Initium Media recently interviewed Harvard University Professor Roderick MacFarquhar on the 50th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution which began on May 16, 1966. The noted China hand is the author of the seminal work, “The Origins of the Cultural Revolution,” and co-authored “Mao’s Last Revolution” with Swedish sinologist Michael Schoenhals. The latter work explained why Mao launched the Cultural Revolution and how he masterminded the upheaval that claimed millions of Chinese lives. MacFarquhar argues that the years of turmoil and bloodshed dramatized the truth of the old Chinese phrase, “extremes meet,” in a phenomenon steeped in Chinese history and politics.

Chairman Mao Zedong greets supporters of the Red Guard in the Tiananmen Square, Beijing, during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
Chairman Mao Zedong greets supporters of the Red Guard in the Tiananmen Square, Beijing, during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Q: How did Cultural Revolution affect China?

A: The Cultural Revolution affected China very specifically, not just generally. Generally, it effected China in the sense that it brought about enormous chaos, killing, fighting, including with weapons. In Chongqing, for instance, they were fighting with military hardware. And it brought the CP of China into disrepute and almost into dissolution. For about 3 years, the only communist party that was functioning in China was Chairman Mao and a few colleagues at the top. Party life died out(黨的組織生活停滯枯竭). So generally, the Cultural Revolution brought great chaos to China.

But most specifically, the Cultural Revolution illustrates one of Mao’s favorite sayings: “Out of bad things can come good things.” Because what happened with the Cultural Revolution is that there was so much chaos, and so much time was lost in the modernization of China, which was after all the reason why most communists joined the party back in the 20’s: they wanted to create a strong China. And what had happened? They had ruined China, they were tearing it apart. So, I think the Cultural Revolution forced the leadership that survived, notably Deng Xiaoping, but others as well, to realize that they had to change things diametrically, or the country would be finished and the CP would be finished.

So, the Cultural Revolution had a good effect, in the sense that it freed the thinking of DXP, even Chen Yun to some extent, from the shibboleth of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Thought of the past and into new paths. That’s why DXP famous saying, borrowed from the Chinese peasants: “It doesn’t matter what color the cat is, as long as it catches the mice.” Anything was okay, provided it produced growth.

Q: What did you mean by Mao Zedong’s “original sin” for initiating Cultural Revolution in your book?

A:  It’s not a new finding, it’s much more that as the evidence piles up, as I went through the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, it became clearer and clearer where Mao was manipulating events and moving things in a bad direction. I think and indeed when I was first being trained in the field in the 50’s, what was impressive to students of China and Chinese Communism was the difference from the Soviet Union. And when the Soviet Union started, it killed off all its enemies, but in China, Mao Zedong had not done that. 

And it was thought to be very impressive. And in fact, except for a few exceptions, the Chinese leadership was the same in 1966 as it had been in 1945, 21 years earlier. And so, the Cultural Revolution was a great revolution From the norm that we had come to expect from the CCP. What I think I felt about Mao, was at that time in 1945, when he was Chairman of the party and the new party leadership came in with the 7th congress, was a sort of, and many of his colleagues felt the same, it wasn’t just me, Chen Yi, I know because he said so: He didn’t kill off his enemies; his most serious enemies had been Zhou Enlai, Li Lisan and one or two others. Wang Ming, and even Wang Ming was admitted to the central committee at the 8th congress.

So one had the image of Mao as someone who was a benevolent dictator, who was able to unite his colleagues, including past enemies. But then as the years went on, as I followed his development through the 60’s, it seemed to become clear that he had a certain vision of what was good for China, and he was not prepared to allow the friendships, the comradeship,  the support of his colleagues for so many decades – they’d been with him for 20-30 years, the long march, and all that – none of that sentimental connection to these people was going to prevent him from doing what he thought was right for China, and right for him.

And I think one of the issues was – and this became very clear after they tried to salvage the Chinese economy after the Great Leap Forward – one of the issues was that Liu Shaoqi, who had been quite leftist, Zhou Enlai, and the others, all thought: we have to do some sensible things, maybe even family farming.  Call it socialist, but really family farming ( 包產到戶) and other ways of describing it. And Mao was not prepared to accept that. And I think the personal element came in, because first of all he was the architect of socialism in 1955 when he pushed through collectivization of the countryside and then the collectivization of handicrafts and the nationalization of industry and commerce, that was his great triumph and he wasn’t going to see that set aside.

