Beware of leaders willing to set their own country on fire.
NOVEMBER 22, 2020
Edward S. SteinfeldAuthor of Playing Our Game: Why China’s Rise Doesn’t Threaten the West
- In the summer of 1966, Mao Zedong—the father of the Chinese revolution, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, and leader of the People’s Republic of China—called upon Chinese citizens to rise up in revolt against the very government and party he had been so personally responsible for establishing. “Bombard the headquarters!” he implored.
For months prior, radical acolytes of Mao, none with formal positions in the Communist hierarchy, had been circulating outlandish conspiracy theories about counterrevolutionary plotting and anti-Mao cliques in the highest echelons of the Chinese system, in which the party and the state were one. Unable to press their accusations through the highly bureaucratized and tightly controlled media channels of the party center in Beijing, the radicals, with Mao’s quiet urging, published their claims in a Shanghai newspaper, far from the nation’s capital.
In the resultant miasma of disinformation and innuendo, opportunists in politically important institutions, particularly universities, became emboldened enough to openly vilify what otherwise would have been considered the normal operations of the party-state. In late May of 1966, Nie Yuanzi, an undistinguished mid-level professor at Peking University, publicly accused the university’s leadership, and by extension the Communist Party leadership of Beijing municipality, of being controlled by the “bourgeoisie” and engaging in counterrevolution—capital crimes in those days. Her posted accusations on a university bulletin board might nevertheless have amounted to nothing in this pre-internet era of analog communication. Yet Chairman Mao endorsed the slanderous diatribe, ordering it to be read aloud on national radio and to be published in the party-state’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily.
But it was Mao’s own public proclamation on August 5, his call to bombard the headquarters, that fully set the nation ablaze. Mao, echoing and now formally putting his name behind the conspiracy theories that had been swirling for months, declared that comrades from the party center down to the organization’s lowest-level tendrils had adopted a reactionary bourgeois line, were committed to overturning the revolution, and were actively imposing a “white terror” upon the people. The real threat to the nation’s survival, Mao argued, was no longer the holdouts from the old order—the capitalists, the landlords, the Confucianists. Nor was it China’s turncoat former allies, the Soviets. Nor even was it the worst of the imperialists abroad, the Americans. Rather, the existential threat now resided within the heart of the Communist Party itself, in what today would be termed the “deep state.”
Mao, relishing disruption, and basking in his own centrality to the roiling chaos, called upon young people to rise up. And rise up they did. From August to November 1966, millions of Chinese youth flocked to the capital to attend wildly emotional rallies. Little Red Books in hand, they crowded in Tiananmen Square to catch a glimpse of the chairman, revel in his politics of resentment, and bellow in unison their unwavering fealty to his rule. “Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao! Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao! Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao!”
Impassioned in their newly anointed role as saviors of the revolution, the young, the impressionable, and the disaffected lashed out against the agents of authority all around them, the closer at hand the better: teachers, parents, senior colleagues in the workplace, and so on. Indeed, on the day Mao urged citizens to bombard the headquarters, secondary-school students—adolescents, really—in the all-girls high school affiliated with Beijing Normal University beat to death their school’s party secretary, Bian Zhongyun. Murders of this type would be repeated almost 1,800 times in Beijing alone over the next eight weeks. And that’s not counting the suicides, the beatings, and all the other grievous injuries.
That was just the beginning. By the fall of 1966 and into 1967, violence metastasized across China’s cities. Gangs of radicals tried to seize local power, only to be countered by defenders of the status quo fighting for their own survival. Government agencies were ransacked and looted. Party officials were bound up, humiliated, and thrown before the mob, some never to emerge alive. Workplaces, neighborhoods, and even entire cities descended into internecine warfare as faction battled faction, colleague raged against colleague, student pummeled student, and, in many cases, family member turned on family member. Radicalized citizens broke into military armories and pillaged the contents, thus injecting automatic weapons, hand grenades, and artillery pieces into the nationwide melee. China in just a few months had gone from a rigidly ordered society to Lord of the Flies. Though the final death count is still murky, well more than a million individuals likely lost their lives.