In 1912 a two-thousand-year-old tradition of imperial rule in China came to an end. The Imperial Court of the Qing Dynasty, which had held control over China for more than two hundred and fifty years, had become viewed as outdated and ineffective by many Chinese citizens. The Xinhai Revolution, a nationalist uprising fronted by Sun Yat-Sen (1866–1925), began in October 1911 and ended in February 1912 with the abdication of the emperor. However, the new regime was unstable, and between 1927 and 1949 nationalists struggled with Communists for control of the country in the Chinese Civil War. The Communists, led by Mao Zedong (1893–1976), emerged victorious, and the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed on October 1, 1949. Mao governed the nation as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Every five years starting in 1953, the Chinese government issued an outline of the country’s economic goals for the next five years, much like the Five Year Plans created by Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) for the Soviet Union, a Communist neighbor. The First Five-Year Plan followed the Soviet model, which focused on stimulating economic growth by developing heavy industry such as mining and iron and steel manufacturing. The plan was successful, but China—because of its comparatively late start—still lagged behind other industrialized nations. Toward the end of the decade, Mao decided on a new course of action. He wanted to mobilize the Chinese people to speed up the process of industrialization and catch up with other industrialized nations within just five years.
The Second Five-Year Plan was announced in 1958. It modified the goals of the first plan, establishing a campaign of mobilizing the Chinese rural peasantry for labor in factories. This program was known as the Great Leap Forward. Mao collectivized farms, moved people into communes, and established local factories to produce steel. But the people were not trained to use the new technologies, and the goods they produced were of low quality.
Agricultural production declined as fertile land was given over to industrial activity, and farmers were diverted to work in factories instead of tending crops. The result was the Great Chinese Famine. Between 1958 and 1961, as many as twenty million people died, and the Chinese economy shrank despite massive investments in modernization. The Great Leap Forward was a catastrophic failure.
Mao needed to change direction, but he faced opposition within the CCP from those who blamed him for the massive failings of the Great Leap Forward. He became concerned that China was moving away from the Socialist ideals he espoused, back toward a restoration of capitalism. In the Soviet Union, after the death of Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) in 1953, the new leadership had spoken out against Stalinist policies, and Mao thought that the new Soviet direction was a repudiation of Socialism and a form of revisionism. In particular, Mao and other critics viewed the new Soviet regime as attempting to revise its traditional Communist ideals to accommodate capitalism; for example, where the Soviets had once promoted heavy industry and agriculture, they were beginning to promote the production of consumer goods. Relations broke down between China and the Soviet Union, a rift known as the Sino-Soviet split, and Mao began to think about ways to uproot what he saw as Soviet revisionism in his own country.
Mao believed that revolution had to be a continuous process. The class struggle between the bourgeois and workers did not end once the Communist regime took over. Instead, he thought that intellectuals and Communist Party elites who opposed him were taking up the mantle of the overthrown imperialists. He wanted to get rid of his opponents within the party and purge China of those he saw as revisionists. He also hoped to create a new generation of revolutionaries who would take up the struggle after he died.
Mao’s third wife, Jiang Qing (1914–1991), became an important government figure. She served in the Central Propaganda Department and on the Ministry of Culture and was a driving force in determining which dramatic works could be performed or exhibited within China. In 1965 she prepared a document outlining the failures of the revolution up until that time. With Mao’s support, Jiang came to the conclusion that a new revolution on the cultural front had to be launched. In May 1966 a meeting of the Central Committee of the CCP launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, known simply as the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Some party leaders were dismissed, and preparations began for purging the party of revisionists. Jiang became the leader of the “Gang of Four,” the powerful inner circle of CCP members that guided the Cultural Revolution. The other three members were Wang Hongwen (1935–1992), Yao Wenyuan (1931–2005), and Zhang Chunqiao (1917–2005).
