China: the Cultural Revolution

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


The end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution is alternatively marked by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress held in 1969 after much of the random urban violence had subsided, the death of Lin Biao (earlier, the head of the PLA) in September 1971, and most commonly, the death of Mao Tse-tung (Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party) in 1976.[i] By implication, this means that the apportionment of blame (or credit) for the Cultural Revolution, and a discussion of the nature and mass killings during it depend, in part, on the interpretation of the events that began, and, as is the focus of this case study, ended it.

Discussions of primary responsibility for the Cultural Revolution usually center on Mao’s role. Following the death of USSR leader Josef Stalin in 1953 and the election of Nikita Krushchev, China and the Soviet Union began to drift apart. Inside China, the Anti-Rightists Campaign in 1957 decreased the influence of others within the CCP with more power accruing to Mao.[ii] In 1958, the CCP commenced the Great Leap Forward, aiming to fully “communize and militarize Chinese society.”[iii] The result was a complete restructuring of daily life and the entire Chinese economy, leading to millions of deaths. With the agricultural rug pulled out beneath the feet of the nation in favor of industrialization, mass famine ensued. The famine finally ended in 1962 when CCP leaders dared to imply that the famine was the result of policies, rather than natural disaster.[iv] Mao appeared to have lost his preeminent position in the CCP, and his grand projects were curtailed in favor of more moderate economic policies.

There is limited information available to researchers about decision-making within the CCP’s leadership, however, many suspect that Mao responded to his weakened positions by mobilizing personal attacks on the apparatus of the CCP and the state. Disturbed by these attempts to restrain his power, Mao began laying the groundwork for the Cultural Revolution in 1965 to purge all potential opposition to his leadership.[v] In the spring of 1966, these internal purges were followed by what is now widely acknowledged to be the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

Atrocities began with the creation of the Red Guard in August 1966, became more strictly regulated after the demobilization of the Red Guard in 1969.[vi] As the government infrastructure collapsed under the resulting violence, Mao replaced it with “revolutionary committees” made up of the army, the radical organizations, and local CCP members.[vii] With no clear label as to which organizations were “Leftist,” the violence continued to escalate until 1969, when Mao finally demobilized the Red Guard. All aspects of religion and the West were included in this definition of the enemy, resulting in the destruction of priceless artifacts, historical records, and even foreign embassies.[viii] The bulk of violence occurred prior to 1971, the Cultural Revolution formally ended with Mao’s death in September 1976.


From August to December of 1966, violence against civilian “reactionaries” raged in a period known as the Red Terror. Mao personally legitimized a student protest movement calling itself the Red Guard. The Red Guard soon became a mass movement, with the young joining the Red Guard and targeting their educational institutions. Scholars suggest that the initial violence during the Cultural Revolution expressed the social and political inequalities of Mao’s China. Students in secondary schools in urban areas, who formed the different factions of the Red Guard, would have had differential access to university education and employment opportunities, depending on their family background (the CCP classified students into ‘good class’ students and ‘bad class students’) or social networks. [ix] Consequently, their factionalism and conflict may have been an expression of political contestation for power. Their mobilization, however, was not purely spontaneous – purges were organized and students were mobilized by groups of CCP officials called ‘work teams’. Similarly radical organizations were permitted to emerge in other Chinese urban areas.

Violence by the Red Guard: The Red Guard were given explicit authorization to commit violence against “rightists” by CCP leadership in August 1966, initiating the Red Guard’s transformation into a revolutionary paramilitary group.[x] The police and military were simultaneously given direct orders by the Ministry of Public Security to “only [maintain] order” and use “peaceful means” to stop violent conflict.[xi] Sent to major Chinese cities, the Red Guard commenced a preplanned policy of class cleansing upon arrival. The unspecified nature of the “rightist” and “reactionary” threats resulted in the indiscriminate destruction of all things and people deemed non-Leftist (for instance through the ‘Destroy the Four Olds’ Campaign which targeted ‘old ideology, culture, habits and customs’). Other mass organizations originating from the propaganda and general atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution campaign joined in the destructive efforts.

