By Paul Letters

Fifty years ago, the Politburo passed Mao’s circular that launched the Cultural Revolution. The reasons go beyond domestic party-infighting and the failure of Mao’s big economic set piece, the Great Leap Forward. However inadvertently, foreign powers played a vital role in Mao’s policy-making, as did the personal neuroses and unrestrained ambitions of the Cultural Revolution’s three key founders.

A comrade lost

In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev made the famous speech in which he denounced the excesses of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin, and criticised the cult of personality – a dig which Mao could take personally. Mao viewed this Soviet revisionism as communism crumbling, and he feared the same happening in China.

Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev. Photo: Wikicommons.

By 1960, Khrushchev had pulled the plug on the aid which had been helping China to develop the atomic bomb. Two years later – when China went to war with India – despite being a fellow communist state and supposed ally, the USSR remained neutral. In 1963, the Soviets went a step further when the USA, UK and USSR signed a nuclear test ban treaty – a ban aimed squarely at China, which was poised to complete the development of its own nuclear bomb. Khrushchev was then pushed out in a 1964 coup, and Mao feared the same thing happening in China.

Great Leap failure

Mao’s feeling of isolation and his desire to come up with a way to boost his power was also galvanised by domestic developments.

Photo: Wikicommons.

The failures of China’s second five-year plan – known as the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) – played out at the 1962 party conference. Mao had to admit culpability, and he took a step back, ceding power to Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping – who expected Mao to retire from frontline politics. Liu took over the presidency from Mao, and Deng took the lead in economic policy.

Propaganda puppetry

But Mao did not accept this arrangement as permanent. Years earlier, he had promoted Lin Biao to the position of Defence Minister. Aware that his own position was dependent upon the Chairman’s support, Lin politicised the People’s Liberation Army, building it around the cult of Mao. A mainstay of the propaganda was a deceased PLA foot soldier named Lei Feng. His fortuitously “discovered” diary portrayed him as fiercely loyal to Mao, and the propaganda presented him as a martyr for communist China, a hero who died young at the age of  22. Actually his death was far from heroic: another soldier backed a truck into a telegraph pole that fell and crushed him.

Lin Biao. Photo: Wikicommons.

China’s 1964 atomic bomb test boosted the prestige of both defence chief Lin Biao and Chairman Mao. Soon, Mao began to speak of “boldly unleashing the masses” in the name of class struggle – taking aim at the more “rightist” members of the Communist Party.

By late 1965, amidst this power struggle within the Party, Mao began to call for a “cultural revolution”.

To enforce the eradication of culture across the nation, he called upon his most loyal lieutenant – someone whose position depended 100 per cent on him: his wife, Jiang Qing. She had been spoiling for meaningful involvement in the communist movement since the 1930s. However, she was widely despised not only as an actress, but as an actress who had sought a political marriage. Back in the 1930s, in order to secure his own leadership of the movement, Mao had promised his male comrades that if he married Jiang Qing he wouldn’t let her get involved in politics…at least not for 30 years.

A neurotic revolution

As her bitterness festered over the decades, Mme Mao had acquired a growing number of unlikely ailments, apparently aggravated by bright lights, noises and drafts. When called upon to work at the Ministry of Culture she appeared reinvigorated. Mme Mao, in reality a fan of culture, happily banned operas and films for her own political gain. Her headaches and the ringing in her ears miraculously disappeared, as did her many other ailments.

Much like Mme Mao and Mao himself, Lin Biao was another who was spurred on by neurosis. When Mao purged Defence Minister Peng Dehuai in 1959, he appointed Lin in his stead. Lin saw the prospect of a purge – under the guise of a revolution against culture – as an opportunity to advance himself at the expense of “rightists”, like President Liu Shaoqi. Lin’s own wife wrote in her diary that he was a man “who specialises in hate, in contempt” and “friendship, children, father and brother all mean nothing to him”. His whole being was focused on “selfish calculation…and doing other people down”.

And Lin had some interesting personal habits. He feared water: he never bathed, and hated the sight of the sea so much he refused to go and inspect his own navy. Lin was so scared of water he never drank liquids (except for those contained within food). He also feared light and breezes. His phobia of wind led him to order people to walk slowly when in his presence lest they cause a draft.

Chairman Mao. Photo: Wikicommons.

Chairman Mao had his own paranoid concerns. Fearing for his personal safety, in 1965-66 he frequently moved cities rather than risk staying in one place. He would avoid Beijing, preferring Wuhan or Shanghai or Hangzhou. The fact he was taking ten times the recommended dose of sleeping pills would not have helped his state of mind during this period; it also seemed not to help his sleep, as he would stay awake through 24-hour periods.

In December 1965 Mao secretly met Lin in Hangzhou and told him of his plans for a ‘great purge’. Mao promised Lin he would serve as Mao’s deputy and eventual successor, and told him to make sure the army was obedient and ready.

Late in 1965, feeling ill, Mao took to his bed and read history books. His personal doctor, Dr Li tells us, in his book The Private Life of Chairman Mao, that “Mao read history rather than Marx when preparing for political battle.”

Mao and Lin.

