Institutionalized Rebellion: Governing Tsinghua University during the Late Years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution*

Article excerpt

The Chinese Cultural Revolution has been the subject of a great deal of academic discussion, but most attention has been focused on the first years of the upheaval. Scholars have been attracted, quite naturally, by the dramatic and violent convulsions of this period, which began in 1966 when Mao Zedong called on students, workers and peasants to form "rebel" organizations and attack Communist officials in their schools, factories and villages. After the ensuing factional fighting brought China to the brink of civil war, Mao authorized the suppression of those who had heeded his call to rebel. During the second period of the Cultural Revolution-from the suppression of freewheeling factional activity in 1968 until Mao's death in 197fr-Party and state institutions were gradually rebuilt, but reconstruction was carried out within the constraints of Mao's radical agenda, which continued to spur tremendous political and social turmoil. The institutional experiments of this period have received far less scholarly attention and deserve more careful scrutiny.

This paper examines the peculiar system of governance implemented at Tsinghua University in Beijing during the late years of the Cultural Revolution. Tsinghua is China's premier school of technology and the alma mater of many of the most powerful members of the current leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).1 During the Cultural Revolution, the university became a bastion of the radical faction of the Party, which harshly denounced elitist education and the Party bureaucracy. This makes Tsinghua atypical, but also makes it an especially interesting case. Because the radicals stridently championed Cultural Revolution slogans about curbing the bureaucratic power of Party officials, it is of particular interest to examine how they organized power in an institution where they held sway.

The system of governance at Tsinghua during this period can be seen as an attempt by Mao and his radical followers to institutionalize rebellion. Power at the university was divided between a "workers' propaganda team", composed of workers and soldiers drawn from outside the school, and veteran university officials. The propaganda team was charged with mobilizing students and workers to criticize their teachers, supervisors and university officials. The result was a tumultuous system of governance very much at odds with the conventional practice of ruling Communist parties (including the CCP before the Cultural Revolution), which had been guided by ideals of monolithic unity and a clear hierarchy of authority. I will examine how the system at Tsinghua functioned in practice and suggest reasons that it continued to reproduce familiar problems of political tutelage and clientelism. I will then consider how this system fitted into wider patterns of governance around the country during this period, which I suggest fostered a division of power between administrators and rebels.2

Institutionalizing Factional Contention

Between the summer of 1966 and the summer of 1968, Tsinghua University, like other schools around the country, was in the hands of contending student-led factions. The "radical" faction at the university opposed the erstwhile leadership and called for a fundamental break with the past, while the "moderate" faction defended the status quo. Both were ad hoc coalitions made up of "fighting groups" formed by students, teachers, staff and workers at the university. In April 1968, increasingly violent confrontations between these factions led to a "hundred-day war" in which at least a dozen people were killed. On 27 July, Mao dispatched some 30,000 unarmed workers to the campus to put an end to the fighting.3 This watershed event ushered in the systematic suppression of factional fighting throughout China, marking the end of the freewheeling political struggle that had characterized the first years of the Cultural Revolution.4

In August 1968, Mao sent a Workers and Soldiers Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team to take control of Tsinghua University. …