24 March 2019
In answer to Mao Zedong's call, tens of thousands of secondary schools and universities across the country formed their own Red Guards organizations. Photo: Internet
In answer to Mao Zedong's call, tens of thousands of secondary schools and universities across the country formed their own Red Guards organizations. Photo: Internet

The Red Guards: A warning from history

Anti-US protests have recently broken out in at least 11 cities across mainland China, with young protesters shouting patriotic slogans in front of American fastfood chains like KFCs.

Public opinion in the mainland is split over these protests. While the extreme Maoist faction has referred to these protests as “a reflection of the revolutionary spirit of the Red Guards”, the anti-Mao camp dismissed the protesters as “ignorant”.

Some critics said the hysterical way in which these protesters behaved reminded them of the notorious Red Guards who were at the forefront of the Cultural Revolution 40 years ago, and whose toxic legacy still lingers to this day.

Let me trace the rise and fall of the Red Guards and look at their far-reaching implications for China’s current generation.

The first-ever organization of Red Guards was born on May 29, 1966 at a secondary school affiliated with Qinghua University.

It was among the country’s elite schools at the time, and only kids belonging to the so-called “Second Red Generation” (i.e. sons and daughters of high-ranking party officials) could gain admission to it.

Shortly afterwards, several Red Guards organizations were formed one after the other in Qinghua University and Beijing University.

These groups aimed to seize control of their schools and eliminate “pro-capitalist traitors” on their campus.

On June 18, 1966, Red Guards at Beijing University mounted a massive assault on counter-revolutionists on their campus, leading to hundreds of deaths.

The “618 incident” was widely regarded as a prelude to the subsequent nationwide offensive mounted by the Red Guards against class enemies later on.

Two important events served as a catalyst for the escalation of the Red Guards movement.

The first one was a reply letter written by Mao Zedong on Aug. 1,1966 to students of the Qinghua-affiliated secondary school, in which he highly praised them for their revolutionary virtues and their unwavering faith in the Marxist-Leninist principles.

Shortly after the letter had been made public, on Aug. 5, Mao issued his infamous “Bombarding the Central Command: my own big-character poster”, an official notice in which he called on the entire nation to declare war on counter-revolutionary party leaders who had deviated from the orthodox Marxist-Leninist line and who were attempting to hijack the “fruit of the revolution”.

Mao was actually referring to President Liu Xiaoqi when he mentioned “Central Command”. (Mao bore a grudge against Liu because he was replaced by Liu as president after his extreme leftist “Great Leap Forward” economic policy had completely failed and led to a nationwide famine.)

Tens of thousands of secondary schools and universities across the country immediately answered Mao’s call and formed their own Red Guards organizations.

Even primary school students responded to his call by forming “Small Red Guards” bodies.

Nationwide witch-hunts for pro-capitalist traitors and counter-revolutionists spearheaded by the Red Guards were soon underway in full swing, resulting in the brutal persecution of ten of millions.

The Red Guards movement, initially ignited by Mao himself, soon took on a life of its own, and set the nation on a course towards catastrophe of biblical proportions.

The second event that led to the further escalation of the Red Guards movement was Mao’s review of hundreds of thousands of Red Guards at the Tiananmen Square on Aug. 18, 1966.

After having defeated Liu Xiaoqi in a power struggle, Mao succeeded in regaining control of the party leadership and was back in power.

Between August and November that year, Mao granted audiences to Red Guard leaders eight times, encouraging them to go to any lengths to hunt down and annihilate pro-capitalist class enemies in every corner of the country.

During the reign of former President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, many official party periodicals often denounced the Red Guards movement in no uncertain terms, saying that they were “manipulated, politically naïve and hysterical”, and that “their barbaric acts destroyed the lives of tens of millions of innocent people”.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 28.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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