But secondly, I think that what he realized – he realized in the 50’s as well but not so acutely – if China was going to develop like the Soviet Union, with 5-year plans and democracies?, doing this very slowly and deliberately, not like the GLF – he was irrelevant. His forte, his strength, was making revolution. His strength was not in administering; that could be left to Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi, they were very good administrators. And he realized, I think, in the 60’s that if the economic recovery was to continue in the way it was going that he would be surplus  to the Party’s requirements, not be necessary any longer. And he was determined to control the agenda, and keep himself relevant. (我認為毛澤東在60年代的時候意識到,如果經濟按照當時的速度持續恢復,他就不再是必須的了。他決心要掌控局勢,保持自己舉足輕重的地位。)

But I’m not saying he did it just for selfish reasons, I think he also genuinely believed that what had happened to the Soviet Union was a real danger in China, and he was determined to prevent that from happening. Because had he just wanted to get rid of his colleagues, he could have stopped in 1967 because they were all gone by then. But he didn’t, he went on because he wanted to try to revolutionize China. And of course chaos ensued.

Q: How would you summarize the origins of the Cultural Revolution?

A: I think the origins of the cultural revolution must be attributed to 2 things: Mao’s vision, and Mao’s sense of his own position as a revolutionary leader. As a revolutionary leader, he wished to continue to set the agenda, and he knew if China continued to progress along the Soviet 5-year-plan path, that he would be irrelevant. But more importantly, he had a vision, because both internally and in the Soviet Union. that the revolution could degenerate, that the revolution could disappear. He criticized the Soviet Union for starting capitalism, for deserting the revolution.

And the irony of course is, in his attempt to prevent any chance of capitalism returning to China, he made it inevitable that it would. Because he so destroyed the planning system and the state system that the Chinese had copied from the Russians so they had no choice but to look across the seas to South Korea and Taiwan and other places and the Party adopted new methods. So basically the origins are in Mao’s sense of his own place in running the Chinese revolution, more importantly in his vision of China as the pure red center of revolution and taking over from Russia which had betrayed the revolution.

Q: What do you think Mao’s meaning of revolution was?

A:   Mao hated quiet. He loved revolution. When the place was in chaos, in late 1966 – early 1967, he reveled in it.“There’s civil war!” (「祝開展全國全面內戰!」)he said cheerfully! He liked that idea. Of course it’s easy to like revolution if you are quite sure you are not going to be one of the victims. But he liked revolution, and he had this philosophical idea that nothing is ever at rest; everything is always in flux. That’s what he liked about Hegel’s ideas. Everything is always in flux, and everything contains its opposite inside it. And so he believed that progress was through continual movement, and movement into revolution… 27: 14 He didn’t want revolution of the Cultural Revolution type or the ’49 type all the time, but he understood that the Chinese bureaucratic system was so deeply ingrained in the genes of the Chinese people, that a few years after the CR had he still been alive, it would have been necessary to launch another one. Because the bureaucracy is so powerful, it takes over and runs things in a non-revolutionary way.

In 1967, the Harbin municipal government by Red Guards seized power after two weeks, the Red Guards and the People's Liberation Army continues to parade through the streets, chanting songs and revolutionary Mao Zedong. Photo: Li Zhensheng
In 1967, the Harbin municipal government by Red Guards seized power after two weeks, the Red Guards and the People’s Liberation Army continues to parade through the streets, chanting songs and revolutionary Mao Zedong. Photo: Li Zhensheng

Q: It’s interesting that you mention Marxist and Hegelian idea that influenced Mao. Most Chinese think that his wisdom comes from traditional Chinese philosophy. What do you think of that?

A:  I think there are elements of Taoist thinking in Maoist thinking, yes, and there is also a certain understanding of Confucianism in some of the things he said over the years. I think the point is not that he was influenced by the West, on the one hand, or by Chinese tradition, on the other. This man was someone who read voraciously, throughout his life but particularly when he was a young man in Changsha. All these ideas entered into it.

