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The Chinese Cultural Revolution had a deep and lasting impact on Chinese social and domestic society, the economy, education and most importantly politics. It aimed to transform all aspects of China to eliminate the tensions between sections of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and it’s chairman, Mao Zedong.
The 1966 Cultural Revolution was ultimately an attempt by Mao Zedong to retain power lost after his “Great Leap Forward”. Mao believed that the current communist leaders were leading China astray and implemented the Cultural revolution as a way of reasserting his power as the leading political figure over the Chinese government. During the lead up to 1966, Mao (the chairman of the CCP), believed China was heading in a more revisionist direction, focused on expertise instead of ideological purity. Mao’s government position had been damaged after his initiative, “The Great Leap Forward” (1958-1960), had failed which resulted in an economic crisis. Mao then implemented the Cultural Revolution to reassert his authority in the Chinese government and rid China of capitalist influences.
The Cultural Revolution caused a large disruption of Chinese society. One major impact was that traditional trading patterns were almost completely reversed. The insistence of “self-reliance” influenced whole provinces to break old trading connections leading to an extremely limited supply of ordinary items. It was only after Mao’s death that these trading connections would begin to mend. Another devastating impact was found in many families and homes across China. The family unit was under attack during the revolution as people were encouraged to spy on and denounce their own family members to demonstrate their loyalty. Divorce was also encouraged if disloyalty was identified. However, the tradition of family was so prominent in Chinese society that despite the threats of the revolution, the family tradition remained intact. Another impact of the Cultural Revolution on society was the bourgeois view of love and romantic relationships. This was frowned upon with chaste heroes being idolised in films and the removal of sex education from Chinese schools. Despite these attempts to restrict basic social conduct, the impositions of the Revolution were not practical nor long-lasting.
The Chinese education system was almost completely destroyed as a result of the Cultural Revolution. Some impacts included intensified ideological education, abandonment of sexual education and children being sent to serve for the cultural revolution. However, the main impact on education was the restriction of academic development. As Mao stated; “All work in school is for changing the thinking of the student”. After the Red Guards had rampaged through schools, they would often turn into bureaucratic offices. In some provinces as many as 700,000 square metres of school land had been lost in the lead up to 1972. Over 27,000 higher education students had dropped to 5000 by 1970. Teachers and students were sent to farming areas as a means of “re-education” by peasants. Most schools of higher education had completely closed down. The result of this was the collapse of the Education System.
The Chinese Cultural Revolution completely disrupted the economy resulting in starvation and millions of deaths. All representations of traditional practises or “the four olds” – Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas, were outlawed and suppressed during the revolution. This was in addition to the traditional trading patterns being disrupted as stated above. The key impact on the economy as a result of this suppression was traditional crafts. Craftsmen were sent to factories which resulted in a decline in quality and production with half or more of products in some provinces failing to reach manufacturing standards. With production constantly falling short of the target, there was huge financial loss with the threat of the Chinese economy collapsing completely. During this time, a secret “black market” economy had developed. Farmers were secretly producing pork rather than grain and using some of the profits to buy grain to meet the state-required quota. This hidden “free market” thrived and ultimately resulted in a local silent revolt in rural areas. The economic instructions given to the Chinese were constantly modified and ever-changing. Mao’s Revolution had destroyed any consistency in China’s economic policies.
The overarching aim of the Cultural Revolution was political, particularly the consolidation of Mao’s leadership. Politics was significantly disrupted by the power struggles and changing factions within the Communist Party. In the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, Mao organised deliberate attacks, or purges, on 90% of his own party. The denunciation of influential members such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping of being “Capitalist Roadsters”, despite being the most prominent leaders of the conservative faction and the greatest threat to Mao’s leadership. Mao publicly denounced political criticisms of his leadership and as a consequence, many key political members of the CCP and PRC became victims of the Cultural Revolution including Liu Shaoqi, who was removed from government positions and died in prison in 1969. and Deng Xiaoping who was sent to a re-education program until 1973. Lin Biao, seen as the successor to Mao, gained influence. However, his criticism of domestic and foreign policy, in addition to his association with the assassination plot against Mao, resulted in his disappearance from public life in 1971 and suspicious death shortly after. Furthermore, the Gang of Four had a distinctive role throughout the Cultural Revolution. Their extreme left-wing political presence within the Maoist faction ‘cleansed’ the class ranks and sought to maintain the theory of ‘Permanent Revolution’. They had a key role in the party purges after the decline of the Red Guard and had an ongoing influential political role throughout the Cultural Revolution until they were denounced and punished accordingly in 1981. Despite Mao’s aims, his control over the wider Cultural Revolution was lost. As a consequence, power shifted to the Red Guards and the military. As a further consequence, there was a lack of central control causing social anarchy. Ultimately, a military dictatorship developed with Mao’s power being challenged by the PLA between 1968-1971 and members of the left faction rose to prominence as Mao’s leadership was reduced.
Mao Zedong’s attempt to reconsolidate his power in the government through his Cultural Revolution had both short and lasting impacts and had an enormous influence on all aspects of Chinese culture. The Revolution secured Mao’s leadership until his death to the detriment of the Chinese economy, education, society and most importantly politics.
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