In the summer of 1966, Mao Zedong—the father of the Chinese revolution, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, and leader of the People’s Republic of China—called upon Chinese citizens to rise up in revolt against the very government and party he had been so personally responsible for establishing. “Bombard the headquarters!” he implored.
For months prior, radical acolytes of Mao, none with formal positions in the Communist hierarchy, had been circulating outlandish conspiracy theories about counterrevolutionary plotting and anti-Mao cliques in the highest echelons of the Chinese system, in which the party and the state were one. Unable to press their accusations through the highly bureaucratized and tightly controlled media channels of the party center in Beijing, the radicals, with Mao’s quiet urging, published their claims in a Shanghai newspaper, far from the nation’s capital.
In the resultant miasma of disinformation and innuendo, opportunists in politically important institutions, particularly universities, became emboldened enough to openly vilify what otherwise would have been considered the normal operations of the party-state. In late May of 1966, Nie Yuanzi, an undistinguished mid-level professor at Peking University, publicly accused the university’s leadership, and by extension the Communist Party leadership of Beijing municipality, of being controlled by the “bourgeoisie” and engaging in counterrevolution—capital crimes in those days. Her posted accusations on a university bulletin board might nevertheless have amounted to nothing in this pre-internet era of analog communication. Yet Chairman Mao endorsed the slanderous diatribe, ordering it to be read aloud on national radio and to be published in the party-state’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily.