John Gittings

China through the Sliding Door: Chapter I
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Rise and Fall of the Red Guards


1968-69: (a) The floods of violence - (b) Red Guard ideology - (c) Stifling the students - (d) Lessons of the Cultural Revolution - (e) A dissident tune

Mao Zedong, like the Monkey King of Chinese legend, breathed life into a swarm of little `monkeys' and sent them to cause `chaos across the land'. They were the student Red Guards, who in the summer of 1966 took to the streets to launch the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Mao had been brooding over the failure of the Great Leap Forward and over the rift with the Soviet Union which was taking the `revisionist road'. He sought to build a new revolutionary generation from China's youth - and to settle scores with some of his closest colleagues.

Millions of Red Guards flocked to Beijing to take part in huge adoring rallies. They denounced their teachers for promoting elitist education: some were driven to suicide. `Red Rebels' appeared in factories, shops, businesses and government offices and ministries. Encouraged by Mao's ultra-left supporters led by his wife Jiang Qing and Minister of Defence Lin Biao, the rebels then targetted senior leaders with Head of State Liu Shaoqi and Party Secretary-General Deng Xiaoping at the top of the list.

By early 1967, Liu, Deng and the other `capitalist-roaders' had been toppled and the whole apparatus of the Communist Party torn apart. The Red Guard and rebel movement split into factions, each claiming to be the true defenders of Chairman Mao. Idealism marched with opportunism. There were passionate debates on how to build a new set of socialist values: there was also vicious fighting in which the factions used weapons stolen from the army. Efforts were made to coax the students back to college and the workers back to work, but the ultra-left leaders called on the Red Guards and rebels to `fight to the end.'

Hong Kong survived serious rioting in the summer of 1967: local radical communists gained some popular support in confronting the `British imperialists' with street demonstrations and bombs. Sympathetic Red Guards in Beijing sacked the British diplomatic office. Very few foreigners could visit China, and then rarely outside Beijing. Those in Hong Kong trying to understand what was happening in China - the professional `China Watchers' - searched for clues. Red Guard manifestos and newspapers were smuggled out by Chinese with relatives in Hong Kong (who could sell them for a good price). Every sentence of every editorial in the official Party newspaper, the People's Daily, was studied and analysed. Provincial radio broadcasts were monitored and translated: they hinted at even worse troubles in the interior. Visitors returning by train from China were intercepted and quizzed at the railway station. There were clues too in Hong Kong's mainland-owned department stores. They sold revolutionary paintings and papercuts illustrating the latest political campaign, even children's games with images of heroic struggle.

Finally in the summer of 1968 violence in several provinces reached a peak which persuaded Mao to intervene. Combined forces of soldiers and workers marched into schools and colleges: the students were persuaded - or ordered - to go `down to the countryside.' By April 1989, when the Communist Party held its long-delayed Ninth Party Congress, the Cultural Revolution seemed to have ended - but there was more to come.


June 1968, Hong Kong

While Guangdong province struggles to contain the monsoon floods, which are now said to be threatening Guangzhou city itself, the swollen waters of the Pearl River have brought to Hong Kong the grim evidence of an even greater meance - the pent-up floods of bloody factionalism which have burst through the dykes in the last month. One is usually reluctant to accept at face value the lurid stories of violence in Guangdong (and in many other provinces) which find their way to Hong Kong. But the evidence of Red Guard papers, of refugees, and of the more than twenty bodies (some showing signs of violent death) which have been fished out of the waters around Hong Kong in the past week, and of a dozen more off Macao, is now overwhelming.

One report suggests that the bodies originate in some mass grave which was washed away by the rising floods. Other stories in early June spoke of large numbers of bodies floating down the Pearl River from Guangxi province (where violence has also been severe) into Guangdong. The fact that most of the bodies are bound disposes of any wishful thinking that they might be straightforward victims of a natural disaster.

