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Historians of Asia on Political Violence

Anne Cheng
Sanchit Kumar

Mao’s specific brand of political violence

Michel Bonnin

Texte intégral

1I thank Anne Cheng for giving me the opportunity to exchange with distinguished Asian scholars on a topic which I often broached with my students, especially during those last years of my teaching on the Cultural Revolution at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, but on which I have never written a specific paper.

2When Anne asked me if I would like to speak about political violence, I immediately thought that Mao Zedong was a perfect choice to illustrate the topic, since political violence was central to Maoism, both theoretically and practically. Not only was he convinced of its absolute necessity, but he had an exceptional talent for creating situations in which all forms of violence could emerge, proliferate and develop to the full. In this paper, I can only give an overview of the topic. I shall first briefly present the different types and the main examples of Maoist violence as they appeared all along the political life of this eternal revolutionary. I shall give more details about the Cultural Revolution and will then try to determine the specificity of Maoist violence, reflect on its role in Mao’s political system and finally ask whether this specificity makes him more or less criminal than other dictators of the 20th century.

I. “Revolution is not a dinner party”

3As a communist revolutionary, Mao considered violence as necessary for the toppling of what he called the half-capitalist, half-feudal system in his country. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) founded in 1921 tried to imitate the Soviet Party, but it had to fight 28 years before gaining power in 1949. During that time, it was not able to foment a revolution among workers in the cities, but had to retreat in rural mountainous regions to create rural Red zones and fight against the attacks of the Kuomintang (KMT) army led by Chiang Kai-shek. Finally, thanks to the Japanese invasion, the KMT had to make an alliance with the CCP, which survived and prospered during the war and, after it was over, was able, with the help of the Soviet Union, to defeat the KMT and take power.

4Mao became the leader of the Party during the difficult period of the Long March. He was able to stabilise his position in the Red zone of Yan’an by using a mix of political violence against potential rivals (denounced as traitors) and political indoctrination to convince the rank and file that he was a saviour and that they had to obey him, lest they become “counter-revolutionaries”. Mao at that time was very much inspired by Stalin, but the methods he used were not entirely those of Stalin. They were influenced by the examples of mass violence that Mao had observed in February 1927 during the Peasant Movement in his native province of Hunan. In the Report he later presented to the Central Committee of the Party, you can find a highly positive description of the collective humiliation, beatings and killings of landlords and other “class enemies” that he had observed and a passionate plea for supporting this kind of “revolutionary” actions. The most famous sentence in this report, which became a Maoist maxim and was chanted frenetically by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution was: “Revolution is not a dinner party”.

II. After 1949: government through movements

5After the revolution of 1949, Mao copied the Soviet system and inherited all the Stalinist organs of repression: secret police, Party controlled judiciary, labour camps, etc. He also had a Propaganda Department which transmitted to the cadres and the population his latest directives and a bureaucracy in charge of their implementation. But, in the “socialist transformation” of the country, he relied mainly on “mass movements”. Those so-called “mass movements” are not to be confused with spontaneous social movements. All of them were organised and manipulated by the Party, which sent special “work groups” to the grassroots, when the local Party committee was considered as an insufficient force to lead the movements. Those movements were all directed at “enemies of the people”, which were to be denounced first by the local or sent down authorities, but also by the rest of the population. The participation of the masses was important to justify the movement, to isolate those targeted and to give the false impression that it was spontaneous. In each case, it was considered essential that the “enemies” reflect on themselves and present an apology before receiving their punishment. These self-confessions were generally obtained under duress, ranging from endless harassment and detention to downright physical torture.

6The first mass movement after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was the Land Reform. One of the rationales of the Revolution was to liberate the peasants from the landlords and rich peasants, so that ordinary peasants should have enough land to sustain themselves. In the history of China, peasant rebellions had rarely been directed against other peasants, including the landlords. They were directed against the state (whatever its form), because it imposed taxes. So, the land reform had to be set up and manipulated by scores of Party members, who were sent to the countryside. Very often, they had to force the peasants to take part, organising rehearsals and promising advantages to the most zealous activists. But after some time, existing resentment against the formerly rich and powerful, as well as the hope of obtaining part of their land were enough to guarantee participation and even zeal. In fact, the methods used during the land reform were largely based on the methods lauded by Mao in his Report of 1927. The result was violent, with probably two million dead or more, and the creation of a new pariah class in the countryside which would be systematically discriminated against until Mao’s death. It included not only those members of the “four black categories” who had survived, but also their children. Featuring in this group were quite a number of people who should not have been included but were victims of misunderstandings or personal revenge by some activists. Through the land reform, the Party had sealed a blood pact with the peasantry. In exchange of their participation, the activists became local leaders of the Party and most peasants obtained more land to cultivate. Unfortunately for them, the land was taken back by the authorities after a few years and became the property of collective entities controlled by the Party, the cooperatives and later people’s communes.

