Uncounted Millions: Mass Death in Mao’s China

Repression’s Higher Toll

New Evidence Shows Famine, Violence Spared Few

Daniel Southerland,
Washington Post,
July 17, 1994

The time was more than three decades ago; the place, a county in east-central China. A ferocious, abiding hunger had settled across much of the land, and top official Zhao Yushu issued this ruling: Children abandoned in roads and fields by their starving parents must be left to die.

People were so desperate in one Fengyang County commune during the monstrous famine, which was caused by Mao Zedong’s 1958-60 industrialization drive called the Great Leap Forward, that on 63 occasions they ate others who had died – or resorted to killing, carving up and eating their own children.

“In Damiao commune, Chen Zhangying and her husband Zhao Xizhen killed and boiled their 8-year-old son Xiao Qing and ate him,” said a startling report that has recently become available in the West. “In Wudian commune, Wang Lanying not only picked up dead people to eat, but also sold 2 jin [2.2 pounds] from their bodies as pork.”

The 581-page report detailing how the famine affected Fengyang in Anhui Province, prepared in 1989 by the official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences for internal use by top Chinese officials, is just one example of material that has recently emerged about the staggering human toll exacted by Mao’s belief in “permanent revolution.”

This and other new evidence shows that the number of people who died in more than a dozen repressive, often violent political campaigns between 1950 and 1976 – especially the Great Leap Forward and the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution to create a new society – is millions higher than previously thought. According to some high estimates, Mao’s repression, radicalism and neglect may have been responsible for up to 80 million deaths.

The material – unearthed by Chinese and Western scholars, and an investigation by The Washington Post – also shows that areas of China previously believed to have escaped the chaos of these campaigns were not immune from the tumult masterminded by Mao, who died in 1976 but is still revered or at least admired by many Chinese.

“I don’t think we’ve yet come to grips with the horrors perpetrated by Mao,” said Roderick MacFarquhar, professor of government at Harvard University. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who ruled from 1922 to 1953, “is seen as someone who didn’t deserve to be where he was. Mao is still seen as a heroic figure.”

This 2-part series examines new information that has emerged about Mao’s bitter and violent legacy. Evidence that Mao caused tens of millions of deaths is potentially destabilizing for the present Chinese regime, which still draws its fundamental legitimacy from Mao.

Although China’s leaders have rejected much that Mao espoused, including endless class warfare and agricultural communes, they still claim to be Mao’s rightful heirs, guided by the ideas of the guerrilla fighter who founded the People’s Republic in 1949 after a bloody civil war. Even in an era when making money is supreme, Mao’s image as a revolutionary, theoretician and founding father is considered vital to what remains of Communist Party legitimacy.

And for China’s 1.2 billion people, especially those who remember the turmoil of the Mao Zedong years, historical truth is no mere intellectual exercise. While it is impossible to measure the violence done to the spirit of so many Chinese in a world turned upside down, the legacy of these traumas affects all of Chinese society.

Furthermore, many have been left with a near permanent sense of insecurity. When asked if the terror of the Cultural Revolution could return, a farmer in his mid-thirties in Daxing County, just south of Beijing, replied: “Who knows what could happen? If there’s a change of policy at the top, who knows?”

Although many Chinese share his concern, analysts say the political environment has changed drastically since then. MacFarquhar, who is completing his third book on the origins of the Cultural Revolution, said while whole classes of people were repressed under Mao, today’s government selectively targets intellectuals, workers and members of minority groups, such as Tibetans, who oppose or criticize it.

“In the past... you never knew if you could escape being a target of violence – even if you were a poor peasant,” he said. “Today, if you keep your head down, you’re all right.”

Senior leader Deng Xiaoping and other top authorities maintain that Mao’s accomplishments far exceed his failures. In 1981, the Party Central Committee touched on the Great Leap in a carefully worded resolution, insisting the party’s “general line” was “fundamentally correct.” It admitted Mao’s “gross mistakes” but said nothing about the famine.

In the view of Deng, who was stripped of power as party general secretary by Mao in 1966 and purged again in 1976, exposing Stalin’s crimes was one of Moscow’s biggest mistakes. Thus Beijing has barred any close examination of Mao’s misdeeds, although some scholars in China do so even though they cannot publish their findings.

Mao, unlike Stalin, did not target individuals for assassination, did not directly supervise any of the killing and did not revel in it. And unlike Hitler, he did not select a whole people for extermination.

What Mao did was unleash mass movements against his rivals and the “bad classes” of society. He did in fact target segments of society for repression, which sometimes led to public humiliation of the victims and death by torture, unchecked by any legal constraints. His pronouncements led lower-level officials to actually create quotas of victims to be targeted during different campaigns.

