China’s Cultural Revolution was a power grab from within the government, not from without, Stanford sociologist finds

Contrary to many published narratives, China’s Cultural Revolution was a rebellion that unfolded from within the party state, with party cadres seizing power from their superiors, Stanford sociologist finds.

China’s Cultural Revolution – a rebellion that followed Chairman Mao’s appeal in 1966 to reassert communist ideology in China – was a brutal conflict that according to new calculations by Stanford sociologist Andrew Walder led to the deaths of 1.6 million people.

Stanford sociologist Andrew Walder provides new insight into China’s Cultural Revolution. (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

Until now, historians have had only rough approximations of how many people died as a result of the violence and chaos that unfolded between 1966 and 1969. Walder’s estimation – based on an original analysis of more than 2,200 city and local annals that document close to 34,000 violent revolutionary episodes across China during that period – is one of several new findings to emerge from this original research.

Here, Walder discusses some of his revelations, including his discovery of how the revolution really unfolded. Contrary to many published narratives that depict a revolution initiated from the top down and escalated from the bottom up, Walder found that it was instead an “inside-out” process where party cadres rebelled against their superiors, seizing power from within.

Walder also learned that some of the most violent episodes occurred in 1968, when leaders attempted to reestablish political order in their provinces.

Andrew Walder, the Denise O’Leary and Kent Thiry Professor, is a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies who specializes in the sources of conflict, stability and change in communist regimes and their successor states. His research on China has focused on the grassroots organization of party authority, reform and political conflict from the 1960s to 1980s. He recently authored Agents of Disorder: Inside China’s Cultural Revolution.


What did you learn about how this revolution unfolded?

The most surprising and most significant thing that I learned was that the party-state collapsed not due to widespread rebellion from below but through an “inside-out” process whereby local government and party functionaries formed rebel groups to overthrow their own superiors. Power seizures – the rapid collapse of local governments – spread rapidly. Only later did widespread student and worker insurgencies occur.

Somewhat paradoxically, party-state officials were deeply involved in the collapse of governmental structures to which their group interests were closely tied. Moreover, military intervention, which was implemented in almost every local jurisdiction, turned out to be a major catalyst for the formation of factions and conflict. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that agents of the party-state were deeply implicated in the government’s demise. In this respect, the centralized and unitary structure of the Chinese state was in many ways a major vulnerability.


What does your research tell us about how revolutions generally unfold?

The biggest thing that I learned, certainly not something that I anticipated at the outset, was that political processes within party-states, and probably within any kind of state structure, are essential to the processes that generate revolutions and the collapse of government structures. The overwhelming focus of work in this area, particularly work on the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes some 30 years ago, has been on understanding sudden upsurges in popular protest. That, at best, is only half of the story.


What is most misunderstood about the Chinese Cultural Revolution?

First, that the violence and chaos that resulted were attributable to violent student Red Guards and rebel factions of students and workers. The activities of these insurgents were responsible for roughly one quarter of the casualties. By far the largest number of casualties were due to the repression through which political order was restored, either in the armed suppression of rebel groups or in organized campaigns to root out suspected political enemies shortly after political order was restored.

Second, that the collapse of the civilian state early in 1967 was far more extensive than previously understood, reaching more than 80 percent of all local government jurisdictions in a matter of two to three months. And, moreover, that this rapid collapse was due not to massive upheavals from below – meaning, rebellions by students and workers – but from rebellions by party-state functionaries against their own superiors.

Third, that the widespread intervention of army units across China – reaching close to 90 percent of all jurisdictions early in 1967 – instead of quelling the disorder, generated the factional splits and militarized their conflicts in a way that led to more than a year of armed battles, resembling civil war in large regions of China.

Fourth, that these civil disorders reached deeply into rural areas, in the end mobilizing preexisting rural militias into the factional fighting. Past scholarship has focused almost exclusively on large cities like Shanghai and Beijing and on university students and industrial workers. There was a much bigger story that has long remained almost entirely unknown.


What did you learn about the most violent episodes of the revolution?

In some regions, the rebel factions had sophisticated military armaments, often seized from weapons factories located in interior regions. The fighters were not well trained, and not as disciplined as regular military forces, but the disorders resembled civil war in a number of regions. One of the most striking findings was that the violence escalated over time and became most deadly near the end in regions that had languished longest without a reestablished local government. This suggested to me that each side escalated its attacks in anticipation of an imminent political resolution, uncertain whether there would be a neutral third party to enforce cease-fires. There was not.


You estimate that between 1966 and 1969, 1.6 million people died as a result of the upheaval and suppression campaigns to restore order. Why have historians only had rough approximations? How did you come to this figure?

Published estimates have ranged from 40,000 to 8 million. The lower estimates come from official party pronouncements; the higher estimates were wild guesses by those who were morally outraged – perhaps justifiably – by the politics that generated the carnage.

My figure came from tabulating reports from some 2,246 published local histories, which included a surprising amount of detail. I compared the numbers generated from these sources with provincial figures published in China during the 1980s, and then compared those with unpublished internal investigation reports that have become available outside China. This gave me a sense of the levels of underreporting in the published local histories. I also employed some sample selection models to estimate levels of underreporting based on the length of published accounts – assuming that shorter accounts would provide less detail. From all of these methods, I arrived at a conservative estimate of 1.1 to 1.6 million dead.

After initially publishing these figures I came across a report published in 1996 in an obscure Hong Kong magazine that discussed two internal investigations conducted by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, one in 1982 and another in 1987. The first came to an estimate of 1.2 million deaths, and the second, more thorough, 1.7 million. The additional detail in the article coincided very closely with other aspects of my estimate – in particular the finding that only around 25 percent of the deaths were due to violence by rebel insurgents. These reports gave me confidence in my initial estimates, and I concluded that the actual number was close to the upper end of my original estimates.