7Other mass movements of the 1950s and 1960s were more or less organised on the same model, but after the consolidation of the Party structure, the Party committees were more active and the participation of the masses, although important, was less violent, the worst violence being the privilege of the official organs of repression. A special attention, however, should be given to the most lethal “mass movement” orchestrated by Mao, and probably by anyone ever in world history: the Great Leap Forward launched in 1958. Paradoxically this movement was not, at the start, targeting physical enemies, but was a huge mobilisation of the whole population, especially in the countryside, to make agriculture and industry leap forward. The problem is that the whole rural society was reorganised along Mao’s fanciful ideas in order to extract from the peasants an amount of labour never witnessed before. The extremely optimistic economic targets fixed by Mao as well as the ways to attain them were totally unscientific, and the result was an incredible waste of resources and human labour, which triggered the biggest famine in the history of humanity (at least 35 million dead). Mao had pressured all provincial cadres to accept those ridiculous targets. The problem could have been much less severe if Mao had accepted at the Lushan Plenum in 1959 to change his policy. But, confronted to the reality of the famine by a private letter from the Minister of Defense, Peng Dehuai, he denied it and accused those who pleaded for a change of orientation of being rightists. For the peasants dying of hunger, there was no way out, since they were prohibited to leave their villages, contrary to what had always been the surviving practice in history. And, since Mao needed to find scapegoats for the catastrophe that he had brought to his country, he declared that “class enemies” had infiltrated the local rural cadres, and had sabotaged the Great Leap. This is why among the 35 million dead or so, about two million did not die of hunger and exhaustion like the others but were local cadres executed as “counter-revolutionaries”, generally because they had alerted the higher authorities about the terrible plight of their fellow peasants. The Great Leap, then, shows that Utopia, when it is imposed by a dictator through violent means, can be even more dangerous than political violence launched against specific enemies.

III. The Cultural Revolution: the richest period for political violence

8Although the Cultural Revolution (officially the period from 1966 to 1976) was not quantitatively as lethal as the Great Leap Forward, it is qualitatively the richest period as regards political violence, especially during the years 1966-1971. This revolution was a kind of unidentified political object, which was planned and launched by Mao Zedong. It was a purge, but not only a purge. It was also an attempt at transforming the system established after 1949 and also the minds of the young people through a staged “revolution”, with the assumed risk of civil war. Altogether, it was an attempt at securing the revolutionary character of the regime in order to guarantee Mao’s role in history even after his death.

9It began with a spectacular form of political violence, that of the Red Guards, high school and university students encouraged by Mao to fight his “enemies”, starting with the old culture represented by their teachers, school principals and all established intellectuals, professors, writers and artists. The model proposed to them was that of the Hunan Peasant Movement as described in Mao’s Report already mentioned. At that time (May to October 1966), only students of “good” class backgrounds were allowed to take part, and among them the children of leaders or cadres of the Party and the Army were considered as natural leaders. The violence and the cruelty that they exhibited in the way they treated people as well as all kinds of monuments and works of art is incredible. The first teacher who was killed by her students on August 5, 1966 was beaten and tortured for long hours by girls aged about 13 to 15 years. Some of the Red Guards in this school were daughters of high leaders. The collective fanaticism of these young people was encouraged by Mao who “reviewed” twelve million of them in eight mass meetings organised on Tiananmen Square during the first few months. Quite a number of famous writers and artists were killed or committed suicide to evade unbearable humiliations and tortures, and many other less known teachers and people of bad “class origin” (whose names and addresses were provided by the police to the Red Guards) met the same fate. The cruelty of those urban and educated young people of the higher strata has been a topic of discussion for Chinese intellectuals and foreign scholars. It shows without doubt that human morality is quite dependent upon a civilised environment and formal social and legal restrictions. When those are absent, collective violence can become uncontrollable, especially when those who would refuse to participate could very well become themselves victims of it.

10But, for Mao, terrorising intellectuals and people of bad class origins was but an appetiser. There were more important targets, namely most of the Party leaders, especially those linked with Liu Shaoqi, Number 2 of the Party, as well as the whole bureaucracy accused of being revisionist. To attack them, Mao could not rely on the first Red Guards who happened to be the children of the new targets. He then encouraged the emergence of a new breed of Red Guards called the Rebels who specialised in attacking political leaders. At the end of the year, celebrating his 73rd birthday with the group of close affiliates whom he had suddenly promoted to the higher positions, he proposed a toast to the coming “nationwide all-round civil war”. And indeed, this is what happened the next year.

