Red Guards

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By John Gittings

Fractured Rebellion coverAndrew G. Walder, Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2009).

A group of former Red Guards at Beijing’s Qinghua University, interviewed in spring 1971 about their recent factional struggles, laughed loudly (always a sign of uneasiness) and made their “frank confession”: yes, they had not always behaved in a spirit of proletarian comradeship, they admitted. “We used to sit on either side of the table and agree to make up our differences, but even while we shook hands we were kicking one other under the table!”.

If only it had been confined to kicks. This account, given to a delegation from the Society of Anglo-Chinese Understanding (I was a member of it on my first visit to China), was a highly sanitised version. William Hinton, author of Fanshen — the classic account of rural revolution during the communist-led civil war in the late 1940s — heard a much bloodier tale when he interviewed at Qinghua. Hinton was told how the struggle on the campus in April 1968 had escalated “from cold to hot weapons”, from stone slingshots and wooden spears to revolvers and hand grenades. One group welded steel plates onto the body of a tractor to convert it into a tank. Ten students were killed and many more badly injured in the next three months till July 1968 when Mao Zedong finally sent in groups of local workers, backed by the army, to restore order.

Hinton’s account caused quite a stir on the left outside China when it was published as a special issue of Monthly Review (July-August 1972) under the title “Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University”, but even so his discussion of Red Guard violence was limited to the final months of the first phase (1966-68) of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). For many Chinese who remember these times, especially among the families of teachers, intellectuals, artists and “cultural workers”, government officials dubbed “bureaucrats”, and others labelled as “capitalist-roaders,” the most severe Red Guard violence in Beijing — which set the tone for elsewhere — had occurred two years earlier. By mid-1968 the survivors of these first months were simply keeping their heads down while the factions fought it out.

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