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Cultural Revolution In China

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The Cultural Revolution as an Unintended Result of Administrative Policies

Because the Cultural Revolution wounded so many patriotic Chinese, the question of its cause haunts current politics. Its violence - including widespread physical attacks against intellectuals and local leaders - was its most unusual aspect, the thing that calls for explanation, the experience that tends to overwhelm other memories of 1966-1968 in many Chinese minds.

The Cultural Revolution obviously tapped frightening parts of the human soul. The People's Republic before that time had suffered bouts of brutality, but none so widespread or directed at so many kinds of victims at so many levels of society. The particularly extensive and loosely organized tumult of the CR calls for an explanation that goes beyond the motives of a few people.

Scholars may nonetheless usefully document the scope of the trauma. Foreigners can offer consolation from the fact that other countries have undergone similar spasms of physical violence in their own revolutions and reactions. More comparative and systematic thinking could help build a framework strong enough to answer the most obvious questions about the CR: Why did so many urban Chinese ostracize and attack each other after 1965? What can be done to obviate the chance this could happen again?


The main roots of the Cultural Revolution's violence lie in previous measures undertaken by the state. From 1949 to 1966 three administrative policies - which can be summed up in the words labeling, monitoring, and campaigning - influenced Chinese urbanites' attitudes toward each other and toward their local leaders. Strong stress on the importance of official names, designated bosses, and fearful campaigns were all measures with which an understaffed Party saved short-term costs in seeking revolutionary goals. The greater long-term costs of these policies emerged only in the Cultural Revolution. In other words, three specific short-run implementing habits of the Chinese bureaucracy caused widespread social anxiety that was tinder for widespread violence.

First, rules cumulated slowly after 1949 to give practical meaning to political names (for example, "capitalist," "rightist," "bad element" or "worker," "dependent of revolutionary martyr," "cadre"). Such categories differentiated whole families for access to unionized jobs, good education, urban housing, rights to remain in cities, even health care and food rations.'

Second, policies also cumulated to make individuals in work units (danwei) increasingly dependent on local Party bosses--and to close alternative channels by which individuals could improve their livelihoods. Their futures depended on obeying their official monitors. By the mid-1960s many ordinary urbanites were ready to follow orders for "class struggle," which came through either the unit leaders or those leaders' local rivals. Individuals supported their officially designated bosses if they and their families had benefited from the previous system --- or attacked the leaders if they had met discrimination from their designated monitors.

Third, public campaigns were yet another administrative technique, a policy for implementing more substantive policies. The official use of threats and activists in campaigns, directed against targets specified by the government, grew over time, The CCP came to use campaigns habitually, because- it had huge social goals but relatively few members who were both loyal and expert at working toward these goals.

These three policies became standard operating procedures whenever the government decided to manipulate people for short-run ends. There may well be longstanding Chinese cultural tendencies to stress the importance of group names, of individuals' dependence on wise patrons, and of fearing official coercion. But these cultural tendencies in China have not always led to cultural revolutions.

The cause of the CR may also be less narrow than the ideas or psychoses of a single individual, even those of Mao. The intensity of the Mao cult, like that of the CR as a whole, requires some explanation that refers to his diverse worshipers. The CR can account for the cult, as much as the cult can account for the CR. Mao used people at that time, but many used Mao's vague legitimation of rebellion for their own ends too. The problem of the CR extends beyond a few men. All top Party leaders from 1949 to 1966 saw political labeling, appointing bosses for each unit, and scary campaigns as administratively necessary. Differences among them on these organizational measures, used outside the Party, were temporary and minor. Mao's cult was also important, but the task of explaining its popularity is probably identical to the task of explaining the CR. Mao abetted this faith, but he could not (even with the help of a few friends) have created it alone. Some precipitating factors of the CR undoubtedly lie in Beijing disputes and inspirations, but something beyond this is needed to show why the popular response on the streets was so forceful.


There is no space here for the 1949-1966 history. Some highlights of the long cumulation of popular ire from administrative policies before the CR may nonetheless be mentioned. The "suppression of counterrevolutionaries" and the FiveAnti campaign's "tiger hunting" began to challenge a few local urban leaders in the early 1950s. The "Common Program" of Liberation and the mobilization of bourgeois patriots for the Korean War were also important at this early time in changing local authority patterns. The violence of the first national campaigns, especially land reform, gave most urban non-Communist elites as much incentive to cooperate with the Party as to resent it. Some people were recruited on patriotic grounds into land reform or aid-Korea work teams. Comprehensive urban labeling was introduced rather innocuously on a comprehensive basis only in the 1953 census. For most citizens (not including some notables from the Guomindang, churches, and newspapers), the movements of the next several years did not involve major violence in cities; they concentrated on the reorganization of economic and cultural life. Many city folk were at first affected by such campaigns only in minor ways, partly because the CCP depended on a great variety of people in these early years to keep the economy going. The Party's supply of experts was minimal



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