The May 16 Conspiracy
Of the countless national and local political initiatives, movements within movements, and ad hoc campaigns launched in the Cultural Revolution decade, none was stranger than the investigation into the "Counterrevolutionary May 16 Conspiracy." According to a cadre with the CCP Discipline Inspection Commission, the investigation targeted 10 million people nationwide.1 Wang Li (initially accused of being a mastermind of the "conspiracy") estimated in 1981 that it involved the persecution of 3 million people; in 1983 he revised this number upward, estimating that it led to the arrest of 3.5 million.2 The consensus among the CCP's own historians in Beijing today is that the particular class enemy that the investigation sought to identify and purge had in fact been nonexistent.3 There never was a conspiracy in the first place.
CCP historians trace the origins of the May 16 Conspiracy to the emergence in Beijing, in the summer of 1967, of a Red Guard organization called the "Capital Red Guard May 16 Regiment."4 The Regiment consisted of no more than a few dozen university students from Beijing's Foreign Languages and Iron and Steel institutes who believed that the belated publication of the CCP's May 16, 1966, Notification in the Peoples Daily on May 17, 1967, had signaled the impending downfall of Zhou Enlai as yet another "big capitalist roader." In the early summer of 1967, these students clandestinely distributed handbills and put up big-character posters in Beijing with titles such as "Drag out the chief backstage boss of the February Black Wind—Zhou Enlai," "The crux about people like Zhou Enlai is their betrayal of the 'May 16' Notification," "Thoroughly wreck the bourgeois headquarters! Hold Zhou Enlai to account," and "Zhou Enlai has disgracefully betrayed Mao Zedongism!"5 In August 1967, the CCRG branded the Regiment a clandestine, illegal organization. Chen Boda called it a "conspiratorial organization" that by targeting Zhou Enlai "is in reality targeting the center. It has to be struck down!"6