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
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
"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. …