Many trends in today's China have their roots in the late 1970s - the period after the nation had its slate wiped clean by the Cultural Revolution. Those cataclysmic years (1966-1976) offer insight into what pushed China's pendulum toward capitalism and why democracy hasn't followed.
Or as the preface to a new history of that period, Mao's Last Revolution by China scholars Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals states: "To understand the 'why' of modern-day China, one must understand the 'what' of the Cultural Revolution."
The 462-page narrative (with nearly 200 pages of supplemental material) excels at detailing the how of the Cultural Revolution - how Chinese leader Mao Zedong purged opponents, upended the lives of millions, and established a cult of personality (while yet remaining vague about what it all meant).
Ostensibly, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to restore the communist revolutionary spirit within China - after watching Russia's post-Stalin leaders make "revisionist" steps. The revolution began with a series of carefully orchestrated purges of leaders accused of taking the capitalist road. With the help of his wife, loyal propagandists, and cowering colleagues, Mao encouraged students to find and drive out "capitalist roaders."
Emboldened by slogans such as "To rebel is justified" and "Bombard the headquarters," Chinese students attacked teachers and officials as ideologically unsound. As the revolution progressed, workers and even soldiers were also nudged to rebel. Accusations flowed forth, often motivated by petty grievances or opportunism, sweeping up millions of Chinese over the course of 10 years.
Punishments ranged from public humiliation to manual labor to death by mob violence. "A middle school teacher ... was sentenced ... to nine years in prison for having, among other crimes, written in his private diary that a certain Mao-quote gave him 'boundless energy,' then changed that to 'very much energy,' " MacFarquhar and Schoenhals write.
However, the book does not tell the stories of ordinary citizens. Its focus is on top-level machinations, particularly those of the Chairman. The aging leader is portrayed as fearful of either being sidelined during life or consigned after death to the dustbin of history. Mao's "last revolution" was a crafty effort to stave off both threats.
"Only Mao himself could 'detect' revisionists, or, more accurately, decide who they were." But Mao kept his cards close to his chest, leaving his supporters "to intuit what he wanted and to fulfill what they believed to be his aims." If Mao decided to change direction, he would quietly wait for his acolytes to overstep - and then pounce. …