On 1 August 1966 he wrote to the Red Guards at a Beijing school:
Your activities show resentment to and condemnation of the landlord class, the bourgeoisie, the imperialists, the revisionists and their running dogs, who exploited and suppressed the workers, peasants, revolutionary intellectuals and other revolutlonary groups. They also reflect justification for rebellion against the reactionaries. I express my warmest support to you.The communist order which he had established was about to come under attack with his full approval and at his connivance. But he himself was to remain sacrosanct—and the memory of the retaliation after the Hundred Flowers Campaign left no one in any doubt that it would be dangerous to offer the mildest criticism of him.
The purpose was to shake up institutions and attitudes throughout the country. Mao and his underlings wanted a complete break with the recent and distant past. Long experience had taught them that Chinese popular beliefs were very tenacious. China's culture and its impregnation with Confucian philosophy had lasted many centuries, and Maoists were determined to dig it out of the minds of their contemporaries. Poetry, history books and works of art from the Imperial dynasties were to be destroyed. Just as important to Mao was his campaign to sever the enduring allegiances of people to their extended family, their networks of social deference and their village mentality. The informal linkages between patron and client were also to be smashed. While expressing a willingness for Red Guards to act on their own initiative, the ruling group around Mao were pushing activity in this planned direction. Students were encouraged to denounce their bosses, professors and even parents. Like every communist leadership elsewhere, Mao and his close supporters had discovered that their instant success in establishing a regime was not matched by a rapid transformation in attitudes. They had not been able to make institutions work entirely to instructions. The party had been infiltrated with careerists, and many older communist officials were failing to display the desired co-operation.
Mao wanted to replace—or at least to examine the activity of—post-holders at every level. This involved action at the top as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were pushed aside and Lin Biao gained preference. The 'masses' were to take hold of their own revolution. There was a menacing comicality to events. Nien Cheng was a former employee of the Shell Oil Company (whose offices had been closed after the communist seizure of power). As such she had every reason to fear developments. Students marched up and down the streets of Shanghai with drums and gongs and shouting slogans. Sofas were condemned as bourgeois. Red Guards in the city even debated whether to change the traffic lights so that red would be the signal for go instead of green. The city s traffic lights were put out of action until, to general relief, the proposal was dropped. Nevertheless there was plenty of dottiness still about. Cyclists were bullied into taping pages of Mao's little red book' on to their handlebars. So many shops were renamed 'The East is Red' and filled with the same pictures of Mao that, together with the renaming of streets, urban inhabitants became disoriented.
Nien Cheng herself was shocked, on her way home, to see a poster denouncing her neighbour as a 'running dog of Swiss imperialism.' His crime was to have been employed as a manager at a defunct aluminium factory owned by a company based in Switzerland. When the Red Guards came for her, she was drinking coffee. A pretty student asked with obvious revulsion: 'What is this?' Nien Cheng replied that it was coffee. But this only provoked the question: 'What is coffee?' Nothing would stop the Red Guards in their campaign against every sign of middle-class and foreign influences. In the end one of them railed at her:
Why do you have to drink a foreign beverage? Why do you have to drink foreign food? Why do you have so many foreign books? Why are you so foreign altogether? In every room of this house there are imported things, but there's not a gingle portrait of our beloved Great Leader. We have been to many homes of the capitalist class. Your house is the worst of all, the most reactionary of all.Nien Cheng remembered smiling at this outburst. This was a perilous reaction when at that very moment the Red Guards were ransacking the house. Worse was to follow. She was put under house arrest while her daughter, an aspiring film actress, was confined to a shed at her studios while she wrote endless 'confessions' and promised to learn Mao Zedong Thought inside out. After a brief public denunciation Nien Cheng was transferred to the No.1 Detention House. Months of interrogation followed, but this was an extraordinary woman who refused to confess to imaginary crimes. Nothing broke her in six and a half years of solitary confinement. She was released only in March 1973.
The apparatus of control was highly intrusive. Detainees had to study Mao Zedong Thought; other inmates were intimidated into persuading any of their fellows who might be holding out to do the same. It was not enough to work and serve out their sentence. Recalcitrance could be met with beatings, even execution. (Nien Cheng was lucky at least in this respect.) The assumption was that if you had been arrested, you must be guilty and must therefore confess to your crime and reform your thought. To protest your innocence only confirmed your depravity and earned more severe punishment. Not even Kafka was tormented by such a nightmarish cycle of 'logic.'
The state reverted to capital punishment in the Cultural Revolution. Red Guards sometimes put victims on trial in the street after leading them in chains through the city. In extreme cases a defendant would be forced to confess before kneeling down and receiving a bullet in the back of the head. It was widespread practice for the families of the deceased to be sent a bill for the price of the bullet. Perhaps a million people died by execution or by their own hand. These gruesome rituals had a purpose. They were designed to make the maximum number of people complicit in the butchery and compliant with the policies of the authorities. Mao had no intention of doing things on the sly as Stalin had usually done. He wanted a society of active participants in the terror. According to one estimate, up to a million of the victims of the Red Guards were thrown into the prisons, the laogai or the reform-by-labour
centres; but the true number may have been much higher. Moreover, the families of victims were discriminated against. Even people who were neither killed nor arrested could suffer in various ways. Some were dispatched for re-education by means of menial labour. Others were simply demoted. Psychological trauma was a pervasive phenomenon across the country.
The five 'black' categories—landlords, rich peasants, bad elements, counter-revolutionaries and rightists—were again applied to people. Having been labelled, they were stuck with the designation. And if those doing the labelling were wondering how to discredit somebody they could also brandish the vague and menacing 'bad element.' Not that they were concerned about words. They accused people of being counter-revolutionaries and rightists who had nothing to do with either Chiang Kai-shek or Liu Shaoqi. Mao had sowed the seeds of destruction; the country reaped the whirlwind. There were plenty of volunteers to do Mao's dirty business. Some were naive youngsters who were taken in by the Mao cult and the 'little red book.' But, as the Cultural Revolution became wilder, many students who carried the burden of 'bad' personal labels had an interest in proving their radicalism. So did delinquents. Thus the Workers' Headquarters in Wuhan seemingly was staffed exclusively by individuals who had recently fallen foul of the authorities. Youths with 'good' labels and parents in official posts tended to oppose the new radicals. The result was that the Red Guards split into two factions, and cities became the ground for often physical conflict between them.
At the centre, Mao totally regained control over his leading comrades. Liu Shaoqi was declared the 'First Biggest Capitalist Roader,' Deng the 'Second.' Liu suffered a savage beating by Red Guards and died exhausted and demoralised in the following year. Deng was sent off into provincial obscurity. Zhou Enlai escaped punishment by backing the Cultural Revolution. About 20,000 alleged supporters of Liu were purged between 1966 and 1968. Further millions of officials in party and government suffered likewise. Arbitrariness pervaded the entire process. As in the Great Terror in the USSR, the purgers made decisions out of self-interest. Mao, having started the process, could not regulate how it affected most individuals.