The evidence is that Mao and his ideology created the justification and atmosphere that made killing possible and difficult to halt. Mao’s underlings almost never moved to stop him, and when they did, they paid for it.

Mao used social isolation and humiliation as instruments of mayhem. During mass campaigns, designated “enemies of the people” were hounded, tortured and broken psychologically. Many committed suicide.

“Mao was unsystematically, fanatically dangerous,” said a former well-placed Chinese official in Beijing who was persecuted and jailed as a “rightist” during the Cultural Revolution. “He was not a mass murderer, but his lunacy probably caused the deaths of more people than Stalin.”

A forthcoming book by Mao’s former physician, Li Zhisui, written with the help of Sinologist Anne Thurston, is expected to portray Mao as an emperor isolated from much of the killing, starvation and chaos that he unleashed. Li, who lives near Chicago, worked for Mao from 1954 until Mao’s death in 1976.

“He willingly allowed millions of people to die in order to have his way,” said Thurston, who wrote a doctoral dissertation on the impact of the Great Leap as well as a book on the Cultural Revolution. “Mao just didn’t think the way most people do.”

Mao-Made Famine

The 20th century’s most terrifying famine ravaged rural China between 1959 and 1961, claiming tens of millions of lives – and it was mostly made by Mao.

At the time, few China specialists in the West perceived that massive starvation had resulted from Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a utopian production drive in which Mao formed rural communes and ordered citizens to make iron and steel in primitive back-yard furnaces. Some Western scholars, idealizing China and convinced that a food shortage could not exist under the Communists, doubted the existence of a famine.

Mao’s goal in the Great Leap Forward was to accelerate economic growth. According to most accounts, his aim was to push China to catch up with Britain within 15 years. However, Wang Ruoshui, a former deputy editor of the People’s Daily, the Party’s official newspaper, said recently that Mao really was trying to overtake the Soviet Union and establish his position as leader of the world Communist movement.

According to some historians, Mao’s crime during this period was that he had ample warning in early 1959 that the Great Leap Forward was creating food shortages, but he did not remedy the situation.

The iron-and-steel drive, which transformed millions of cooking pots and other utensils into useless slag, drew labor from the fields, leaving many crops unharvested. Meanwhile, those farmers who remained in the fields saw their crop yields decline, because Mao, the son of rich peasants, had prescribed farming techniques that involved close planting and deep plowing – unsuitable for many areas.

Despite the efforts of a few perceptive Western scholars who interviewed Chinese refugees arriving in Hong Kong in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Chinese authorities concealed the truth about the famine from much of the world for nearly two decades.

To this day, the state-run media remain largely silent about the famine. According to Richard Evans, former British ambassador to Beijing and author of a biography of Deng, the Great Leap is “seldom referred to in official documents, or even in novels and short stories.” Chinese schools teach little about it; public discussion would raise questions about Communist Party rule.

Only in recent years, with China’s opening to the West, have the dimensions of the tragedy begun to be known.

Sources of new information on the famine indicate it was more widespread than long believed and could have been avoided.

— An article appearing last year in the Shanghai University journal Society stated that at least 40 million died from 1959 to 1961. Previous estimates have ranged from 10 million to 30 million. The article noted a mistake in government population statistics for 1960 that led to an underestimation of “unnatural deaths.” Authorities later banned this issue of the journal and withdrew it from circulation.

— In another study, National Defense University professor Cong Jin estimated that 40 million died between 1959 and 1961.

— Chen Yizi of Princeton University’s Center for Modern China did research for years in China, first as a student and then as a government official, and determined that 43 million had died in the famine, a figure recently matched by a report from a think tank in Shanghai. According to Chen, this made the total number of Chinese who died as a result of Mao’s policies 80 million.

— Yan Yunxiang, an anthropologist and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has interviewed numerous famine survivors in north China villages, dismisses bad weather as a major factor in the famine, as the government has claimed in the past. Yan reports that “1958 was an excellent year for agricultural production and 1959 was only sightly below average.” Drought was severe in some provinces in 1960 but not in every province.

— Ding Shu, a Chinese physicist and author of a book on the famine called Renhuo, or “Man-Made Disaster,” has gathered new statistics and reports on the famine from most of the provinces and concludes “this famine was at least 90 percent the fault of Mao Zedong.”

The Great Disaster

Historians agree that Mao, unlike Stalin in the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s that killed 10 million, did not set out deliberately to starve the peasants. When Mao realized in 1959 that people were starving, according to scholar Thurston, he showed his concern by refusing to eat meat for six months. But he persisted in his utopian vision of communes and back-yard furnaces.