January 1967 to December 1967: A state of near civil war broke out as Mao attempted to have his new anti-Rightist organizations replace the old structures of political power that had been gutted by the Red Terror. His orders to do so, however, failed to specify which organization would take control where–prompting each anti-Rightist organizations attempting to outdo or simply destroy each other. The involvement of the heavily armed Chinese military, given similarly vague orders, accelerated the killing. Atrocities also began to occur in the countryside, as the implicit authorization of violence drove pogroms and enabled the elimination of political rivals and opposition on the local level.

January 1968 to June 1968: Mao and the CCP led a new campaign to “suppress destructive counterrevolutionary activities” in another attempt to get their new political infrastructure off the ground.[xii] The provocation created entirely new levels of violence, with mass killings occurring nationwide.

July 1968 to September 1968: the military and government were ordered to suppress the violence, sometimes resulting in further mass killings.   The revolutionary committees were formally established as the organs of government.

January 1970 to the end of 1972: CCP leadership ran the “One Strike, Three Anti” campaign, executing large numbers of minor criminals and conducting repeated crackdown raids (“red typhoons”) that arrested and executed any who operated in the “vast gray zone” of illegal activities.[xiii] Once again, vague definitions of illegal behavior meant that even the slightest “subversive” behavior, even the mere act of meeting with any other person, could result in execution. While the campaign supposedly targeted corruption and counterrevolutionaries, it was intended to clearly establish public concepts of law and order with the punishment of non-political criminals.[xiv] The campaign was at its most intense in its first year, but continued for years in some major cities.

February 1971 to 1976: Mao and the CCP campaigned to investigate the counterrevolutionaries that had supposedly caused the violence of the previous years, enabling the arbitrary elimination of any potential opponents of the revolutionary committees. Thousands of deaths occurred as a result.

Overall, the dynamics of escalation during the Cultural Revolution were fed by several sources. Above all, were the policies implemented by Mao and Party leaders that authorized and encouraged use of violence. Second, socio-economic factors created competition–incentive–within overlapping social networks, in, for instance, factories, educational institutions and rural areas.[xv] Third, were the dynamics of violence itself, which, once initiated fed further radicalism. [xvi] China’s immediate history had been intensively violent: the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, the Korean War, the People’s War of Liberation, the Great Leap Forward, and the Great Famine that followed. In the midst of such social turmoil, personal trauma, and the profound alternations to the Chinese political system and social structure,[xvii] mechanisms of restraint were sorely tested.


We use the figure of 1.5 million fatalities within our criteria for this period.

Estimates of fatalities during the Cultural Revolution vary wildly – ranging between one million and 20 million (though the former is probably closer to the true number than the latter).[xviii]

Some sources categorize these deaths according to the time-period in which they occurred, and estimate that, in total, around 1,500,000 casualties took place throughout the country. This tallies with official estimates of the number of non-conflict related deaths reported by a book credited to the Party History Research Institute (which estimated that 1,490,300 deaths took place in China during the Cultural Revolution).[xix]

Violence by the Red Guard: An estimated 100,000 deaths occurred during this phase.[xx]

January 1967 to December 1967: An estimated 500,000 deaths occurred during this phase.[xxi]

January 1968 to June 1968: An estimated 550,000 deaths occurred during this phase.[xxii]

July 1968 to September 1968: An estimated 140,000 deaths occurred during this phase, but this figure is extremely speculative.[xxiii]

January 1970 to the end of 1972 (The ‘One Strike Three Anti Campaign’): An estimated 200,000 deaths occurred during this phase.[xxiv] 

February 1971 to 1976: The occasional outburst of civilian unrest during this time period resulted in mass killings, as in the case of the razing of the Muslim town of Shadian (resulting in roughly 1,600 deaths) and the Tiananmen uprising of 1976 (resulting in close to 10,000 deaths nationwide).[xxv]

Using accounts of fatalities set out in county annals (xianzhi) published in the 1980s, some authors estimate that the death toll in the countryside in China was between 750,000 and 1.5 million. These estimates re-examine the characterization of the Cultural Revolution as a primarily urban phenomenon and suggest that the largest proportion of these deaths took place between 1968-1971, after the end of the period of ‘popular rebellion’ and factional conflict.[xxvi] Methodologically, these estimates attempt to control for under-reporting by the county annals, since there are good reasons to suspect that local authorities interpreted the wide latitude granted by the CCP for compiling these annals in different ways. Some suppressed information that might show the CCP in bad light whereas others appear to have been surprisingly frank. That said, it is difficult to check these estimates in the absence of access to the Chinese national archives that remain restricted.


