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.
But it was Mao’s own public proclamation on August 5, his call to bombard the headquarters, that fully set the nation ablaze. Mao, echoing and now formally putting his name behind the conspiracy theories that had been swirling for months, declared that comrades from the party center down to the organization’s lowest-level tendrils had adopted a reactionary bourgeois line, were committed to overturning the revolution, and were actively imposing a “white terror” upon the people. The real threat to the nation’s survival, Mao argued, was no longer the holdouts from the old order—the capitalists, the landlords, the Confucianists. Nor was it China’s turncoat former allies, the Soviets. Nor even was it the worst of the imperialists abroad, the Americans. Rather, the existential threat now resided within the heart of the Communist Party itself, in what today would be termed the “deep state.”
Mao, relishing disruption, and basking in his own centrality to the roiling chaos, called upon young people to rise up. And rise up they did. From August to November 1966, millions of Chinese youth flocked to the capital to attend wildly emotional rallies. Little Red Books in hand, they crowded in Tiananmen Square to catch a glimpse of the chairman, revel in his politics of resentment, and bellow in unison their unwavering fealty to his rule. “Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao! Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao! Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao!”
Impassioned in their newly anointed role as saviors of the revolution, the young, the impressionable, and the disaffected lashed out against the agents of authority all around them, the closer at hand the better: teachers, parents, senior colleagues in the workplace, and so on. Indeed, on the day Mao urged citizens to bombard the headquarters, secondary-school students—adolescents, really—in the all-girls high school affiliated with Beijing Normal University beat to death their school’s party secretary, Bian Zhongyun. Murders of this type would be repeated almost 1,800 times in Beijing alone over the next eight weeks. And that’s not counting the suicides, the beatings, and all the other grievous injuries.
That was just the beginning. By the fall of 1966 and into 1967, violence metastasized across China’s cities. Gangs of radicals tried to seize local power, only to be countered by defenders of the status quo fighting for their own survival. Government agencies were ransacked and looted. Party officials were bound up, humiliated, and thrown before the mob, some never to emerge alive. Workplaces, neighborhoods, and even entire cities descended into internecine warfare as faction battled faction, colleague raged against colleague, student pummeled student, and, in many cases, family member turned on family member. Radicalized citizens broke into military armories and pillaged the contents, thus injecting automatic weapons, hand grenades, and artillery pieces into the nationwide melee. China in just a few months had gone from a rigidly ordered society to Lord of the Flies. Though the final death count is still murky, well more than a million individuals likely lost their lives.
Through it all, Mao wallowed in narcissism, delighting in the chaos he had willed upon the nation. As violence began to spread at the very start of this period, the chairman famously rhapsodized in a letter to his wife, “There is great disorder under heaven—the situation is excellent.” Five months later, on the evening of his birthday in December 1966, he would raise a toast: “To the unfolding of nationwide all-round civil war!”
In retrospect, Mao’s adoration of chaos, and his indifference to the carnage wrought by it, should have come as no surprise. His preoccupation with turmoil, his sanctification of violence, and his ever-ready willingness to light the spark that could set a prairie afire are all conspicuously present in his writings dating back to the late 1920s and early ’30s. Equally obvious are his visceral disdain for stasis, his contempt for expertise, his loathing of bureaucratic administration, and his impatience with the effort required to effect positive change in situations bound by rules, laws, and institutions.
To this day, the Chinese who lived through this period, the Cultural Revolution, have internalized one lesson clearer than any other: They know that all the most seemingly immutable institutions of society—the rules, the authority structures, the social hierarchies, the police, the armed forces, and everything else that seems so predictable and impervious to change—are but ephemera that can disintegrate in the flash of an eye. And they know that all of the human inhibitions so intrinsic to social life—the disinclination to violence, the ability to feel shame, the willingness to trust, and the subordination of emotion to reason—can so easily give way to the basest of human desires, particularly in the context of a mob and a manipulative leader. Witnesses to the Cultural Revolution are all too aware that what separates us humans from the state of nature is but a thin, fragile veneer.
Why does this matter? On one level, it’s important for understanding contemporary China. Xi Jinping today can proclaim all he wants the “great renaissance of the Chinese people.” He can parade his tanks, conjure the patriotic fervor of his citizens, and revel in triumphalism. But even the most casual observer can discern the flip side of all this jingoistic solidarity: The compulsive desire to stamp out potential dissent, and thus potential disorder, wherever it lurks, whether in unregistered evangelical Christian churches, the Chinese #MeToo movement, the culture and ethnic identity of the Uighur people, or the desire of Hong Kong citizens to preserve their basic civil rights. Xi promotes solidarity, but beneath it lurks fear, fear that the edifice of harmony and strength is vulnerable to collapse at any moment.
However, that’s not the main reason why Americans should understand what Mao did in 1966. I began studying China as a college student in the mid-1980s and am now 25 years into a career as a professor of Chinese studies. Over the course of that time, I’ve been continually moved by the intensity, drama, and profound tragedy of Chinese history. I’ve valued and benefited from the wisdom of Chinese friends, colleagues, and mentors. And I’ve empathized with the particular challenges, hardships, and triumphs they’ve faced in their lives. Still, their nation’s experience always seemed so remarkably different and removed from that of my own. That is, until the present.
In the United States now, I witness things that I never thought I would live to see at home, but that feel ominously reminiscent of the Chinese experience. I see a national leader defiantly rejecting the most fundamental and time-honored of governance institutions, while refusing even to entertain a peaceful transition of power. I see a national leader and much of the public trafficking in wild conspiracy theories about the country’s public institutions, and openly contemplating resolutions through violence and vigilante action. I see various societal leaders, including President Donald Trump, stoking the fires of intra-societal resentment and hatred. And I see the opportunists and abettors reveling in their transgressions of norms, embracing the chaos, and relishing their own moment in the sun. Oh, how tantalizing it is to play with fire and risk burning down the house.
As the days go by and Trump refuses to concede, as the accusations of “illegal” voting and fraud grow ever more lurid and racialized—if, God forbid, the social pressures deepen enough for violence to erupt on the streets, thus providing Trump an opportunity to declare an insurrection—will our institutions prove any less fragile than those of Cultural Revolution–era China? Are Americans as a people really so much better, so much more sophisticated, and so much further removed than the Chinese were in 1966 from that diaphanous veil separating civilized society from the state of nature? I wonder.