The Chinese Cultural Revolution

The Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976 ) was a movement to “purify” communist China from those labeled as not communist enough. It was led by China’s most powerful leader Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976) and resulted in chaos across China. The Cultural Revolution failed, resulting in the most extreme communists within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) losing power.  

What caused the Cultural Revolution?

Mao Zedong and his supporters within the Chinese government and CCP started the Cultural Revolution.

Mao Zedong’s power was weakening: Mao’s disastrous economic policies during the Great Leap Forward (1958 – 1960) led some in the Chinese government to question Mao’s decisions. A few began to openly advocate for new economic policies to grow the Chinese economy. The Cultural Revolution allowed Mao to create personal armies loyal to him and unleash them on his enemies.

  • Mao’s Red Guard: Mao and his supporters formed the Red Guards. They numbered between 20 and 30 million and were primarily high school and college students. These Maoist were sent throughout China to destroy non-Maoist ways of life. Eventually, these groups became so dangerous and extreme that even Mao turned against them, imprisoning and executing the most radical members.

What were the impacts of the Cultural Revolution?

In the short term, the Cultural Revolution led to extreme civil conflict in many parts of China as the Red Guard turned toward violence. After the movement failed, a new class of Chinese leaders rose to power and reformed portions of the Chinese political and economic systems.  

Short-term impacts 

  • Increased instability across China: Powerful communist leaders, including President Liu Shaoqi (1898 – 1969), were removed from power. Shaoqi died in prison in 1969. The Red Guards became increasingly violent, killing teachers, professors, government officials, and communist leaders they claimed were working against “the people.”

  • Death: Millions of Chinese died during the Cultural Revolution from the chaos and violence unleashed by the Red Guards.

  • Continued economic decline: The chaos of the Cultural Revolution slowed China’s economic growth.

Longer-term impacts

  • China’s economic policies changed: Moderates took control of the CCP in the late 1970s. One of them was economic reformer Deng Xiaoping, who became China’s leader in the 1980s. Deng slowly introduced capitalist economic reforms to China. By the 1990s, these reforms had produced fast economic growth rates in China. By 2022, China had become the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States.