There is abundant evidence of serious factional fighting in Guangzhou and - perhaps more alarming - of disorder in the countryside. But the most ominous indicator of bad trouble may be found in the desperate appeals of Guangdong Radio for people to pull their weight in fighting the rising floods. It is one thing for peasants to slacken their efforts in the normal work of farming, but it is much more disturbing when they fail to rally round in face of a common emergency. On 25 June, the Guangdong Anti-Flood Headquarters complained that in some places `insufficient importance has been attached to the flood situation, the ideology of paralysis and dependence on luck still exists, and no practical or effective steps have been taken.' And a week before, the Southern Daily commentator condemned those `class enemies' who `hide in obscure corners to make trouble, create trouble in water-conservancy projects, incite struggle by force, steal equipment and material for fighting floods, and sabotage the structure of water-conservancy.'

It appears that some villagers are quite prepared to build their own dykes, but will no longer give a helping hand to their neighbours - at least, according to one report, not unless they are given more `work-points'. Since the essence of flood-fighting is mutual aid - saving the next village upstream in order to protect one's own fields - this lack of solidarity could prove disastrous.

Perhaps the most important cause of slackness in the countryside is the lack of firm leadership by Party cadres, who no longer dare risk criticism by acting decisively. Deprived of proper leadership, the peasants seem to have simply let things slide. Old inter-clan and inter-village rivalries (the two are often synonymous, since many villages are still monopolized by one family surname) have also surfaced in the laxer discipline now prevailing. There have been references to the emergence of `historical disputes' between production teams, and to the `feudalist clan concept.'

Meanwhile back in Guangzhou, the gang warfare between the two major Red Guard factions, the `Red Flags' and `East Winds' - each almost indistinguishable from the other in terms of policy, and seemingly only concerned with a struggle for influence on the Revolutionary Committees, has flared up since the end of May. On 22 May, the East Winders bombed a meeting of the Red Flags; many were killed while the People's Liberation Army and Workers' Provost Corps `stood idly by'. In the next few days, the East Wind kept the initiative, kidnapping or beating up isolated Red Flag members, and attacking their premises.

The Red Flag hit back in a major battle at Zhongshan University which lasted from noon on 3 June to the following day. The Red Flag students used two machine guns which had earlier been stolen from the PLA. The East Wind students retaliated by showering their enemy with home-made phosphorus incendiary bombs. A number of students were killed and several University buildings were set on fire. One Red Guard pamphlet carries the text of a desperate telegram to Chairman Mao, despatched on 5 June by the beleaguered East Winders who were trapped in the building.

`Now they are laying a big number of mines at the foot of the building and setting fire to the building.... In the gymnasium of the university lie our fighters who have been seriously wounded and are dying.... Chairman Mao, oh, Chairman Mao, our fighters ask you to save them!'

What is the basic explanation for the crisis in Guangdong? The floods are an unfortunate `natural disaster', but the difficulties now experienced in coping with them suggest a major erosion of social discipline and cohesion in the past year with - Mao's instructions notwithstanding - `self-interest' on the ascendant over `selflessness'. The factional fighting, however, stems directly from the green (or rather red) light given by Beijing in recent months to `mass activism'. As reports of serious trouble in other parts of China begin to come in, one can only hope that the central leadership will be quicker than it was last year [1967] to revert to moderation and stem the floods while there is still time.


June 1968, Hong Kong

While the Chinese claim that the `student power' movements throughout the world have been inspired by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the sterile arguments of most of China's Red Guards have little in common with the imaginative ideals of the students in the Sorbonne. But a few heretical organisations in China - now officially denounced by Beijing - do share the same spirit of iconoclastic rebellion. An analysis of the documents produced by one such organisation, the Shengwulian of Hunan province, suggests that they may be the real inheritors of Mao Zedong's own rebellious youth.

What kind of society does the Shengwulian actually envisage for its brave new China? It takes as its text Mao Zedong's directive of 7 May, 1966, which was the first - and also by far the most revolutionary - of all the directives which have since appeared under his name. The essence of this directive is that there should be no specialisation or exclusivity in fields of work; soldiers should also learn politics, engage in agriculture and run factories; workers, peasants and students should also diversify their activities, and so should those working in commerce, service trades, Party and government. Of course the workers should still work, and the peasants should still produce - that is their `primary task'. But by assuming secondary tasks outside their own field, they would break down the barriers between town and country, and between intellectuals and the workers. Everyone should be developed in `an all-round way' to become `a new communist person with proletarian political consciousness'.