11I cannot describe here all the forms of political violence that erupted in 1967 and 1968. But briefly, the scenario was that of young rebels attacking all official institutions and trying to “seize power” as ordered by Mao, and entering into bloody fighting because different groups claimed the same powers. Generally, it ended by a fight to death between two rival groups, hating each other and embroiled in endless revenge actions. Since all of them claimed to represent Mao’s revolutionary line, Mao decided to let the Army intervene to support the Left against the Right. But who was left and who was right? The army leaders made a choice and repressed all those who did not obey them. But Mao did not want the revolution to be transformed into a simple military dictatorship. It happened also that different army units supported rival groups. The danger was then that the army itself would be embroiled in violent infighting. Mao then prohibited the army from using their weapons. As a result, the enemies of the military local leaders attacked the army, stole their weapons and used them against their enemies among the rebels and even against the army itself. Armed fighting between rival rebel groups cost many lives of young people, all of them, on both sides, convinced that they were giving their lives for Chairman Mao. Some army leaders had to go into hiding to save their lives. In Wuhan, there was a rebellion of the army against a leader sent by the Central Group of the Cultural Revolution representing Mao himself. Although this was repressed, the situation became so chaotic that Mao decided to authorise the army to use their weapons and restore order. This was done very violently by the army leaders and by the Party leaders who had been able to retain their posts.

12A new mass movement, the Cleansing of the class ranks, was launched to get rid of the Rebels who had thought that they were fighting Mao’s enemies and were now killed by them with Mao’s benediction. The number of rebels killed by the army and the local militias was higher than the number of the victims of the Red Guards and Rebels.

13It is in this last period that the Cultural Revolution reached the countryside on a large scale. In some southern provinces, the new movement gave rise to horrible collective massacres and in some places even to a resurgence of cannibalism motivated by hatred and a desire to “absorb” the strength of the enemy through his or her body parts like the heart, the liver and the sexual organs. The victims were all children of the bad classes, who were the natural targets to obey Mao’s order to “cleanse the class ranks”. They were killed in broad daylight and generally under the leadership of the local militia, by people who had been their neighbours and had lived peacefully with them for about eighteen years after the violence of the Land Reform. In the cases of cannibalism, the meat was often shared collectively in a festive way. One cannibal later interviewed by a Chinese journalist said that Chairman Mao had said that if we do not kill the class enemies, they will kill us. He expressed absolutely no regret, felt justified and discussed his preference for roasted human meat compared to boiled meat.

14It is interesting to note that this last period of the most extreme violence corresponded with the period when Mao’s cult reached the level of quasi-religion. It seemed that China had gone back to a primitive stage of human civilisation when rationality was absent and replaced by blind worship of a pitiless god giving protection only to those who practiced human sacrifices for him.

IV. The necessity of the enemy

15After this very limited overview of political violence under Mao, I would like to stress two points. First, political violence was central to Maoism. It was necessary not only militarily to topple the existing power, but also symbolically to destroy radically the image of the dominant people of the old regime. Hence Mao’s insistence on the necessary humiliation of the class enemies and the necessity to force them to acknowledge their crimes. It was also necessary to maintain the revolutionary purity of the regime, to prevent its decay, to “cleanse” it. What is striking in Mao’s brand of communism is the fact that he refused to turn the page of the revolution and to concentrate on economic development and state-building. He felt that his own personal power and his place in history were insolubly linked to the transformation of his country and of his people according to his will. He could not accept to become a manager, a position for which he had no talent, especially compared to other leaders like Liu Shaoqi or Deng Xiaoping. And to remain a revolutionary, he needed enemies and political violence. Hence the notion of “continuous revolution” which he defended during the Cultural Revolution. To continue revolution, he needed of course “class enemies” and that is why he promoted the idea of the existence of capitalists at the top of the Party as well as in the rest of society, even though there was no possible economic or social basis for the supposed “bourgeoisie”. So, if continuous political violence was a necessity for Mao, this violence was also quite specific. Mao’s special brand of leadership among the communist leaders of the world was his outstanding technique of manipulation of the masses for which he had developed a special know-how during the twenty years of fighting in remote mountainous regions.

16It is significant that Carl Schmitt, the once pro-Nazi political thinker, whose main idea was that the primary question of politics was to define the enemy, was ecstatic about Mao. In his “Theory of the Partisan”, written in 1963, he presents Mao as the model of the partisan, for whom hostility is absolute to a point that even Clausewitz would not have been able to imagine. Schmitt’s knowledge of Chinese history was, however, very limited (for example, he did not know that the civil war had nothing to do with guerilla warfare, but was a war between two regular armies), and his vision of Mao was very much influenced by the French general Raoul Salan, who had tried to account for the French defeat of Dien Bien Phu by highlighting the use of Mao’s guerilla warfare tactics by the Vietnamese revolutionary army. Still, it is true that Mao had spent his life reflecting on the way to defeat enemies through all sorts of means.