“The main point about Mao is that for long after he knew there was a famine, he refused to introduce policies that would eliminate the crisis,” Thurston said.

Government reports and documents reveal an atmosphere of fear, largely created by Mao’s policies, in which party staffers falsely reported record harvests, took grain from starving peasants, and beat and killed tens of thousands who resisted the Great Leap.

In the spring of 1959, Mao accepted some blame for mistakes made during the Great Leap but placed most of it on officials below him. He temporarily slowed the collectivization drive and allowed farmers to reclaim small plots of land.

However, a major leadership conference at Lushan in July 1959 hastened Mao’s march toward disaster. Mao accused Defense Minister Peng Dehuai, an old comrade but leading critic of the Great Leap, of mounting a conspiracy. Mao stubbornly decided to relaunch the production drive, condemning China to famine. Peng was dismissed from his post, and, during the Cultural Revolution, he was publicly humiliated and ostracized.

“If there had been no Lushan conference, people would not have died in such numbers,” Ding said. “Up to that point, everyone still had time to correct the mistakes.”

One mistake was the decision made by Mao and his lieutenants to take more grain away from peasants who were already beginning to run short. The authorities shipped the grain to the cities, kept it in warehouses where it rotted or exported it to earn scarce foreign currency.

The government reversed itself in 1961 and began importing wheat, most of it from Australia and Canada. At an advanced stage in the famine, grain was sent on army trucks to the peasants. But much of it arrived too late to help the sick and starving, some too weak to stagger to the trucks.

The 1989 report on Fengyang County, which is in east-central China, more than 500 miles south of Beijing, said that the county’s Communist Party leaders boasted to their superiors of higher and higher grain yields even as actual yields declined.

Then they pressured lower-level officials to procure more grain for the state. In one brigade, or village, “cadres interrogated and beat people every day” in an effort to secure more grain, the study said.

With no way out, many local officials at the commune level and below simply quit their jobs. This contributed to a shortage of the seeds, tools and fertilizer they controlled, exacerbating an already desperate situation.

The first to die were the children and the aged. The county’s party leader, Zhao Yushu, prohibited people from rescuing children found abandoned along roads and in fields because saving them would lead more people to desert their children.

Under the commune system, the peasants were required to eat in communal mess halls where the food was provided free. But the mess halls ran out of grain. Soon, “everything was in disorder” in the mess halls, according to the study. The young and the strong hastily consumed the most food, while “the old and weak could eat only the worst food, and ate less.”

Several copies of the Fengyang report have found their way to Hong Kong and the United States. The report said that from 1959 to 1961, 60,245 persons out of Fengyang’s total population of 335,000 at the time – nearly one person out of five – died of “unnatural causes.”

Author Ding has found statistics indicating that the number of deaths in Fengyang County was actually higher – perhaps 90,000, or more than one out of four. And Ding said the Fengyang case was not unusual in terms of either the number of deaths or the official brutality.

Fengyang farmers today, while poor by Western standards, have improved their lives. In a village called Houyang, reached at the end of narrow, muddy roads, peasants who ate grass, tree leaves and rice husks during the famine have replaced their mud huts with 2-story concrete houses.

According to Ding, only a relatively small number of officials who brutalized peasants during the famine were punished afterward. High-level party officials had little interest in airing Mao’s “mistakes” in the Great Leap, because most of them had either supported or failed to oppose it.

How Many Died?

New Evidence Suggests Far Higher Numbers For the Victims of Mao Zedong’s Era

Valerie Strauss and Daniel Southerland,
Washington Post,
July 17, 1994

While it is hardly any comfort to their victims, the two people most associated with mass deaths in this bloodiest of human centuries – Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin – were likely surpassed by a third, China’s Mao Zedong.

Mao launched more than a dozen campaigns during his rule, which began when he founded Communist China in 1949 and ended with his death in 1976. Some are well known while others, such as a bloody campaign to “purify class ranks” in the late 1960s, which involved army units, have received little publicity.

While most scholars are reluctant to estimate a total number of “unnatural deaths” in China under Mao, evidence shows he was in some way responsible for at least 40 million deaths and perhaps 80 million or more. This includes deaths he was directly responsible for and deaths resulting from disastrous policies he refused to change.

One government document that has been internally circulated and seen by a former Communist Party official now at Princeton University says that 80 million died unnatural deaths – most of them in the famine following the Great Leap Forward. This figure comes from the Tigaisuo, or the System Reform Institute, which was led by Zhao Ziyang, the deposed Communist Party chief, in the 1980s to study how to reform Chinese society.