On August 8 the CCP issued its sixteen-point guidelines calling for a Cultural Revolution to overthrow capitalist roaders, those who they believed showed a tendency to push the revolution in a capitalist direction. Schools were shut down as a way to harness growing student discontent and apply it in a way less critical of Mao. High-school and college students formed revolutionary groups called the Red Guard. Around eleven million Red Guards came together in Beijing for a series of rallies starting on August 18, at which Mao urged them to implement the aims of the Cultural Revolution: to find and neutralize revisionists.
The Red Guard wanted to drive out the Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Throughout 1966 and 1967, they denounced and attacked capitalist roaders. Intellectuals, teachers, and party officials were interrogated and sent to the countryside, where they had to engage in forced labor and attend political reeducation classes. Some were tortured and killed.
Two of the most vilified capitalist roaders were Liu Shaoqi (1898–1969), chairman of the People’s Republic of China and one of Mao’s major rivals, and Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), the CCP general secretary. Both were removed from office in 1966, and Liu would later be imprisoned. He died in prison of diabetes in 1969. The purges turned people out of office at all levels of government, focusing on those who opposed Mao’s plans. Around two-thirds of the Central Committee of the CCP was ousted.
With the revisionist opposition quashed, the movement started attacking those who had gone too far to the left. Violence and purges continued throughout 1967 and 1968, mostly in China’s cities. Even the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the military branch of the CCP, was subjected to purges.
In Beijing’s universities, fighting was so intense that Mao sent in soldiers to subdue the students. In the summer and autumn of 1968, 1.75 million high-school and college students were sent to the countryside to live and work. By 1978, 16 million students had been sent away. Party members were also sent to May 7 cadre schools, work camps where they had to participate in manual labor and study political doctrine.
In 1968, sensing that the revolutionary fervor of the Red Guards had outlived its benefit, Mao began to transfer power from the Red Guards to the PLA. Defense Minister Lin Biao (1907–1971) was named Mao’s successor in April 1969. However, Lin’s popularity and support, especially among military commanders, led Mao and the Gang of Four to turn against him for fear that he could overthrow them if he so desired. In September 1971, in circumstances that remain unclear, Lin was killed in a plane crash. The Communist leadership said that he had died while fleeing the country after a failed attempt on Mao’s life.
The Cultural Revolution had a serious impact on China’s economy. Because intellectuals were seen as enemies, revolutionary committees took over the running of Chinese enterprises. Made up of workers, party members, and soldiers, these committees replaced trained administrators. Engineers and technicians were dismissed, sent to camps, and sometimes tortured or killed. Regulations were done away with and procedures made simpler. The effects of upheaval, violence, and the forced removal of experienced personnel were damaging. Industrial output declined, along with people’s incomes. By the early 1970s, China’s economy was ruined.
In 1971 Zhou Enlai (1898–1976), the premier of the People’s Republic of China, was given responsibility for undoing some of the damage done to China’s economy. Zhou was a high-ranking government official who used the tenuous power of his position to preserve some ancient traditional elements within China. Although he had survived the purges, he was sympathetic to some of the aims of those who had been dismissed. He helped to clear the names and reputations of some administrators, including Deng. Mao had a serious stroke in 1972 and Zhou fell ill with cancer, so Deng exercised considerable power from 1973 on.
Deng’s efforts to restore sensible economic planning and to curb the revolution put him in conflict with Jiang and her supporters. When Mao died in 1976, Deng immediately took steps to establish his power by arresting the Gang of Four in October of that year. This arrest brought the Cultural Revolution to an end.
Deng remained leader of the country until he retired from public life in 1992. Facing a crippled economy and dissatisfaction with falling living standards, he adopted policies that were a direct rejection of the Cultural Revolution. He opened up China’s economy to the world and allowed some of the principles of the market economy to be implemented. His reforms put China on track to becoming a major power in the world economy.
The experience of the Cultural Revolution scarred the psyche of the Chinese leadership. After that, China worked to ensure that no such upheaval recurred. The brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 was justified by fears that it could turn into a Red Guard–like movement. The Cultural Revolution is also cited by the CCP by way of explaining why China is not suited to popular political participation in the form of Western-style democracy.