Mao convinced people that his Great Proletarian Cultural Movement, launched 40 years ago on Tuesday, was necessary to destroy the influences of Western bourgeois and Confucian feudal culture and free them from the exploitation of the bureaucratic class.
The next decade was one of bloodshed and hardship, now known as “10 years of catastrophe”, as the country descended into chaos that claimed millions of lives and pushed China to the brink of economic and social collapse.
Analysts say Mao’s purported reason for the revolution was merely an excuse to eliminate those he perceived as a political threat – such as president Liu Shaoqi, once designated as his successor.
Wu Guoguang, a former government adviser and now political scientist at Canada’s University of Victoria, said: “I don’t think he really believed this, but he was just using it to mobilise the masses to attack the bureaucrats in the party.”
The militant movement’s legacy haunts many Chinese.
There are still many questions on how such brutality could have taken place on a mass scale for a decade.
Mao, a suspicious man by nature, saw Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin after his death as a warning.
Mao was criticised by the Communist Party for his Great Leap Forward movement (1958-1961), an ambitious experiment to put China on a fast track to industrial development. It failed and caused 30 million famine-related deaths.
Analysts said it left Mao humiliated, and he withdrew from the party apparatus while watching with discomfort the rise of Liu.
The Great Leap Forward’s failure
Xu Youyu, a philosophy professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who was a teenage Red Guard at the time, said: “He deceived people by saying that (inequality) was due to his enemies, like Liu Shaoqi and (late paramount leader) Deng Xiaoping, so people would rally around him.”
Liu, dubbed “China’s Khrushchev” by Mao, died after being tortured in prison in 1969.
Li Datong, a former Red Guard and veteran journalist, says: “He felt resentful. The Great Leap Forward had a tremendous impact on Mao … he was forced to reflect on his faults,”
Military leader Lin Biao’s successful creation of a personality cult for Mao among students and workers helped to push the leader back to centre stage. It consolidated his position as the country’s Great Helmsman, despite resistance from several prominent party veterans.
“Lin Biao turned our belief of Marxism into purely a belief of Mao,” says Xu.
Cult of personality
Mao’s “cult of personality”, after two decades of orthodox communist education in an isolated country, became a recipe for disaster when combined with Mao’s ambition for power.
“Our brains were full of political legend … even if Mao was to have asked me to become a human bomb then, I would have regarded it as a great honour,” recalls Xu.
Part of the blind trust in Mao was rooted in a traditional wish of the Chinese people for a wise and just emperor, others say.
Mao’s tomb in Tiananmen Square
“Chinese people always want to find a master key which can open all doors, a person who can solve all their problems,” says Wu.
“But people didn’t realise Mao didn’t really want freedom and equality. He didn’t grant them freedom, he just wanted people to follow him and to topple those he didn’t like.”
The ferocity of the movement and the reign of terror also ensured that no one dared to speak out, afraid they would be punished for being “counter-revolutionary”.
“Hundreds of millions of people, no one dared say anything … some were beaten to death immediately (after doing so),” Xu says, recounting how his classmate’s mother was being beaten to death in front of her family after she scolded a group of Red Guards – militant leftist youths loyal to Mao – for raiding her home.
“It was communist totalitarianism without any voices of opposition. It was unprecedented,” says Li.