Fifty years ago this week, the Cultural Revolution began with a sudden shift in power. China’s youth, raised to revere their teachers and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres, were abruptly told to overthrow them instead. CCP Chairman Mao Zedong urged students to “bombard the headquarters,” smoking out crypto-capitalists and spies who had wormed their way into the party and betrayed the revolution. “To rebel,” the chairman assured the young, “is justified.”
They did: first with posters and speeches, then with mob beatings. By the end of the summer of 1966, dozens of educators and thousands of ordinary Beijing citizens were dead. Reviled and purged by their own subordinates, high-level party members fell like autumn leaves. Anyone showing restraint or a distaste for violence could be denounced for lacking revolutionary fervor.
As Beijing spiraled into chaos, one local teenager may have hesitated more than most. Xi Jinping, now China’s leader, had already witnessed his father being purged from Mao’s inner circle for “counterrevolutionary” crimes four years earlier, in 1962. As the son of a convicted reactionary, the younger Xi was in an impossible position: rebel too much, and he risked making even more enemies among his fellow elites; rebel too little, and he might be accused of sharing his father’s political guilt. As it turned out, Xi was beaten by his classmates and then sent to the countryside for years of hard labor.
Violence spread nationwide, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths: suicides, assaults, shootings, even cannibalism. Purges of China’s educated left projects without engineers, laboratories without scientists, and factories without foremen. Gangs of Red Guards pillaged libraries, museums, and tombs. Universities closed, and higher education stopped for over a decade. When the Red Guards themselves become too volatile, Mao deflated the movement by sending millions of urban youth to the countryside to do farm labor. Mao died in 1976, leaving behind a devastated economy, a fractured society, and a CCP in paranoid disarray.
In 1981, a shaken Politburo
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