By mid-September 1966, the country was thoroughly terrorised and Mao felt confident enough to start stalking his real target: Party officials. On 15 September, Lin Biao instructed a Red Guards' rally on Tiananmen Square that they were to shift their target and 'focus on denouncing those power-holders inside the Party pursuing a capitalist road,' known as 'capitalist-roaders.' What Lin—and Mao—really meant was the old enforcers who had shown distaste for Mao's extremist policies. Mao aimed to get rid of them en masse, and the call went out to attack them right across China.
For this job, new groups were formed, who sometimes called themselves Red Guards but were generally known as 'Rebels,' because they were taking on their bosses. And these Rebels were mostly adults. The original Red Guard groups, most of them made up of teenagers, now fell apart, as they had been organised around the children of those same-high officials who now became targets. Mao had used the young Red Guards to terrorise society at large. Now he was moving against his real enemies, Party officials; and for this he used a broader, mainly older force.
With Mao's explicit support, Rebels denounced their bosses in wall posters and at violent rallies. But anyone who thought the Party dictatorship might be weakened had their hopes dashed fast. People who tried to get access to their own files (which the regime held on everyone) or to rehabilitate those the Party had persecuted, were instantly blocked. Orders poured out from Peking making it clear that, although Party officials were under attack, the Party's rule was not to be loosened one bit. Victims of past persecutions were banned from joining Rebel organisations.
After some months to generate momentum, in January 1967 Mao called on Rebels to 'seize power' from their Party bosses. Mao did not differentiate between disaffected officials and those who were actually totally loyal to him and had not wavered even during the famine. In fact, there was no way he could tell who was which. So he resolved to overthrow them all first, and then have them investigated by his new enforcers. The population was told that the Party had been in the hands of villains ('the black line') ever since the founding of the Communist regime. It was an index of how deeply fear had been embedded that no one dared to ask the obvious questions, like: 'In that case, why should the Party go on ruling?,' or 'Where was Mao all these seventeen years?'
The Rebels' basic assignment was to punish Party cadres, which is what Mao had been longing to do for years. Some Rebels hated their Party bosses, and jumped at the chance to take revenge. Others were hungry for power, and knew that the only way to rise was to be merciless towards 'capitalist-roaders.' There were also plenty of thugs and sadists.
Stalin had carried out his purges using an elite, the KGB, who swiftly hustled their victims out of sight to prison, the gulag or death. Mao made sure that much violence and humiliation was carried out in public, and he vastly increased the number of persecutors by getting his victims tormented and tortured by their own direct subordinates.
A British engineer who was working in Lanzhou in 1967 caught a glimpse of life in one remote corner of the northwest. Two nights after being entertained at an official dinner, he saw a corpse strung up from a lamp-post. It was his host of two nights before. Later, he saw two men being deliberately deafened into unconsciousness by loud-hailers—'so that no more reactionary remarks enter their ears,' his minder told him.
The first senior official tortured to death was the minister of coal, on 21 January 1967. Mao hated him because he had complained about the Great Leap Forward—and about Mao himself. He was exhibited in front of organised crowds, and had his arms twisted ferociously backwards in the form of torment known as being 'jet-planed.' One day he was shoved onto a bench, bleeding, shirtless in a temperature well below freezing, while thugs rushed forward to cut him with small knives. Finally, a huge iron stove was hung round his neck, dragging his head down to the cement floor, where his skull was bashed in—with heavy brass belt buckles. During all this, photographs were taken, which were later shown to Chou—and doubtless to Mao.
Photographing torture had hitherto been rare under Mab, but it was done extensively in the Cultural Revolution, especially where Mao's personal enemies were concerned. As Mao's usual practice was not to keep records for posterity, let alone proof of torture, the most likely explanation for this departure from his norm is that he took pleasure in viewing pictures of his foes in agony. Film cameras also recorded gruesome denunciation rallies, and Mao watched these displays in his villas. Selected films of this sort were shown on TV, accompanied by the soundtrack of Mme Mao's 'model shows,' and people were organised to watch. (Very few individuals had TV in those days.)
Mao was intimately acquainted with the types of ordeal visited on his former colleagues and subordinates. Vice-Premier Ji Deng-kui later recalled Mao doing an imitation for his entourage of the agonising 'jet-plane' posture which was routine at denunciation meetings, and Mao laughing heartily as Ji described what he had been through.
Eventually, after two or three years of suffering in this manner, millions of officials were exiled to de facto labour camps which went under the anodyne name of 'May 7 Cadre Schools.' These camps also housed the custodians of culture—artists, writers, scholars, actors and journalists—who had become superfluous in Mao's new order.