The worst of the urban violence ended after the government wound down the Revolution’s central campaigns by the end of 1968. The leadership of the Red Guard were told that the organization’s role in history had come to an end, and its members, along with the members of all extremist organizations, were crushed by the military as the government attempted to restore some semblance of public order.[xxvii] In the military’s wake, Mao’s revolutionary committees were finally set up, creating political stability at last. However, given the size of China, it should come as no surprise that reports of outsize deaths in the tens of thousands continued to come in from distant border provinces, where violence continued.[xxviii] The CCP declared the Cultural Revolution a resounding success and announced a return to the political status quo, officially ending the campaign.[xxix]

Mao clearly saw the public disorder resulting from the campaign, and he attempted to dismantle the Red Guard in 1967 prior to their forcible suppression by removing its leadership to the countryside for reeducation, and continuing to rusticate urban youth from former Red Guard hub cities for years afterwards.[xxx] Officials and cadres were also effectively exiled from the world of the CCP and the power they had wielded during the Cultural Revolution.[xxxi] In the post-Cultural Revolution period, the government temporarily tolerated outbreaks of open dissent during a period from 1977 to 1978 known as the Beijing Spring, resulting in the Democracy Wall Movement and numerous works expressing frustration with the Cultural Revolution and Mao and calling for democratization as part of modernization.

Mao’s attempt to find a political successor failed over and over again as each candidate was revealed to possibly challenge Mao or his policies. At the time of Mao’s death in 1976 following protracted illness, power had become concentrated in the hands of the “Gang of Four,” a group of CCP officials led by Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife. At the same time Hua Guofeng, the new Chinese premier, was Mao’s designated successor. After Mao’s death, Hua quickly arrested the Gang of Four so as to prevent a coup (and in some readings, authorizing a coup himself).[xxxii] Relative moderate Deng Xiaoping — one of many considered as a successor, and then discarded — used his political exile to appear to be clean of the taint of the Gang of Four, and hijacked Hua’s ascension to power with a program that focused on economic modernization and returning to normal relations with the West. The Cultural Revolution is thus thought, by some authors, to definitively end with Deng’s ascension to power in 1976.

Once in power, Deng quickly tried and imprisoned radical generals and the Gang of Four, and began the long process of delicately putting a lid on the volatile history of Mao and reversing the enormous economic damage done by his policies. The Cultural Revolution was finally denounced in 1981, with Mao portrayed as “a misguided ‘tragic hero’” by a CCP Resolution on Party History.[xxxiii]

Mass killings on this scale have not occurred in China since the Cultural Revolution, with even such prominent incidents as the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 producing casualties numbering in the thousands, rather than even the tens of thousands, let alone over a million as occurred in earlier phases of violence.


The key contributor to ending in this case was Mao’s death in 1976, which finally forced a leadership change, with the immediate ascension of the far more moderate Deng Xiaoping. Hence, we code this case as ending ‘as planned’ and normalization, because the violence ended in phases that were directed by the central government, even though there was a key leadership change that allowed for the rise of moderating domestic forces that ultimately concluded the pattern of atrocities. We code for mass popular violence, although it was state directed in many ways, there is an element of this character to how the violence was encouraged and pursued. We also note ‘multiple victim groups’ to account for the different logics at play in why various civilian groups were targeted across the longer atrocities period.

Works Cited

Amar, Nathanel. 2013. “Violences De Masse En République Populaire De Chine Depuis 1949.” Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence. Sciences Po, 3 Jan. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <>.

Chan, Anita, Stanley Rosen and Jonathan Unger. 1980. “Students and Class Warfare: The Social Roots of the Red Guard Conflict in Guangzhou (Canton).” The China Quarterly 83: 397-446.