In comparison, Hitler is blamed for 12 million concentration camp deaths and at least 30 million other deaths associated with World War II, while Stalin is believed responsible for between 30 million and 40 million “unnatural deaths,” including millions from a famine he created.

There are important reasons for the wide discrepancy in the Chinese estimates. During critical periods, records were either kept secret or not kept at all. In many parts of China, the leadership still refuses to open records. In the early years under Mao, many Western scholars were so enamored with Mao that they refused to believe such widespread atrocities could have been carried out by the Chinese Communists.

Land Reform Campaign (1949-Early 1950s)

The first people to die violently after 1949 were landowners killed in the land reform campaign of the early 1950s. To destroy the power base of the old landlord elite in the countryside, the regime ordered security police to arrange “people’s tribunals” to target at least one landlord in every village. Sinologists say at least 1 million people were killed; perhaps as many as 4 million died.

Drive to “Suppress Counterrevolutionaries” (1950)

At a minimum, tens of thousands of people were executed in a search for potential counterrevolutionaries and Nationalist Chinese sympathizers; some scholars say a million or more died.

Anti-Christian Campaigns (1950s)

Throughout this period, the Communists launched an attack on the Christian church and other religious groups. While researcher James T. Myers of the University of South Carolina says it is impossible to know exactly how many Christians were targeted for death, certainly many thousands lost their lives.

Campaign to “Eliminate Counterrevolutionaries” (1953)

Mao declared that “95 percent of the people are good,” leading the party to target 5 percent in many organizations as “bad elements” who should be purged and repressed. At least hundreds of thousands died.

The Great Famine (1959-61)

The greatest loss of life came in the Great Famine, a result of Mao’s misguided industrialization effort called the Great Leap Forward. The Chinese government over the years has given varying estimates of deaths and at one time blamed them on the weather. For years many scholars said 20 million died. But Judith Bannister, a demographer at the US Census Bureau, has put the toll at about 30 million. Using material contributed by China’s State Statistical Bureau as well as China’s State Family Planning Commission, she and other demographers employed complicated formulas involving birth rates before and after the period to reach their conclusion. An even higher figure – 43 million – is now gaining some academic currency. Chen Yizi, a former Chinese official now at Princeton University’s Center for Modern China, spent years researching the subject in China. He conducted a county-by-county review of deaths in five provinces and, by extrapolation, arrived at 43 million. A research center in Shanghai recently reached the same figure for the number of famine deaths.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-76)

Mao’s movement to destroy his adversaries, counter “bureaucratism” and create a new society. Assessing the figure presents problems; in many places, fighting among Red Guard factions erupted and government and police authority collapsed. Many were tortured or driven to suicide. There have been wild fluctuations on death estimates – from hundreds of thousands to 20 million. Relying on official Chinese sources, some Western scholars have long accepted that half a million people died in the Cultural Revolution. Hu Yaobang, former Communist Party chief, has been quoted as saying that 1 million people died during the period, but the figure apparently excludes the fighting between Red Guard and army factions. A number of scholars, including Harry Harding of the Brookings Institution, believe about 1 million died. But as new evidence emerges, an even higher toll is likely. Two of the Cultural Revolution campaigns least known in the West and least studied by scholars – the “purification of class ranks” (1968-70) and the campaign against “May 16 elements” (1968-69) – are now revealed to be among the bloodiest.

Occupation of Tibet (1950-Present)

During the many campaigns, the occupation of Tibet continued, exacting a horrific price on the people and land. China invaded in 1950. After an uprising in 1959, experts say the Chinese emptied monasteries and threw hundreds of thousands of people into prison camps. The Tibetan government in exile estimates that 1.2 million people have died under Communist rule as a result of war, starvation and repression. Some analysts say this is too high; others believe it is possible. According to the late Panchen Lama, a high-ranking official in the Chinese hierarchy, 10-15 percent of the Tibetan population was initially imprisoned following the 1959 uprising. If there were then 4 million Tibetans, that would be 400,000 to 600,000 people imprisoned. The Panchen Lama estimated about 40 percent died while in prison; other estimates range up to 90 percent. If 40 percent died, the total for Tibet would be 160,000 to 240,000 – and that is just among those who died in prison during that short period. Tenzin Choedrak, the Dalai Lama’s physician said that in a camp where he was held for two years, more than half the prisoners died of starvation.

