But so disastrous was the failure of the Great Leap Forward that party leaders, including such near CCP immortals as Liu, Zhou, and Deng Xiaoping, afterward pushed more rational economic policies and pried practical control away from Mao. The latter came to see Liu, chosen by Mao as president, as an ideological apostate and political enemy. This was one cause of the Mad Mao’s next grand misadventure, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. “It would be overly simplistic to attribute the Cultural Revolution to nothing more than the power struggle between Mao and Liu or to Mao’s idiosyncrasies; all the same, Mao’s suspicion and dissatisfaction toward Liu were factors,” wrote Yang.
And he should know. He also wrote The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This volume, published four years ago but only recently available in the U.S., ran 722 pages, including 72 pages of notes.
Mao unleashed the campaign in 1966. It was originally supposed to end in 1969 but continued until Mao’s death in 1976. This Frankenstein social experiment was, if anything, more bizarre and senseless than the Great Leap Forward. The latter, in theory, was intended to spur the PRC to the forefront of humanity, yielding a society more productive and wealthy than even America. In contrast, the Cultural Revolution mixed personal pique with ideological purification, party purge, civil war, and social breakdown.
Armed warfare broke out. The military was engaged, divided, and purged. Competing mobs battled for control across China. Provinces were torn apart. Party officials divided into warring gangs. Ideological vigilantes abounded as “Red Guards” invaded universities, sacked ministries, destroyed homes, held trials, exacted peremptory injustice, and tortured and murdered revolutionary enemies. Schools emptied, with students, including a young Xi Jinping, sent to the countryside to labor and learn. Mao exiled his lucky rivals, including Xi’s father, to factories and fields, sometimes multiple times. The unlucky ones, like Liu, ended up in prison, where, denied adequate medical treatment, he died. So did hundreds of thousands or millions of other Chinese.
Mao triggered the Cultural Revolution just like he did the Great Leap Forward. Although some top party officials resisted his worst excesses, they almost always fell in line if confronted. Zhou, though widely seen as a moderate in the West, constantly played the cowardly shill to survive politically. Deng was slightly braver and twice purged as a result. Although Mao stood on the nation’s political summit alone, he quickly lost control of the process as chaos spread across the vast land. Subsequently the CCP attempted to paint the party rather than people as the principal victim of the Cultural Revolution. Yang wouldn’t let this deceptive historical rewrite stand unchallenged: “Official histories amply cover the persecution of cadres during the Cultural Revolution but barely mention or even distort the repeated bloody suppressions targeting ordinary people, the victims of which outnumber persecuted cadres by many hundredfold.”
It is difficult to summarize what convulsed the entire country. Yang explained, “The Cultural Revolution was an extremely complex historical process with multiple layers of conflict between multiple forces enmeshed in repeated power struggles and reversals over the course of ten years and a vast geographical space.” In detailing these events Yang produced another tour de force.
China was delivered from its misery only by Mao’s death on September 9, 1976. There could be no greater relief for the suffering people. Within a month the leadership’s radical advocates of the Cultural Revolution, the infamous “Gang of Four” led by Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, were arrested, soon to be convicted in Stalinesque show trial and imprisoned. It took another two years for Deng to emerge as the undisputed “paramount leader” of the CCP, after which he set the country on a reform course that changed China and world history.
Deng’s PRC was not free, but he made it a freer nation. Unfortunately, Xi has reversed that progress and much more. Today’s China is increasingly authoritarian, with totalitarian characteristics — suffering from pervasive censorship and religious persecution, mass detention of the Uyghurs, an end of intra‐CCP restraints, and a growing Xi personality cult. That doesn’t mean war, whether cold or hot, is the right response by the U.S. government. It is important, however, to understand the challenge presented and to remember from Chinese history the potential dangers posed by the CCP’s creation of another Red Emperor.
Of course, the greatest threat from Xi’s imperial communist state is to his countrymen. These creative, entrepreneurial, talented, and vibrant people deserve to be free. They have suffered under several varieties of political bondage over the last 4,000 years. Xi’s PRC is the latest and might not be the last. But the Chinese people ultimately retain the power to make a better and freer future.