This directive has had a somewhat chequered career. Although issued in May 1966, it was not publicly revealed until August, and there is little indication that much effort has ever been made to carry it out, except for the basic provisions that everyone should `study politics.' The first anniversary of the directive was celebrated in a People's Daily editorial in 1967, which discussed its revolutionary provisions at some length. But the Liberation Army Daily, which greeted its second anniversary last month, completely ignored the theme of diversification of employment, while concentrating solely on the need for universal Mao-study.

The visionary idealism expressed in the 7 May directive has a close affinity with the same spirit which pervaded the early months of the people's communes movement during the Great Leap Forward, and it is not surprising that the Shengwulian should claim that the ultimate goal of the Cultural Revolution is the creation of a `People's Commune of China'. It is quite possible that Mao had some idea, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, of re-creating on the political scene the same commune model which he had inspired in the countryside during the Great Leap, and the example of the Paris Commune was cited with approval in the 16-point Decision of the August 1966 Central Committee Plenum [which launched the Cultural Revolution].

But in February 1967, when the Shanghai revolutionaries announced the formation of the `Shanghai Commune', the concept was criticized by Mao himself and soon replaced by the now-standard Revolutionary Committee. Presumably the commune model, with its implied acceptance of mass democracy from below (the 16-point Decision actually provided that elected officials could be `recalled by the masses' if they proved incompetent), was felt to be fraught with dangerous implications.

Some of these implications have been spelt out by the Shengwulian students. To bring about the People's Commune of China, they argue, the existing Communist Party must undergo `revolutionary changes' - and here they frankly concede that the forthcoming Ninth Party Congress [eventually held in April 1969] will not change anything. The reconstituted Party which will emerge at that Congress `will necessarily be a party of bourgeois reformism that serves the bourgeois usurpers in the revolutionary committees'. The Shengwulian also argues that in the new society of the Paris Commune type the entire class of the bureaucrats `including 90 per cent of the senior cadres' should be overthrown. This argument runs directly counter to the official view that 90 per cent of the cadres should be rehabilitated.

The Shengwulian is too ultra-revolutionary even for the most radical members of the Cultural Revolution Group in Beijing, but it is from this radical element that the organisation seems to draw its inspiration. The Shengwulian claims that a speech by Jiang Qing [Madame Mao] of 12 November, 1967, gave them the green light by indicating that a `new stage' of the Cultural Revolution had begun, and that a directive by [Mao's chosen successor] Lin Biao on the Hunan question of 24 October confirmed that `Hunan is the vanguard area of revolutionary struggle of the whole country`'. Neither of these claims appear to be justified, but the fact that they are made underlines the confusion which is caused by the proliferation of loosely worded directives from the `Centre' in Beijing.

The Shengwulian has been denounced as an organisation of `hoodwinked' students who are manipulated by `capitalist-roaders' for their own evil purposes. But while there may be an element of trouble-making involved, one cannot fail to be impressed by the mood of genuine - if misplaced - idealism which pervades their writings.

In their insistence on the need to smash the old authoritarian society, and to replace it with a new egalitarian system, the students of the Shengwulian have much more in common with the rebellious European students (now so loudly praised in the Chinese press) than do the othodox and officially-approved Red Guards. Like their counterparts in France and elsewhere, they are better at analysing the failures of the past than at predicting successful tactics for the future. They say they are opposed to the `infantile Leftist' belief that victory can be achieved at one fell swoop; they are equally opposed to the argument that China must now wait for a `second Cultural Revolution', and accept for the time being the limited gains of the first. They argue instead - claiming that this is Mao's strategy - in favour of a process of permanent revolution, progressing by graduated stages towards their long-term goal - the overthrow of the Revolutionary Committee and the birth of the `People's Commune of China.'