A Nightmare Leaves Scars, Questions

Daniel Southerland,
Washington Post,
July 18, 1994

On a single August night 28 years ago, bands of Red Guards armed with clubs beat to death or strangled more than a hundred of Fu Yueying’s fellow villagers, branded “evil elements” because they ostensibly came from landlord families.

Fu could do nothing but crouch inside her home and listen to the screams. By daylight those who had managed to survive learned that the Red Guards had spared not even the babies.

Four of the victims were Fu’s children from her first marriage. A fifth child escaped and was glimpsed fleeing into the fields, never to be seen again. Fu was allowed to live because her second marriage was to a peasant whose “class background” was deemed adequate.

“Each time I think of it, I feel sick at heart,” said Fu, who was 36 at the time. “I feel it would be better for me to have died.”

The hideous violence that wracked China during the 1966-76 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution has yet to be fully explained and understood – even now, nearly two decades after the nightmare ended.

Seemingly simple questions about the period – in which Mao sought to reshape Chinese society and thought, and wound up plunging much of China into social, political and economic chaos – have defied easy answers. These include how many people died, how much the Communist system and Chinese culture were responsible, and how much Mao was to blame when his allies called for the young to smash the “four olds” – thinking, habits, culture and customs.

Why, in the blink of an eye, did people betray, torture and kill those they knew and those they did not? How could they demolish precious paintings, vases, statues, books and anything else they found from China’s distinguished past? One Chinese man recalled watching his mother take a valuable old painting, the family’s most prized possession, and destroy it. “She was afraid the Red Guards would come and find it, and then they would kill us,” he said.

The period has left profound effects on the Chinese leadership and society as well, fostering a fear of chaos that does not justify but may help to explain Beijing’s continued insistence on tight political control.

Young Chinese lost years of valuable education and grew up in a setting devoid of reason or morality; their parents and grandparents watched the society they had helped build be torn asunder. Many millions of Chinese still worry that turmoil could return, yet the full truth of what happened in the Cultural Revolution remains a mystery.

To better understand the movement’s dynamics, a relatively small number of Western and Chinese scholars have been studying the tumultuous period, and it is only now that a few scholars have examined documents on the violence in greater depth. Much of the information being amassed in China cannot be published there for fear of high-level retaliation, leaving several scholars deeply frustrated.

And while a number of intellectuals who survived the Cultural Revolution have written memoirs, few peasants or others living deep in the country’s interior have told their stories until now.

The debate over Mao’s role, while historical, has important implications for China today. The country’s aged leadership still claims its essential legitimacy from Mao and his revolutionary legacy, and thus the destruction of Mao’s image would be risky for the Communist Party. But Chinese who want the truth exposed argue that a clear understanding of the past is vital to avoid repeating its mistakes.

The new material on the Cultural Revolution reveals that violence penetrated areas previously thought unscathed, and the savagery lasted longer than commonly known. Furthermore, the evidence is now overwhelming that Mao created the atmosphere that made the nightmare possible – despite attempts by many to lay the blame on other officials – and that many more than a million people may have been killed. Until now, most scholars estimated the number of deaths in the range of a half-million to 1 million.

Two sociologists at Harvard University studying the Cultural Revolution have concluded that the most deadly phase actually began about the time that standard scholarly research says the violence ended, with the suppression of Red Guard and rebel organizations in 1968.

Prof. Andrew Walder of Harvard, who is researching violence during that period, and Gong Xiaoxia, a Beijing University graduate who has organized a computer data base at Harvard on the Cultural Revolution, say this phase began with local leadership committees systematically imprisoning, torturing and murdering suspected class enemies, “often in surprisingly large numbers.”

Writing in the journal Chinese Sociology and Anthropology last fall, Walder and Gong concluded that all social classes suffered in a massive and highly organized “Great Terror” that has gone “largely undocumented and hardly noticed abroad.” This “seemingly endless series of persecution campaigns” run by Military Control Committees and Revolutionary Committees continued in some form through 1976.

New Documents

The Cultural Revolution most often has been considered an urban phenomenon. But Walder and Gong say new documents recently obtained from China reveal that persecution and pogroms reached into the most remote parts of the countryside.

According to an officially published book recently obtained from Guangxi Province in southwest China, certain central government leaders in 1968 tried to halt mass killings resulting from kangaroo trials by “peasant courts.” But they were thwarted by provincial leaders who cited a statement from Mao that called for yet another “mass campaign.”

Thereafter, a “typhoon” of killing swept from urban to rural areas, Guangxi publications reported. In one county alone over a 12-day period starting in late July 1967, 3,681 people were killed. The members of 176 families were “entirely eliminated.”