V. The question of responsibility

17Finally, I would like to raise an often overlooked question: What is the personal responsibility of Mao Zedong in the appalling violence of post-1949 and especially post-1966 China? Sometimes, there is a tendency to exonerate him under the pretext that he did not order directly all the evil actions perpetrated at that time. The responsibility, then, was that of the people who perpetrated them. This, in my view, is an erroneous conception, and I would argue that, in fact, Mao can be considered as more criminal than his fellow tyrants of the 20th century: Stalin and Hitler. There are two reasons to justify my argument. Both are closely linked:

  1. Instead of entrusting specialised institutions with the task of implementing his repressive orders against all kinds of enemies, Mao enrolled the population at large in this task through so-called mass movements in which ordinary people were to denounce verbally, and in some cases, attack physically the enemies designated rather vaguely by himself. The consequence was that many more people became perpetrators than in the institutional model, and victims were also more numerous than if they had been clearly chosen by Mao and by repressive organs, because the people entrusted with the repressive tasks (ordinary people, activists, or local cadres) were eager to show their zeal, either to advance their career or simply to avoid being themselves considered as suspect. They had then an inevitable tendency to be over-zealous.

  2. As a result, not only more people perpetrated evil, and even criminal actions, but the social traumas were more difficult, in fact impossible, to cure. In the Maoist model, in which former perpetrators often became victims in the next round, hatred and hopes for revenge became predominant in the society. Grievances of almost everyone against everyone in neighbourhoods, work units and even families were too complicated to allow for acknowledgement of past wrong doings and reconciliation.

18If we take the example of the Cultural Revolution, we can see that, as a result of Mao’s fake revolution, most of the population was engulfed in a maelstrom of violence where many had to play the part that was written down for them by Mao, either as perpetrators, victims or, very often, both alternately. Many urban young people were first transformed into fascist thugs beating and killing the intellectual elite of the country, and later into guerrilla fighters killing each other in senseless factional armed struggles, before being imprisoned and/or massacred by army people and militias. In many villages and small towns, rural people were engulfed in collective massacres that were a form of genocide of the “bad class” survivors. The traumas left by this period have never been healed, and this is not only because the leaders were afraid of damaging the legitimacy of the Party, but also because many people could not face their own past or were afraid of opening the pandora’s box of pent-up hatred.

19As for the question of the sharing of responsibility between Mao and the other participants of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s responsibility is largely predominant, even if no one can be exonerated of his or her individual evil actions. Since some time already, a few former Red Guards have expressed remorse and asked for the forgiveness of their victims. This was first done privately, but later publicly. And there were open discussions about the topic. Those who were against confessing wrongdoings and expressing remorse argued that it was meaningless to express remorse when the leaders of the time and the present leaders never expressed any. Indeed, some victims were privately rehabilitated at the beginning of the 1980s, but that was all. There was no apology from the Party, which tried very hard to prevent study and discussion of this period.

20The responsibility of young people who had been raised from childhood in a blind worship of Mao and in the hatred of “class enemies” cannot be compared to that of the half-god dictator who organised all the violence. But, of course, Red Guards who have unjustly harmed people should express remorse. In its process of civilisation, humanity can only rely on individual responsibility and absolute moral principles. But, many historical events show that human moral progress is fragile and can be reverted if a civilised environment is not protected. Recently, two researchers have argued that the Red Guard movement was a Stanford Prison Experiment in real-life size. In this psychology experiment, Professor Zimbardo divided ordinary students into prisoners and prison officers. The experiment had to be called off after a few days because it could have ended badly as a result of an excessive identification of the students with the role they were attributed. It showed that in specific circumstances, ordinary people could behave badly as a result of the power given to them. This reinforces the argument against Mao, because it shows the importance of the context on human behaviour. During the Cultural Revolution, the responsibility of the totalitarian system (and then of its Great Helmsman and of those who supported him) was clearly essential. That is why the Gao brothers’ statue of Mao kneeling and begging for forgiveness from the Chinese people is extremely symbolic. Even if it is shocking for the immense majority of the Chinese, from a historical point of view it seems much more reasonable than Mao’s portrait hanging at the top of the Tian’anmen rostrum or his statues still erected on Chinese soil showing for eternity the way to the future.

Mao's Guilt

Mao's Guilt

Gao Brothers 高氏兄弟

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Titre Mao's Guilt
Crédits Gao Brothers 高氏兄弟
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Michel Bonnin is Professor Emeritus at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris. In the 1990s, he was the founding director of the French Research Centre on Contemporary China (CEFC) and of the magazine China Perspectives, both based in Hong Kong. His main research interest is the social and political history of the People’s Republic of China. He is the author of The Lost Generation: The Rustication of China’s Educated Youth (1968-1980). He has also published books and articles on the Chinese democratic movement, the question of generations, collective memory and the nature of the Chinese regime, as well as Hong Kong affairs.

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