In 1958, Chairman Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) launched the “Great Leap Forward.” Its goals were to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a socialist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization. Private farming was banned, and if caught, one was persecuted and labelled a counter-revolutionary, with restrictions on rural people strictly enforced through public shaming, peer pressure and beatings. One of the first things The Great Leap Forward implemented was a hygiene campaign against the “Four Pests” (rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows). Sounds good. Except, two years later devastating locust swarms arrived and ate everything in sight, because their natural predators, sparrows, had all been killed. The ensuing “Great Chinese Famine” is estimated to have killed upwards of approximately 30 million people, out of a Chinese population of 600 million at the time, or five percent. It was the deadliest famine in the history of China, and though the worst famine to-date was the Great Irish Famine, (Potato Famine) where approximately one million of a population of eight million people died, or 12.5 percent, the Great Chinese Famine, in part due to China’s large population, became the deadliest famine in history. Meanwhile, the Great Leap Forward face-planted and ended in 1962.
After the 1958-62 fiasco the Great Leap Forward, the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) leaders pulled back some of the most extreme collectivization efforts. Then, in May 1966 the Peoples Republic of China issued a statement which outlined Mao’s ideas on the Cultural Revolution. By early June, mobs of young demonstrators wearing red armbands, lined the capital of Beijing’s major streets, brandishing huge portraits of Mao, beating drums, and shouting slogans. The mob would soon become known as the Red Guards. In August over a million of these, mostly 16 to 28 year olds, gathered from all over the country, in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where Chairman Mao spoke to them. Over the next few months eight mass-rallies were held where over 12 million people attended. The movement’s stated goal was to purge capitalist and traditional elements from society, and to substitute a new way of thinking based on Mao’s own beliefs. But fundamentally, it was about elite politics, as Mao tried to reassert control by setting such radical youths against the Communist Party hierarchy and to wage war against anybody who didn’t agree with his ideas. He told his mobs that “to rebel is justified” and that “revisionists should be removed through violent class struggle.” He came up with an official blacklist called the Four Olds, (old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas) which were to be all eradicated. With anyone still believing in such things deemed evil, because they were only using such traditions to preserve their power and subjugate the people.
Students everywhere began to revolt against their respective schools’ party establishment because education was deemed the way that old values were preserved and transmitted. Teachers, particularly those at universities, were considered the “Stinking Old Ninth” and were widely persecuted, from suffering the public humiliation of having their heads shaved to assault and even torture. Many were also murdered or harassed into suicide. By June 1966 all classes in primary and secondary schools were cancelled nationwide. The cops were told not to intervene in Red Guard activities, and if they did, the national police chief pardoned the Red Guards for any crimes. And so it began.
It started with groups of Red Guards, often mostly teenagers and university students, clad in black or gray Mao jackets and pants, and red arm bands, strutting through the streets and their neighbourhoods targeting political enemies for abuse and public humiliation. They then progressed to destroying historical relics, statues, and artifacts, and ransacking museums, cultural and religious sites. Libraries were burned. Religion was considered a tool of capitalists and so churches were destroyed. Anything old became hated, while unacceptable ideas “disappeared” in the name of social progress. There was absolute intolerance toward dissent, with violence the weapon to be used to enforce conformity. The mob’s ideas were right and everyone else wrong, so in the name of safety, dangerous ideas and the people who held them were banished or silenced or worse. The tool of control became centered on there being only one accepted way of thought. To survive people had only two choices, conformity or silence. Free speech was banned. Just like it is today.
Many people deemed the “other” by the Red Guards were personally held responsible for 4,000 years of Chinese history, and would have to write out long apologies for being who they were. Intellectuals were deemed “class enemies” and those with ties to the West or the former Nationalist government were also persecuted. Many officials were purged, some were “rehabilitated”, many were scarred for life, while others were either killed or committed suicide.
It quickly escalated to where those identified as “spies”, “running dogs”, “revisionists”, those coming from a suspect class (including those related to former landlords or rich peasants), or other ethnicities, were all subject to beatings, imprisonment, rape, torture, sustained and systematic harassment, public shaming and abuse, seizure of property, denial of medical attention, and erasure of social identity.
The Red Guards moved on to openly killing people who did not think as they did. And eventually groups of Red Guards began to battle each other, with parts of the the military even joining in, adding to the factional violence and wanton killing of civilians.
Also swept up in the madness of China’s Cultural Revolution were the minority cultures within China. In Inner Mongolia, some 790,000 people were persecuted. Of these, 23,000 were beaten to death, and 120,000 were maimed for life. Copies of the Qur’an and other books of the Uyghur people were burned, as were copies of the Christian Bible. Today the Uyghur are sent to concentration/ work camps, where besides much brutality, their organs are harvested and their heads are shaved, with their hair sent to the West to make wigs.