The Cultural Revolution flowed from Mao’s failure with the 1958-60 Great Leap Forward, an industrialization drive that led to widespread famine. The Chinese leader was on the defensive. His prestige and authority had been diminished, and he believed that the all-important revolutionary spirit of the Communist Party had been lost.

So after a period of pragmatic economic recovery in the early 1960s, Mao decided to train a new generation of revolutionaries, strengthen his political position and transform society, by using the tactics he knew best – revolution and guerrilla warfare.

When, in 1966, Mao’s leading allies such as Defense Minister Lin Biao called for the destruction of traditional beliefs, customs and thinking, chaos ensued. Schools were closed, workplaces became battlegrounds, Tibetan monasteries were destroyed, and countless Chinese who were classified as “bad elements” were tortured and killed, many in the streets, some in their own homes. Many were driven to suicide. Houses were invaded at the whim of Red Guards; belongings were smashed. Conflict flared into what amounted to a series of small civil wars throughout the country.

The Cultural Revolution began in the universities and secondary schools of Beijing, where students calling themselves Red Guards targeted certain teachers and university and school administrators.

The students, long regimented and restrained by the Communist system, were in a mood to rebel and show they could be as revolutionary as their parents, who had survived the Long March across China in the 1930s and fought to victory against the Nationalists.

Jung Chang, once a Red Guard, wrote in her book Wild Swans that Mao wanted to establish “absolute loyalty and obedience to himself alone,” and to do this he needed terror. “He saw boys and girls in their early teens and early twenties as his ideal agents” because they were easy to manipulate, she wrote.

Tsoi Wingmui, 45, now executive editor of Open magazine in Hong Kong, joined the Red Guards at age 18 in her home city of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, and witnessed some of the fiercest fighting among Red Guard factions. “I wanted to join the Red Guards because I felt it was a glorious thing to do,” she said.

But the cruelty of some of the Red Guards, their factional struggles, and their manipulation and then suppression by the authorities left her disillusioned.

“In the beginning I had no independent thoughts,” Tsoi said. “I thought what the Communist Party asked me to think. I did what the Communist Party asked me to do. But I saw close friends who could kill or be killed in a very inhuman way. I began to have doubts about our system and our government. I learned that very kind and even gentle people can change personality in such a situation. Some of the gentlest people became very cruel.”

Chengdu was where the first armed Red Guard clashes of the Cultural Revolution began, first around a cotton mill and then at a fighter-plane factory. In May 1967, conservative and radical factions in Chengdu, a center for defense industries, battled with automatic rifles, mortars, recoilless rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. One side obtained weapons from local militia and People’s Liberation Army units.

“At first the fighting was like a game,” said a middle-aged university professor, who, at 20, joined the Chengdu Red Guard Army. But the game quickly turned deadly. “There was great chaos. Even the government doesn’t know how many people were killed,” said the professor, who asked not to identified.

The violence spread from urban schools and factories to provinces and villages, where factional power struggles erupted. Many of the participants, in the absence of an impartial police force or an independent legal system, simply took the opportunity to settle personal scores through the most violent means available.

In some cases, the Red Guards massacred whole families from “bad class” backgrounds to prove their revolutionary fervor; throughout those years, Mao’s ideology of class warfare had as much influence as any direct orders he gave.

“It was not systematic,” said a former well-placed Chinese official in Beijing who was persecuted and jailed as a “rightist” during the Cultural Revolution.

Many who died were killed in battles among Red Guard factions or clashes with army units. But many others were tortured to death or driven to suicide or insanity, people such as the mother and father of pro-democracy activist Zhou Duo, now 47.

Zhou’s mother, a vigorous woman and ardent Communist, spent 5 1/2 years in solitary confinement, apparently because she had studied overseas and was accused of being a spy. Zhou said that when he went to meet her on her release from prison, “I saw a terribly old-aged woman walk down the hallway clinging to the wall for support. When I realized this was my mother, I began to cry.”

Five years later his mother killed herself, unable to cope with the lost revolution and her own isolation. She had been falsely persuaded that her husband had betrayed her. Her husband, held for years in isolation, went mad.

Zhou said the worst part of the persecution was usually before prison, when the victim was targeted by the masses, as in the case of his father, a teacher. “My father was daily beaten, then had paint thrown on him or a dunce cap, and was paraded around for the rest of the school to criticize,” he said.

“Mao was ingenious because he used not only the state but a counterrevolutionary’s family and closest friends to mount an attack. The accused was totally isolated. No one – not even his wife or children – would dare to talk to him for fear of being branded with the same charge,” Zhou said.

