When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, it didn’t matter that future Chinese President Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a veteran and leader in the Communist Revolution. He was a representative of the bourgeoisie that China needed to purge, Mao Zedong said. The elder Xi was jailed for 16 years, while the future president was sent to the countryside to grow up and perform hard labor, leaving his life as an intellectual to realize Mao’s revitalized vision of communism.
The 10-year period began May 16, 1966, as Mao inspired the country’s youth to turn on their parents and teachers, often violently. These so-called Red Guards targeted the elites who were driving the country toward capitalism. During that period, 16 million children, like Xi, were sent to the countryside, while top leaders who were perceived as being against the Communist Party were either jailed or killed.
While there is no official count for the number of people who died during that period, one scholar estimated the number as between 500,000 to 8 million, and the number of people persecuted in the tens of millions. As The New York Times describes:
During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards targeted the authorities on campuses, then party officials and “class enemies” in society at large. They carried out mass killings in Beijing and other cities as the violence swept across the country. They also battled one another, sometimes with heavy weapons, such as in the city of Chongqing. The military joined the conflict, adding to the factional violence and killing of civilians. The pogroms even included cannibalization of victims in the southern region of Guangxi.
That period, which ended with Mao’s death in 1976, is a controversial part of China’s history, one that current top officials would rather look past than celebrate. Monday marks the 50th anniversary of that start of the Cultural Revolution and there is no official celebration or recognition from state media.