Mao emerged to encourage criticism of a play written by Beijing’s vice-mayor, Wu Han, about an emperor’s unfair dismissal of a Ming dynasty official who had stood up for the peasants. Mao took the play Hai Rui Dismissed From Office, as part of the on-going criticism of his own dismissal of Defence Minister Peng Dehuai.

Another ‘Peng’, Peng Zhen, was mayor of Beijing and had a nationwide role overseeing culture.  Peng Zhen opposed the idea of attacking either culture or the Party. He boldly told foreign newspaper reporters that Hai Rui was not a political play – as Mao suggested – but a historical one. Mayor Peng led the Party’s resistance to Mao’s plans for a “cultural revolution” by issuing a national edict forbidding political criticism of culture. Mayor Peng also secretly visited Marshal Peng Dehuai, who was under virtual house arrest; presumably they discussed how to block Mao’s resurging power.

A Soviet coup?

Leonid Brezhnev. Photo: Wikicommons.

Mao suspected his enemies within the Party – like President Liu Shaoqi – were seeking Russian aid to enact a coup against him.

Late in 1964, Soviet defence minister Malinovsky had said to Mao’s loyal Premier Zhou Enlai, “We’ve got rid of our fool Khrushchev, now you get rid of yours, Mao. And then we can have friendly relations again.”

Mao’s suspicions came to a head in March 1966 when the new Soviet leader Brezhnev visited Mongolia and signed a military treaty: the USSR was aligning with Mongolia against China. The Soviets stationed missile systems – apparently nuclear missiles – in Mongolia, not too far from Beijing. Mao had tried to overthrow the Mongolian leadership earlier in the 1960s; now the Mongolians were keen to aid a Soviet strike aimed at overthrowing Mao, should the right moment arise.

Mao would now need the army more than ever. In April 1966, Lin Biao sent a formal demand from the PLA to the Party calling for a purge of those who were not with Mao.

A self-destructive politburo

Mao seized upon his wife’s argument that educational circles were dominated by bourgeois intellectuals, such as university professors and playwrights – including, of course, Wu Han. Prompted by her husband, Mme Mao launched a campaign through newspapers attacking Wu Han’s Hai Rui play and its supporters. Mao then formally proposed launching a “Cultural Revolution” in literature, history, law and economics, and he called upon the Politburo to back him.

At an enlarged Politburo meeting from May 4-26, 1966, Party leaders – minus their Party Chairman – discussed the circular written by Mao. On May 16, 1966, the circular – a document that would bring down many of those who voted for it – was passed.

The Politburo also rubber-stamped the first list of victims of the Great Purge – some of whom were in the room, including Beijing Mayor Peng Zhen. The meeting was chaired by President Liu Shaoqi, who must have realised that his name could soon be on the hit list. Yet he, together with everyone present, raised his hand to vote for the names on the list to be purged. The fear of Mao – who wasn’t even there – defies logic when we think of the likes of Mayor Peng voting in favour of purging himself.

A poster during the Cultural Revolution. Photo: Wikicommons.

The man fronting this key meeting for Mao was Defence Minister Lin Biao. Lin clenched his fist and intimidated his opponents. He said anyone opposing Mao must be “put to death…the whole country must call for their blood”. To further squeeze the life out of any rebellion against Mao, Lin outlined counter-coup measures. For example, several loyal army divisions had already been moved into Beijing, ready to strike at Mao’s opponents. Not that Mao was in the capital – he had stayed safely to the south since November 1965.

Safe in the knowledge that the Cultural Revolution had been adopted as official Party policy, Mao retreated back to his home village in Hunan and let others pursue the course he had set out.

By the end of May 1966, Mme Mao’s new Cultural Revolution office had ensured Mao’s face became a fixture on the front page of the People’s Daily, which would also now run a column of his quotations every day. Badges and portraits of Mao were churned out by the million. More copies of the Little Red Book were published than there were people; it had to be brandished and quoted everywhere.

Photo: Weibo.

Educators were targeted first because they were instilling culture. Students were told to denounce the ‘bourgeois ideas’ of their teachers. The People’s Daily and the radio stoked up hatred. By June, all schooling was suspended. Professors at Beijing University were dragged in front of crowds, forced to kneel and were beaten. The women were sexually assaulted.

On June 24, a Maoist group of students from a middle school in Beijing signed one of their hate-filled posters with a snappy nickname which would soon spread: the ‘Red Guards’.

Fifty years ago, the summer of 1966 saw the launch of an unprecedented purge against culture and people throughout China. This reassertion of Maoist power came about due to personal paranoia and a fear of a foreign-backed coup, as much as through a desire to bury domestic policy failures.

Paul Letters is a historian, journalist and novelist. His first novel, A Chance Kill, is a World War II thriller/love story. On RTHK’s Radio 3, he broadcasts a history show which is available as a podcast. See

Paul Letters

Paul Letters is a historian, journalist and novelist. His latest novel, The Slightest Chance, is set in Hong Kong during World War II. Paul writes freelance for the South China Morning Post, has co-presented 'Backchat' on RTHK’s Radio 3, and produces the fun and educational family podcast series, Dad and Me Love History. Visit his portfolio here.