Reflections on the Cultural Revolution

Anonymous November 21, 2022

In the modern age, society has become capable of reflecting upon itself. In China in the 1950s to early 1960s, the Great Leap Forward and the ensuing catastrophe opened new possibilities for the self-reflection of society. However, it seems that these possibilities were suppressed by subsequent developments, particularly the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, during which intra-party debates about the direction of the Chinese Revolution collapsed into mass upheaval. Ultimately, the Cultural Revolution obscured the nature of rural poverty, deepened social hierarchies, and eroded trust among people, discouraging the kind of genuine social participation that is perhaps most needed for society to one day learn from itself.

The following are my reflections as a Chinese person born in the 1950s and sent to the countryside in the mid-1970s as part of the "Educated Youth" program. I managed to leave the countryside through the restoration of the college examination system after Mao’s death. In the early 2000s, I immigrated to North America, where I have been living since. I have long pondered the meaning of the Cultural Revolution.

The Great Leap Forward

The Cultural Revolution arose from the economic and political crisis produced by the Great Leap Forward. Thus, before discussing the Cultural Revolution, it is necessary to consider the circumstances around the Great Leap Forward.

It is difficult to understand the speed and sense of urgency with which the country hurtled headlong into the Great Leap Forward without comprehending the domestic political climate and international relations of that time. From 1951 to 1957, there was a series of campaigns cracking down on anyone who voiced criticisms to the party. Millions of people were attacked. Universities and research institutions often helped identify whom to purge among the intellectuals. Quotas were implemented where, for example, 5 percent of an area’s population had to be identified as “rightists.” The families of those identified were deeply impacted, and their "political futures,” were locked in. It was in such an environment that the country pursued the expansion of co-operatives and, later, communization.

Under the co-operative movement, households were organized into production units. Each unit, or co-operative (hezuose), was made up of tens of households, to be distinguished from communes (gongse), which were made up of hundreds or thousands of households. Co-operatives were supposed to be based on the principle of voluntary mutual benefit, but to meet their quotas, local cadres often broke with this rule. They would withhold loans for people unwilling to join co-operatives, confiscate their fruit trees, livestock, and fisheries, and accuse them of “taking the bourgeois road.” By the spring of 1954, the co-operative movement had fomented pockets of resistance among the peasants, and in many areas, peasants began quitting the co-operatives. The party’s response to this was to reduce quotas on co-operatives for some areas and suspend quotas altogether in others, measures initially backed by extensive popular support.

However, Mao believed that in taking these measures, the party had erred. Mao thought that the Department of Agriculture was sabotaging the co-operative movement. He began cracking down on leaders who pointed out the realities of the co-operative movement and expressed hesitation about its pace. In “On the Issue of Agricultural Co-operation” (July 1955), Mao called such leaders “women with bound feet” and warned that leaders cannot be allowed to fall behind the movement. Thus, the party’s measures to slow the pace of the co-operative movement were reversed. Instead, the rural reforms in the Han region were expanded into the Tibetan, Yi, and other minority regions, several years earlier than planned. There, the reforms were met with armed resistance. In 1956, the central government used two bombers donated by the Soviet Union to blow up the Litang Monastery (in Sichuan), engaged in gun battles, and shelled other Tibetan areas, resulting in what amounted to a civil war in western China that was little known to the outside world at the time.

As a result of the previous year’s political campaigns, most cadres preferred to err on the side of being too “left” at the risk of being described as verging “right” in their speeches or actions. This environment encouraged widespread false reports about the successes of the co-operative movement at the local level, which the central government embraced because it corroborated Mao’s assessment of how to rapidly develop agriculture. This sense of urgency and speed among the top leaders, aggravated by false or exaggerated reports, foregrounded the lead-up to the Great Leap Forward.

China’s attempt to copy the Soviet model of development was an additional factor in the lead-up to the Great Leap Forward. We were inspired by their victories, from their achievements in World War II to the successful testing of the atomic bomb in 1949 to Sputnik in 1957. Given the overwhelming sign