One should not be carried away by the fine rhetorical style and penetrating criticisms of the Shengwulian. Their policy of continuous revolution would almost certainly prove disastrous for China, exacerbating beyond repair the fissures in its society which have already been exposed by the Cultural Revolution. But it is one of the paradoxes of the Cultural Revolution that these students from Hunan - anathematized by the central leaders who claim to speak for Mao - may well be the real inheritors of the spirit of iconoclastic rebellion which inspired the most famous Hunanese of them all, Chairman Mao himself, to lead the Chinese revolution to victory.


August 1968

`You have let me down,' said Mao. `And, what is more, you have disappointed the workers, peasants and armymen of China.' With tears in his eyes (according to one version of the story), Mao harangued a specially convened meeting of the five top student leaders in Beijing with bitter complaints at their failure and at their persistent factional fighting. They had struggled [against Liu Shaoqi and other capitalist-roaders in the leadership], they had criticized [other Party leaders and cadres], but they had not even begun the final stage of the struggle-criticism-transformation [of themselves and society] formula. There were only two solutions: either the student factions should be physically separated, each occupying its own college or school, or they should submit to military control.

Mao's interview with the student leaders was on 28 July three days before China's Army Day was celebrated with strong demonstrations of support for the PLA. And whether or not he actually had tears in his eyes, he had good reason to. During July, the excesses of the Red Guards and `proletarian revolutionaries' has inspired a series of increasingly tough directives from Beijing - or `battle calls' as the Sichuan Daily of 12 August described them. Each was concerned with a particular situation; the 3 July directive calling on the Guangxi factions to stop paralysing railway traffic, the 18 July directive in response to persistent fighting in south Zhejiang, and the 24 July directive calling for a return to law and order in Xian (Shaanxi province), among others.

The use of teams of workers, peasants and/or soldiers to move physically in to colleges and schools and sort out the recalcitrant students has become widespread. The first such team of workers and peasants entered Beijing's Qinghua University, immediately after Mao's 28 July interview with the five students leaders. The campus was then surrounded by soldiers, and a long silence ensued, to be broken ten days later by Mao's famous gift of mangoes [a present to him by a visiting delegation from Pakistan] to the team, signifying his assent for its action.

Meanwhile attempts are again being made to dissolve unwanted Red Guard organisations, to prevent students roaming around the country on the pretext of doing `liaison work', and to pack them off to the countryside on `permanent assignment' to practise integration with the workers and peasants. In a number of cases they have been described as `high school graduates of 1966' (students who left school at the start of the Cultural Revolution and have been unemployed ever since). One of the by-products of the Cultural Revolution was the return of earlier generations of students from the countryside, claiming that they had been victimized and maltreated, and that the whole policy which had sent them into exile was a wicked plot of Liu Shaoqi.

There is a pronounced anti-intellectual tone in some of the latest criticisms of the once-idolized student. `We would like to advise those college students', said the People's Daily in an editorial note of 22 July, `who look down on the workers and peasants and think themselves great, to throw off their conceited airs.'


February 1969, Hong Kong

Neither sweet nor sour, the picture of the Chinese people which has now emerged from the Cultural Revolution assumes for the first time since 1949 something of a three-dimensional character. The mixture of idealism and opportunism which it has revealed, the remarkable variety of regional, cultural and occupational differences, the wide range of human activities and emotions, all add up to a much more complex pixture, which resists pigeon-holing to the last. It has taken the Cultural Revolution, in short, to make the world in general realise that the Chinese people, `even under communism', are human beings. Not only do the Chinese make love, play cards, and have to cope with the problem of `unemployed youths'. They are also more than ready to indulge in passionate agument over the future of their society, and to question the very foundations of bureaucratic rule on which it is built.

The phenomenon of the generation gap is as real as for China as for the other parts of the world where it has also led to revolutions of a less violent but equally profound character in contemporary society. Mao foresaw the problem, even if the Cultural Revolution has been unable to solve it. Two decades after China's liberation, the middle-aged leaders had become old, the young enthusiasts had become bureaucrats, and the infants had become youths with a mere second-hand knowledge of the revolutionary past.

