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explaininghistory,com 11 August 2015

The Great Leap
Between 1958 and 1961, Mao
attempted to rapidly transform
China into a socialist economy.
He collectivised agriculture
and set radically ambitious
targets for industrial output,
banned private farming and
persecuted farmers who
worked for themselves. In
villages, peasants were
banned from preparing their
own food and forced to eat in
collective canteens The Cultural Revolution
By 1966 Mao Zedong was determined to regain his position as
the leader of the People’s Republic of China. He believed that
Mao’s Famine counter revolutionary forces and capitalists might easily
return to power in China and feared for his own position.
The Great Leap Forward was a
Between 1956 and 1964 China’s communist ally the Soviet
disaster and resulted in one of
the biggest famines in human Union had begun to reject the legacy of the communist leader
history. The famine claimed Joseph Stalin and Mao believed this was the start of a return
anywhere between 18 and 45 to capitalism in Russia and that this might spread to China.
million lives and resulted in
widespread criticism of Mao On May 16th 1966 Mao called a meeting of the politburo in
from within the party. Beijing and denounced party members, telling the gathered
delegates that the enemies of the revolution existed within
Mao’s Exile the communist party itself. The most senior communists in
the Beijing Communist Party were expelled and Mao
Mao’s subordinates Liu Shaoqi
encouraged university academics and intellectuals to be
and Deng Xiao Peng rose to
publicly denounced and criticised.
prominence within the party
and Mao was sidelined
The Red Guards
between 1962 and 1966.
However, at the end of this By July 1966 Mao still found that he was not fully back in
four year period he re- control of the communist party again. There seemed to be
emerged on the political scene party members who were resistant to his demands for more

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www.explaininghistory,com 11 August 2015

radicalism. He used the Red Guards, groups of radical Maoist

students and party activists to attack the communist party
itself. Within the party, Mao’s supporters took over party
administration and non Maoists were sacked. By August 1966
the newly controlled communist party voted to carry out the
cultural revolution. The party issued a sixteen point
programme for the cultural revolution which resulted in:

* The encouragement of the 15 million strong Red Guard to

1967-68 at the enforce the revolution across China.
revolution’s height
* The encouragement of ordinary workers and peasants to
In destroying the ‘four olds’ attack the old ‘counter revolutionary’ elements in the party
religious temples and shrines and in society.
across China were smashed.
* The destruction of the ‘Four Olds’: old customs, culture,
Libraries and university
departments were burned down. habits, and ideas. This gave the Red Guards the right to
Police who tried to stop the destroy whatever they thought was ‘counter revolutionary’.
destruction were labelled as Mao did not try to instruct the Red Guards on what to do.
counter revolutionaries and Instead he believed that the upheaval of the cultural
attacked. revolution should come from the people. This meant that
with no clear instructions, the violence spun out of control.
• People suspected of counter
revolutionary thought were
publicly humiliated, tortured
and murdered.

• Long ‘self criticism’ sessions

were encouraged where
victims had to denounce
themselves for hours on end in
front of the Red Guards

• Local governments were

overthrown and Maoist
supporters took their place.

• The Red Guard groups began

to accuse each other of
betraying the revolution and
began to attack one another.

• A ‘cult of personality’
developed around Mao.

However, by the end of 1968 the

party appeared close to being
able to restore order. The army,
which had been controlled by the
Red Guard, was restored to
power and the Red Guards
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www.explaininghistory,com 11 August 2015

By 1969 many of the older communists had been

exiled, imprisoned, had committed suicide or had
been killed during the cultural revolution. A new
generation of party members had now taken their
place and many came from the People’s Liberation
Army. The election of the former Marshall of the
PLA Lin Bao was elected as Mao’s second in
command and his growing power and popularity
began to alarm the suspicious Mao.

Lin was blamed for many of the excesses of the

cultural revolution because of his close association
with Mao. He died in a plane crash in 1971, ending
hopes that he would succeed Mao. In the last four
years of his life, Mao became reclusive and the
cultural revolution, supposedly finished in 1968 The Death of Mao
continued under the so called ‘Gang of Four’.
Already, by 1973 Deng Xiao Peng had returned to
The Gang of Four public life, having survived the cultural revolution.
He was made vice premier seen by Mao as someone
Mao’s wife Jiang Qing (referred to in the Western
who could get the economy back on track and take
press as ‘Madame Mao’) and three allies, Wang
power from the Gang of Four. Mao did not want
Hangmen and Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan
the cultural revolution to end and realised only in
ruled China following Mao’s retreat from public
1975 that Deng’s economic reforms would bring
life. They ruled from the central party head
that about. In 1976 popular anger about the cultural
quarters at Zhongnanhai in Beijing. They would
revolution was clear when two million mourners
later be blamed for the worst excesses of the
assembled in Tiannenmen Square in Beijing
cultural revolution, but they were by no means
following the death of Zhou Enlai. It was clear to
solely responsible.
Deng that the cultural revolution had to end and
Economic Collapse had been a disaster, but this only became possible
when Mao himself died in September 1976. Quickly
By 1973 China’s economy was on the brink of
afterwards Deng ordered the arrest of the Gang of
collapse. The cultural revolution had seen
thousands of competent managers, scientists,
engineers, doctors, teachers and academics
imprisoned, executed or driven to suicide. This
meant that industry and society had all but ceased
to function. The communist party had become
dominated by Mao’s loyalists who put his ideas
before economic productivity.

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