Dikötter, Frank. 2010. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. New York: Walker & Company.

Gong, Xiaoxia. 2003. ““The Logic of Repressive Collective Action: A Case Study of Violence in the Cultural Revolution.” .” In The Chinese Cultural Revolution Reconsidered., edited by Ed. Kam-Lee yee Law, 113-132.. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 113-32.

Hutchings, Graham. 2001. Modern China: A Guide to a Century of Change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lee, Hong Yung. 2003. ““Historical Reflections on the Cultural Revolution.” in The Chinese Cultural Revolution Reconsidered: Beyond Purge and Holocaust. , Ed. Jinyi Luoedited by Kam-yee Law, 92-112..New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

MacFarquhar, Roderick, and Michael Schoenhals. 2006. Mao’s Last Revolution. Cambridge MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.Mao’s Last Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP.

Meisner, Maurice J. 1999. Mao’s china and after: A history of the people’s republic. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Free Press.

Schoenhals, Michael. 2005. ““Why Don’t We Arm the Left?” Mao’s Culpability for the Cultural Revolution’s “Great Chaos” of 1967.” The China Quarterly 182: 277-300

Schoppa, R. Keith. 2000. The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Song, Yongi. 2011. “Chronology of Mass Killings during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).” Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence. Sciences Po, 25 Aug. 2011. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <>.

Su, Yang. 2011. Collective Killings in Rural China during the Cultural Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Unger, Jonathan. 1998. “Cultural Revolution Conflict in the Villages.” The China Quarterly 153: 82-106.

Walder, Andrew, and Yang Su. 2003. “The Cultural Revolution in the Countryside: Scope, Timing and Human Impact.” The China Quarterly 173: 74-99.

Walder, Andrew. 2009. Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

White III, Lynn T. 1989. Policies of Chaos: The Organizational Causes of the Violence in China’s Cultural Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

White III, Lynn and Kam-yee Law. 2003. “Explanations for China’s Revolution at its Peak.” In The Chinese Cultural Revolution Reconsidered: Beyond Purge and Holocaust, edited by Kam-yee Law. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

White III, Lynn T., Steven Levine, Yafeng Xia, Joseph Esherick, David Apter, Roderick Macfarquhar, and Michael Schoenhals. 2008. “Forum: Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China: Commentaries on Mao’s Last Revolution and Reply by the Authors.” Journal of Cold War Studies 10(2): 97-130.


[i] White 1989, 4. See also White, Levine, Xia, Esherick, Apter, Macfarquhar, and Schoenhals 2008 and Schoenhals 2005.

[ii] Macfarquhar and Schoenhals 2006, 3-9.

[iii] Schoppa 2013, 112.

[iv] Dikötter 2010, Epilogue.

[v] Macfarquhar and Schoenhals 2006, 13.

[vi] Macfarquhar and Schoenhals 2006, 3.

[vii] Hutchings 2001, 91.

[viii] Hutchings 2001, 91.

[ix] Walder 2009, 5. A seminal work on this is Chan, Rosen and Unger 1980.

[x] Amar 2013.

[xi] Gong 2003, 119.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Macfarquhar and Schoenhals 2006, 304.

[xiv] Macfarquhar and Schoenhals 2006, 303.

[xv] White and Law 2003.

[xvi] Gong 2003, 127.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] White 1989, 7.

[xix] Cited in Su 2011, 37.

[xx] Song 2011, 37.

[xxi] Song 2011, 9.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Song 2011, 9.

[xxv] Song 2011, 12.

[xxvi] Walder and Su 2003; Unger 1998.

[xxvii] Meisner 1999, 362.

[xxviii] Macfarquhar and Schoenhals 2006, 258.

[xxix] Meisner and and Schoenhals, Mao’s China and After, 365.

[xxx] Macfarquhar and Schoenhals 2006, 251-252.

[xxxi] Meisner 1999, 362.

[xxxii] Macfarquhar and Schoenhals 2006, 445.

[xxxiii] Macfarquhar and Schoenhals 2006, 457.

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