Chinese writer Zheng Yi, relying on interviews and confidential government documents smuggled out of China, has revealed that Red Guards and party workers in a remote area of Guangxi ate the flesh of some 100 victims whom they tortured to death during the Cultural Revolution. This also occurred in other provinces.

Red Guards fought over many things, including which groups were the true representatives of Mao. The army split as well in many areas of the country, but in the end used lethal force to bring the Red Guards under control.

Prof. Stuart R. Schram, considered by many scholars as the West’s leading expert on Mao, has said that however misguided Mao’s methods were in the Cultural Revolution, he “had in view wider aims than simply the destruction of his adversaries.”

“In essence, they were to combat bureaucracy, to transform human nature, and to build a new society and develop the economy through popular participation,” he said.

But the result was disaster – and the Communist Party knew it. Party propagandists tried for years after Mao’s death in September 1976 to protect his image by blaming the violence on his radical advisers – the “Gang of Four” that included his wife, Jiang Qing, and three top party officials. It was suggested that they deceived Mao as to the killing, torture and repression around the country.

After Deng Xiaoping became senior leader in late 1978, the party finally criticized the Cultural Revolution. During the movement, Deng himself had been “purged” from his high position and denounced, and student radicals forced his eldest son out of a window, causing permanent paralysis from the waist down. Still, while acknowledging Mao’s “gross mistakes,” Deng and other leaders insist Mao was more right than wrong.

In China’s most scholarly account of the Cultural Revolution to date, Years of Great Chaos, Wang Nianyi, a prominent historian at the National Defense University in Beijing, asserts that Mao’s vision of perpetual revolution was based on “illusion and fantasy.” But Wang lays part of the responsibility for Mao’s disastrous mistakes on other party leaders, who at certain turning points unanimously endorsed Mao’s plans. He also blames the country’s “backward economy and culture.”

According to Schram, Mao “had the authority of an emperor to whom no one could say nay... Why was he obeyed virtually without hesitation? Why did he dominate the system almost totally? It’s Chinese political culture.”

Murder in Daxing

Scholarly explanations would seem to have little to do with what Fu Yueying, now 64, witnessed that long-ago August night in Daxing County.

The county, which is just south of Beijing and famous for its watermelons, was hard hit by the Red Guards. From Aug. 27 until Sept. 1, 1966, they killed 325 people in Fu’s village and others in the county, according to Wang and political scientist Yan Jiaqi. Villagers targeted for execution were listed by local police authorities as belonging to “five types of bad elements.”

Fu is a strong-looking woman who at first hesitated, in an interview, to recall details of that August night but then began to tell her story as she smoked a hand-rolled cigarette and sipped tea.

Fu said that 36 of those killed were related to her through her first marriage – men, women and children, ranging from infants to an old man in his eighties. Villagers said Red Guards buried some of the babies alive.

It is still not clear why the Red Guards chose Daxing County for such extreme punishment, but it was not alone. According to documents recently obtained from China, other massacres occurred in towns and villages farther away from the capital on a larger scale than was earlier realized.

Daxing, however, was the first such killing field to gain the attention of Beijing citizens. A Red Guard publication of the time even boasted about the killings in the county.

Some of Mao’s closest collaborators seemed to cheer the violence on. Mao’s designated successor, Lin Biao, gave a speech on May 18, 1966, that indicated violence would be justified in seizing the “sources of production” from “landlords,” even though the state had years before supposedly confiscated and redistributed private farmland.

In August 1966, a loyal supporter of Mao, Public Security Minister Xie Fuzhi, told police officials: “Of course, we do not approve of the masses attacking and killing people. But if the masses feel a deep hatred for an evil person and we cannot restrain them by persuasion, we will not force the issue.”

Xie ordered the police to release to the Red Guards lists of the “class enemies” in certain villages in Daxing County, according to a former police official who worked beneath Xie in Beijing.

On Aug. 26, the police contacted the Red Guards in Daxing County and offered them information on all of the “five-type elements” in their jurisdiction, including the “crimes” these people allegedly committed.

Late at night on Aug. 27, the Red Guards began dragging people out of their homes in many villages in Daxing County and beating them to death. Farmers interviewed in Fu Yueying’s village said that before dawn the next day, the Red Guards buried the bodies of the massacre victims deep in the ground in a field not far from the village.

The former police official, whose boss worked in a position just beneath Xie, said the public security minister’s motivation for encouraging the violence was at least partly cynical. “He did it so he could maintain a high position,” the ex-official said. “He did it so that Mao would trust him.”