`Of the workers of Canton, the best are seamen', said Premier Zhou Enlai in one of his speeches to the Red Guards, adding with a touch of nostalgia: `You who are in your twenties of course do not know the glorious tradition of the seamen of Canton.' And of course he was right.

In human terms, the generation of the revolution had almost played itself out by the time of the Cultural Revolution, and this was just as true in terms of policy. The conventional approach to economic development, which had begun on orthodox lines - a hybrid import both from the modernized West and the modernizing socialist bloc - had proved inadequate for China's purposes, and Mao's attempt to find a different path along the revolutionary lines of the Great Leap Forward had also petered out. In foreign policy as well, both the conventional approach (China's `people's diplomacy` of the mid-1950s) and the revolutionary alternative (the deliberate break with the Soviet Union) had ceased to pay dividends. But China's domestic social superstructure was still very much at the conventional stage, with a well-defined bureaucratic hierarchy imposing an intricate system of control and response upon the `broad masses` of the population - again a hybrid mixture, although this time from the traditional Chinese as well as from the `socialist' matrix.

The Cultural Revolution has accentuated, rather than alleviated, the conflicts of interest which exist in any society, but had previously been kept in check by the appearance and sometimes the reality of monolithic party power. One of the most striking features of the Red Guard and rebel movement was the speed with which it fragmented into distinct and identifiable interest groups, each with concrete grievances or ambitions of its own. In most places the movement could be roughly divided into the `Left' and `Right' wings (although both claimed to be dead centre in the Maoist mainstream of the revolution.) The ranks of the `Left' would typically include casual or temporary workers, students with poor job prospects (who had graduated with low marks), civilian draftees to the countryside, unskilled or semi-skilled factory workers, and disgruntled low-level party cadres. The `Right' would embrace those with a larger stake in the status quo; better-paid workers in fixed employment (enjoying social security benefits), well-qualified students with good careers ahead of them, more senior party cadres and their children, and reasonably well-off peasants. The forced migration of millions of rebels to the countryside must have shattered their organisations (although some clandestine networks may still be maintained) but it can hardly have wiped their minds clean of the demands and complaints which were so vocally expressed in the past two years.

As with the rebels, so with the Party, Government and armed forces, none of which can fail to have become much more conscious of the internal stresses and strains within their own ranks during the Cultural Revolution. The Party bureaucracy functioned in the past according to well-defined rules of the game, even if they were not necessarily those enshrined in the Party constitution. Promotion, demotion, career prospects, the routing of paper-work, the channelling of decisions, all were mechanisms whose operation was clearly understood by those on the inside. But can they be so sure any longer after three years in which the Party and Government have been pulled apart and put together again (and how do they know they are still on the inside)?

Confidence has also been shaken in the ability of the Party organisation to act as a closed forum at which conflicts of interest can be reconciled while maintaining the customary facade of unity. The Cultural Revolution has created a new precedent - the use of the mass media and of extra-Party political lobbies to conduct policy debates. The most famous lobby of them all was the Red Guard and rebel movement, and its various factions were often manipulated (and financed) by rival political pressures. Although the factions have been dissolved, the political pressure group has become an apparently irremovable fixture.

In one province after another, complaints have been voiced about the failure of the new Revolutionary Committees to maintain unity. Individual members go behind one another's backs and drum up support outside the committee, instead of laying all their cards on the table. Some people are `proud of their ingenuity in devising ways whereby to avoid carrying out central instructions. `They have formulated their own regulations.... they have excluded people who do not agree with them....' The provincial committee in Guangdong recently admitted that `it was no surprise that differences of opinion arose among members of the Revolutionary Committee' - and its members pledged themselves `to oppose the tendency of `each going his own way'.

The army is also no longer so sure of its own terms of reference. Gone are the simple days when its place in the political system was clearly defined, an executor but never a initiator of policies, a political `model' which was a symbol rather than an actual vehicle of the Thought of Mao Zedong. Once the model was put into actual practice, it soon became tarnished by daily involvement in the rough and tumble of the Cultural Revolution.

