and others would find “The 16 Points” left no room for opposition to Mao Zedong Thought, with many imprisoned or killed for this “transgression.”
As if to cement his ascent to the head of the Communist Party for good, 11 million Red Guards appeared in Beijing to catch a glimpse of the Chairman. Working in tandem with Lin Biao, Mao greeted the students and encouraged them to continue helping socialism spread. Empowered by his words and a directive to police that “intervention in Red Guard tactics and actions” was unnecessary, the students moved out into the countryside looting houses of worship and forcing practitioners to destroy their own temples, churches, mosques and monasteries at gunpoint. Over the course of two months, almost 1,800 people were murdered in Beijing alone – with possibly tens of thousands throughout China.
Three years later, Mao would be followed as Chairman by Lin Biao, his trusted general of the People’s Liberation Army. Putting more of an emphasis on military matters, Lin would eventually be run out of China in 1971 after Mao began to express his concerns that the scale had tilted power toward the hands of the army more than the people. As a result, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing connected with Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and new leader Wang Hongwen to form the Gang of Four challenging the government of Premier Zhou Enlai and his Executive Vice-Premier — hand-picked by Mao — Deng Xiaoping.
In September of 1976, at the age of 82, Mao Zedong died. The Gang of Four, whom he had opposed via a variety of appointments, were largely believed to have succeeded in taking control of the Communist Party – a fact many in the public protested against, as the radical ideas were seen as pushing Mao’s ideas for China too far. Within a month, they would be arrested by Special Unit 8341 of the Central Security Bureau and imprisoned.
Five years later, the Central Committee published a “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China.” Though placing blame on Mao, who is still revered in large part today, the Committee found more fault with his successors Lin Biao and the Gang of Four for manipulating the movement. Despite finding personal fault with the Chairman based on some of his decisions, his theory remains the primary ideology for China today.