A Public Lecture by Professor Frank Dikötter,
Lim Chong Yah Visiting Professor
Chair, Professor of Humanities, Department of History
Faculty of Arts, University of Hong Kong
After the disaster of the Great Leap Forward that claimed tens of millions of lives between 1958 and 1962, the ageing Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung launched an ambitious scheme to shore up his reputation and eliminate those he viewed as a threat to his legacy.
The stated goal of the Cultural Revolution was to purge the country of bourgeois, capitalist elements he claimed were threatening genuine communist ideology. But Mao also used the campaign to pit people against each other and prevent his colleagues from ever turning against him.
Young students formed Red Guards, vowing to defend the Chairman to the death, but soon rival factions started fighting each other in the streets with semi-automatic weapons in the name of revolutionary purity. As the country descended into chaos, the military intervened, turning China into a garrison state marked by bloody purges that crushed as many as one in fifty people.
When the army itself fell victim to the Cultural Revolution in 1971, ordinary people used the political chaos to resurrect the market and hollow out the party’s ideology. In short, they buried Maoism. As evidence from the party archives shows, the spread of basic economic freedoms from below was an unintended consequence of a decade of state-sponsored violence and entrenched fear.