Cultural Revolution in China

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  • Topic: Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping
  • Pages : 15 (5031 words )
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  • Published : January 28, 2008
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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...
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