The former official, who was himself “struggled against” in mass criticism sessions and then imprisoned as a “rightist,” said that Xie already had blood on his hands from the 1930s when he was responsible for “killing many intellectuals.”

Well after the massacre, the county government condemned the Daxing killings, which occurred in more than 40 of the county’s production brigades, or villages. But no one received even an apology or an explanation for the slayings.

Farmers in Fu’s village said two officials in their village – the Communist Party secretary and the head of a peasants’ association – were arrested at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 and given eight-year prison terms. The party secretary committed suicide one year before his release from prison.

The farmers said that some former Red Guards and officials still live in the village, and that they see them nearly every day, trying not to show emotion when they pass them in the village’s narrow lanes.

They know little of whatever role the country’s top leaders, including Mao, played in unleashing the murderers. But they say local officials were involved. “We hate them and we cannot forget,” said a village woman in her seventies. Yet even today, the villagers feel powerless to say or do anything to redress the massacre.

Fu clings to the hope that her child who escaped – a 13-year-old son – may still be alive. He was spotted escaping into the fields, and then later someone glimpsed the boy in a town some miles away.

“He would be 41 years old today,” said Fu. “He may think that I am dead. Please help me to find him...  He was a good boy.”

Red Guard Rule

Invoking the Authority of Mao, Youths Killed and Spread Terror

Daniel Southerland,
Washington Post,
July 18, 1994

Hu Qixing, 41, now an investment and securities consultant in Beijing, was only 13 when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. He attended one of the best schools in the country, a secondary school attached to Beijing Normal University, situated in the northwestern part of the Chinese capital.

Youthful Red Guards, invoking the authority of Chairman Mao, locked up, tortured and killed seven teachers at his school. No one opposed them. To this day, Hu finds the murders inexplicable.

Hu witnessed three of these murders between July and September 1966. As far as he knows, no one was ever punished.

Hu, the son of two university-educated technicians, came from a “bad class background” and was not immediately allowed to join the Red Guards. He said he was a witness to but not a participant in the violence. But along with his classmates, he shouted slogans in support of Mao and against “class enemies” and “bourgeois reactionaries.”

A year later, he traveled to Changchun and Jilin in northeast China and joined in one of the mini-civil wars that erupted there, as in many other parts of China.

“For a teenager, this was very exciting,” said Hu.

At first in the northeast, Hu said, people fought for ideals. Then they fought for local power. In the end, they attacked each other out of a desire for revenge.

“In the beginning, the two sides used sticks and clubs and spears,” he said. “But then they grabbed hunting rifles, and it kept escalating.

“Our organization was even firing artillery,” said Hu, who estimated the casualties in Changchun at several hundred killed. “There were army veterans mixed in with our group, and they were familiar with all the weapons.”

“Class Enemies”

As others now admit, Hu said that he sometimes questioned in private what was happening, but then assumed that Mao must have a greater purpose in mind.

“I shouted the slogans at my school about how it was right to eliminate ‘class enemies,’ but I kept wondering why is this happening?” Hu recalled. “I was confused. I didn’t know what to think.”

One victim of the Red Guards at Hu’s school was a senior official, the Communist Party secretary at a railroad management school. Without warning, they ransacked her home and seized all her belongings in a “search for documents.” Her son, who was a Red Guard at Hu’s school, angry over the attack on their home, wounded the school’s Red Guard leader with a meat cleaver.

The leader’s group retaliated by throwing the son into a makeshift “prison.” A dozen of the Red Guards, aged 13 to 18, seized his mother and took her to the school.

“They put her face down on a big cement table used for playing Ping Pong,” Hu said. “They used belts and clubs to beat her. At first she moaned a bit, but afterward she became silent...

“They didn’t mean to kill her. Nobody realized that she would be beaten to death... It took about an hour. In the end, the clothing on her back was all gone. All you could see was her body.”

No Immunity

The Red Guards confined more than 20 people, mostly teachers, in the school dining room for two months. A 35-year-old history teacher escaped and then was recaptured.

The man, who had fought as a low-level officer in the People’s Liberation Army during the Korean War, had lost an arm in combat and had an artificial arm. But his war record gave him no immunity from the violence. The Red Guards were furious that he had escaped.

“I saw three or four people with shovel handles, sticks and bats chase after him,” Hu said. “They beat him and broke his artificial arm.

“He just fell back and tried to cover his head. He couldn’t fight back. If he’d fought back, they would have killed him even more quickly. Within 10 minutes, he was dead.”

Hu said that relatives of the seven persons killed at the school tried in the late 1970s to lodge a lawsuit against some of the Red Guards, but the courts would not accept the case.