Muslim imams were reportedly paraded around with paint splashed on their bodies. In the ethnic Korean areas of northeast China, language schools were destroyed. Tibet would also suffer greatly. For them it had only gotten worse after the Tibetan Uprising in 1959 was squelched, with harsh persecution often conducted with the complicity of local ethnic Tibetan Red Guards. Many monks and nuns were killed, and the general population were subjected to intense physical and psychological torture. There were an estimated 600,000 monks and nuns in Tibet in 1950, by 1979, most of them were dead, disappeared or imprisoned. Much like Tibet’s over 6,000 monasteries that once dotted the Himalayan mountains for hundreds perhaps thousands of years, by the end of the 1970’s only eight were left intact.
By 1968 the situation in China was quickly spinning out of control. Checks and balances no longer existed on local revolutionary activities. Government and party organizations began to fall apart across the country, their members beaten, abused and killed. No one could tell anymore who was truly loyal to Mao’s vision and who was opportunistically working around the edges of the chaos for their own gain. As the Red Guards grew more extreme, the People’s Liberation Army was finally sent in to control them.
Mao and the Communist party came up with a remedy to further curtail their out of control mob, by implementing policy called the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement.” While, for years already, young people from the cities were being moved to the countryside, where they were forced to abandon all forms of standard education in place of the propaganda teachings of the Communist Party of China, this movement was quickly ramped up and simply renamed. Perhaps in part a way to disperse the Red Guards from the cities to the countryside, where they would cause less social disruption, but also because Mao understood that young intellectuals (including graduated middle school students) living in cities, many who were the backbone and local leaders of the Red Guard, had indeed become anarchistic rebels, meaning they were against any and all authority. He also thought them as too anti-bourgeois in their thinking, so he and the Party declared that certain “privileged” urban youth be sent to mountainous areas or farming villages to learn from the workers and farmers there. Within a couple of years the mob was displaced and replaced with a traumatized population. In total, approximately 17 million youth were sent to rural areas as a result of the movement. Many of these people lost the opportunity to attend university, with some calling them China’s “lost generation.” In the late 1970s, these young intellectuals, now ten years older, were finally allowed to return to their home cities. In their seventies and eighties today, many of them, and their children, have done very well abiding by their indoctrination. Including Xi Jinping, China’s current president.
Although the Cultural Revolution lasted a decade, ending with Mao’s death in September 1976, much of the most extreme violence occurred in the first few years from 1966 to 1969. The exact number of dead is not known, since many deaths went unreported or were actively covered up by the police or local authorities, but a figure of one million or more is most commonly cited. Estimates range from 500,000 to eight million dead, with roughly the same number permanently injured. The number of people persecuted is usually estimated in the tens of millions.
The Cultural Revolution had widespread consequences at all levels of society. The closing of schools and universities for years drastically affected economic output, with China’s economy and traditional culture destroyed. Much of their history had been erased. The Revolution’s failure saw the rise in power of the military after regular people decided they’d had enough and wanted order restored. So they gave up many of their freedoms, if they had any, in order to be felt safe. And in the decades that followed Mao’s death, and the trauma of the Cultural Revolution fresh in their minds, the Chinese were willing to embrace market-oriented reforms to spur growth and ease deprivation. They became even more of a capitalist society than they could have ever imagined yet retaining a collective mentality to become an organized work force. And if you keep your mouth shut and never speak out you’ll be fine. While at the same time they were brainwashed into believing such things as, instead of their government following science, they believed that their government was science, and all-knowing. The Health and Safety divisions convinced the people that all risk can be eliminated if one obeys, with the government and it’s scientists, generals and technocrats, managing most all aspects of people’s lives. Government became their big brother.
For many in China, the country has been locked down for years, with much of the population extremely risk-averse. But because the real world is a land of trade-offs and consequences such a feeling of safety is but an illusion. Their children are not allowed to go around barefoot or play in the dirt. Homes are minimalist and very clean. Many spend much of their lives trying to avoid all risks, and will never speak boldly at the risk of their own well being. Because for speaking boldly about the government one will be literally disappeared or worse. China is the ideal of a cancel culture. Over one billion people following only one narrative, whether they believe in it or not. Just like Russia after their early 20th century revolution, and soon, the US after theirs.
Proving, if the power elite of any country want near-perfect social and political control, socialism and communism is the way to go. If you want to control a nation’s manufacturing, commerce, finance, transportation and natural resources, you would need only to control the very few at the top, the powerful elite, of an all-powerful socialist government. Then you would have a monopoly and could squeeze out all your competitors. As author Gary Allen wrote in 1971,
“If one understands that socialism is not a share-the-wealth program, but is in reality a method to consolidate and control the wealth, then the seeming paradox of super-rich men promoting socialism becomes no paradox at all. Instead it becomes the logical, even the perfect tool of power-seeking megalomaniacs. Communism, or more accurately, socialism, is not a movement of the downtrodden masses, but of the economic elite.”