If you look at the work by Paulsen Pollson, a German philosopher who wrote on ethics in the 19th century, one of the things that Mao absorbed when he was doing his self study in Changsha was this book. He just read it in translation, and it’s marked all over the place. Many of his comments are in the schram series of Mao’s writings. His comments suggest he was a leecher. He believed in the hero, and that the hero was someone who should not be restrained, could not restrain himself, *shouldn’t* restrain himself. I don’t think *that* idea exactly, is in Taoism. But the idea of things changing, and in continual flux is; the Yin and Yang diagram itself is a suggestion of continual flux.

April 27, 1967, the Heilongjiang provincial leaders Li Ngu, Wang Yilun, Ren Zhongyi (left to right) wear brand, escorted on stage. Photo: Li Zhensheng
April 27, 1967, the Heilongjiang provincial leaders Li Ngu, Wang Yilun, Ren Zhongyi (left to right) wear brand, escorted on stage. Photo: Li Zhensheng

Q: On the CCP’s legitimacy, is legitimacy itself a western idea?

A:  I don’t think it’s a western idea. Legitimacy is partly being in power. If you are in power, people accept it. In the case of China today, there was a revolution. It was a fair fight, shall we say, and the communists won, the nationalists lost. So the communists have the right to be there and Chairman Mao was the person who led them to victory, so that’s legitimacy. But legitimacy can erode. The revolution promised certain things and in the first 30 years of Mao’s rule, he didn’t deliver. Land reform took place, but then it was taken away. Economic development was promised, but then it collapsed in the famine. And then there was the Cultural Revolution.

So, legitimacy can erode. And I think legitimacy has eroded. And Mao is one of those things that they just don’t want to lose. The need for legitimacy and the need for something, as Hu Jintao said, to link party and the people, is why the party is flirting with this very dangerous idea of using nationalism. Because they know that the Chinese people are very patriotic, but they are using that – and the Japanese are the obvious people to attack – they are using nationalism as a way of solidifying the links between the leadership and the masses.

But of course, most of the time, most people are not bothered by what the Japanese are doing. They are bothered by trying to make a living for their families and not be interfered by officials; not having to pay money in order to get health service or not having to pay money to get their teachers to teach.

But in a difficult situation, nationalism is a tool, but it’s a tool that is two-edged. And we saw in 1919, May Fourth movement, if a government encourages nationalism but is unable to fulfill the dreams of the nationalist people, it may be thrown out. So it’s a very two-edged weapon. In the case of China today, it’s two-edged because it does not want to lose the economic benefits of its relationship with Japan or the United States or other countries through the nationalist fervour that can be encouraged.

Q: Communist Party tries to influence Hong Kong’s politics and Taiwan’s politics, what do you think about that?

A:  I think that both Mao and Deng, because they had a great deal of self-confidence, they were prepared to postpone decisions on important things. Mao would not have been obsessed by Taiwan coming back; but he wasn’t obsessed. He said, you know, one day it will happen. And Deng had the same attitude towards Hong Kong; let it be 50 years. He wouldn’t have worried about what was happening in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s a small city.

It’s a very rich city, a very wonderful city, but compared to the rest of China, it’s small potatoes. And he wouldn’t have worried. He would have let it go on. But I think it’s a symptom of the concern of the Chinese leadership about the problems in the rest of China that they would like to see Hong Kong less like Hong Kong. Because Hong Kong obviously influences people across the border in Guangdong, and Guangdong is a prominent province in China and can influence people elsewhere.

I do hope Hong Kong will remain Hong Kong. It’s a unique place. And Deng Xiaoping was prepared to allow it to stay a unique place. I hope the next leadership that come into power in a couple weeks’ time in China, will do the same. But who knows? But one thing that Hong Kong over the years, in some instances since Tiananmen, has been that it is important to stand up for themselves. And the Chief Executives will find out: Hong Kong people can stand up for themselves.

This article was originally published on May 15, 2016 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.

Join the Conversation


  1. Nice post. I used to be checking constantly this weblog and I’m impressed! Very useful info specially the last part 🙂 I handle such information much. I was seeking this particular info for a very lengthy time. Thanks and good luck.

  2. Howdy I am so excited I found your webpage, I really found you by mistake, while I was searching on Yahoo for something else, Regardless I am here now and would just like to say cheers for a marvelous post and a all round enjoyable blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to read it all at the minute but I have saved it and also included your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read more, Please do keep up the superb job.

Leave a comment