All these manifestations of dissent and contradictions - in the Party, the Government apparatus (or at the moment the Revolutionary Committees) and the army, plus the repressed but as yet unsatisfied grievances of the `rebels' - can be explained in terms of the `Left' against the `Right', or the `radicals' versus the `moderates'. But the picture which this conjures up of a grand military exercise, conducted across a nationwide battlefield, is much too neat and superficial and it is very doubtful whether those actually in the field can define their own positions so precisely. The Cultural Revolution has certainly brought the factions into being, but it has also breathed life into ideas and aspirations which had lain dormant for the many years of comparative peace which preceded it.

Scarcely a single commune or factory floor in the whole nation can have passed through the Cultural Revolution without its perspective on the rest of society being radically alerted. This does not necessarily mean that the violence of the last two years will erupt again, or even that the Cultural Revolution, in its present form, will not lapse into a prolonged lull. It may take another decade or more before the problems of China's future course arise again in such an acute form - perhaps now that the rigid structure of the pre-Cultural Revolution society has been broken apart, the necessary changes may even occur gradually and without any major upheaval. But like many other countries, and for some of the same reasons, China is in a state of transition whose ultimate direction may only become clear to the future historian at the distance of many decades. The Cultural Revolution, whatever else it has failed to do, has broken the ice.


June 1969, Hong Kong

Shops selling Chinese goods in Hong Kong recently carried an attractive line in Yu Ping bamboo flutes from Guizhou province. Each is inscribed, in traditional maner, with a poem in classical style, but the message is highly contemporary.

The poem which has attracted most attention is by China's most famous writer of the 20th century, Lu Xun. Itself modelled on a Tang dynasty poem, it laments the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the threat to Beijing - the ancient `city of culture.'

The people of culture have ridden away with the culture;

Here there is only an empty `city of culture'.

Once the culture has gone it will never return.

The Ancient City is left forlorn for a thousand years.

Special trains are drawn up in ranks at the Qianmen station.

University students are in trouble again and again.

When they arrive at Shanhaiguan at sunset, how can the students resist?

At the big celebration rallies no one sees the danger.

Without changing the original, the sense can easily be adapted to present events. The `people of culture' are the young intellectual standard-bearers of the Cultural Revolution. They have boarded their trains at Qianmen station in Beijing on their way to re-educate themselves in the countryside. Meanwhile the masses are celebrating the victory of the Cultural Revolution, but it is a hollow victory.

Other flutes recently on sale (they have now been withdrawn) carry similar classical couplets or complete poems on the familar theme of the exile's lament: `Who can see my silent weeping in the darkness?' But one flute is much more ambiguous, for its poem (also by Lu Xun) was singled out by Mao himself in his Yan'an speech of 1942 on literature and art as a praise-worthy example for `intellectuals who want to integrate themselves with the masses.' `I bow my head,' wrote Lu Xun, `and like a willing ox I serve the children.' Perhaps this eminently acceptable sentiment was used by the anonymous calligraphists of Guizhou to cover up for their more critical efforts.

The reaction of the China Watchers in Hong Kong has been as fascinating as the flutes themselves. Authentic examples, originally purchased for a few Hong Kong dollars, are now being offered second hand for as much as US$20. (No doubt the fakes will soon be on the market.) Lu Xun's `willing ox' may fetch slightly less, but his `Qianmen station' is already a collector's item. European China Watchers puzzle over the cursive script in which the poems are inscribed; unaware of its origins, some have interpreted Lu Xun's `willing ox` as an `anti-Mao poem.'

The Hong Kong Chinese anti-communist press has plunged into scholarly fray, with all the zeal of a classical historiographer. Were the flutes inscribed by loyal Maoist Red Guards, protesting that the Cultural Revolution had been betrayed? Or, as one right-wing account would have it, are they the product of a working-class flautists' atelier in Guizhou, condemning not just the Cultural Revoution but the whole two decades of Communist rule? One writer regards the flutes as conclusive proof of an imminent collapse on the mainland. All that the flautists are waiting for is for Taiwan to launch the invasion.