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The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China Essay


The background of the Cultural Revolution in China goes back to the Mao Zedong era in 19661. During this time, China experienced societal upheavals due to the Mao’s attempts to stage a revolution. Mao sought to address social and political challenges, which were very pertinent at the time. This scenario prompted the Cultural Revolution, which would later become the turning point of the healing process of the inherent problems as opposed to advancing his ideas. Mao was keen to stop the emerging elites in the party who were raising their role in politics, thus threatening his authority in the country.

The rise of the modern Chinese intellectuals and their demand for complete cultural overhaul sparked heightened debates amongst the conservatives. The continued upheavals prolonged and gained momentum amongst university students who later in 1989 staged the famous Tiananmen incident. This paper will argue that Tsang’s statement precisely describes these two events. In support of Tsang’s statement, the paper will describe the events and show how the outcome led to the realization of social, economic, and political democracy in China. The two events sought to liberate the society from an authoritative oppression by realizing democracy and this aspect reflects Tsang’s ideals.

The emergence of the Cultural Revolution

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China was viewed as the final attempt by Mao Zedong to restore his fading spirit of a revolution. Mao’s outstanding desire was to develop a state, which had local peasants, proletariats, and the elite working harmoniously with no one above the other.2 Developing a classless society was an operose task for Mao or anybody else seeking to advance Maoist ideologies. Mao’s approach was overambitious by intruding socio-political forces beyond his reproach. This aspect weakened the promoters of the revolution both physically and mentally even before it was staged.

The emerging forces from the elite and the school fraternity were gradually staging their tactics to steer a revolution. These groups were mobilized to criticize the liberals and those who were influenced to think that education was producing a class of elites seeking to dominate the Chinese state. Mao believed that the advancement that China was making was concentrated at developing a privileged class. However, he was not ready to see these educated people rise to power at his expense. He believed that a new class was emerging in China and it had no clue about the livelihood of the average person in the country especially the peasants. Mao had little trust in the intellectuals and he believed that people would only realize his vision of a classless society after coming out of a revolution.

Mao argued that the same way the Chinese State was seeking to stabilize economically, so were the masses without being reliant on the intellectual technocrats. Mao insisted that masses were supposed to make themselves architects of their own culture and changes that they believed in rather than looking for ideologies of the selfish elites. Therefore, he encouraged the peasants to come out strongly and takeover the cities. Lenin, who was a Marxist, protested against Mao’s idea and instead raised the idea of sending members of the city to join the peasants and help them improve their cultural levels. Mao insisted that it was more realistic to send the city dwellers to the village to acquire proletariat values from the rural peasants than the vice versa.3

Leaders that came to power after Mao Zedong termed the Cultural Revolution as a turmoil, which resulted in catastrophes. The revolution caused loss to the people and the state coupled with spoiling Mao’s historical advances. However, this perception was propaganda by Mao’s political victims, since the revolution had opened a broad view of the socio-economic and political engagement by the minority peasants. The Cultural Revolution led to the ejection of President Liu Shaoqi among other communist leaders from power.

Social-economic inequalities

The Chinese communist party developed an ideology to eliminate the socio-economic gap between the elites and the peasant’s societies.4 This aspect was viewed in a broad way as three major differences amongst mental and manual productivity, urban and rural settings, and proletariats and peasants. The policies pursued by the communist regime were encouraging those differences and the gap was quickly widening. The Maoist authority was strengthening as well as the emerging technology, which created a gap between the top bureaucrats and the workers in different industries.

Working conditions for the industrial workers were very poor with little pay and long working hours. The new technology replaced many workers, with the mental labor being considered to manage factories. These socio-economic differences created divisions amongst the working class. Among the rural folks, individual families started to farm in private land, and the growth of rural market sparked competition coupled with the end of communal labor, thus encouraging socio-economic challenges amongst peasant farmers.5 The new policies encouraged capitalism and private ownership of land, which bordered on an abomination in the eyes of the previous regimes.

Even though the minority peasants fared well in the countryside markets, the cities were quickly growing with classes developing at an alarming rate. During hard economic times, the policies were designed in a way to favor the bourgeoisie, elites, and the proletariats. This aspect undermined the Maoist ideologies of closing the gap between socio-economic classes. Urban health care improved immensely at the expense of the declining health services at the countryside rendered during the Mao’s period. Many inequalities were evidenced during this time more than in the 1950s. Donald Tsang echoed these inequalities in the statement that Cultural Revolution was an expression of democracy by the people and if not granted, they would seek it by force, thus creating an indocile scenario.

The decline of the socialist vision

With the decline of the Great Leap, communal values and socialist ideals faltered. Most people in the cities focused on private endeavors and individual families. This aspect was reflected in the countryside were peasants renewed private markets. The Communist Party had no interest in advancing Mao’s revolutionary ideologies and thus it emphasized own goals to dominate its rule and the stability of society. The vision that Mao had started to actualize was now altered before being replaced with a self-centered visionary of the communist party. 6

Class and class struggle

China’s social stratification was one of the major factors that stirred the Cultural Revolution.7 The implementation of land reforms led to the loss of land by traditional property owners to the ruling class, thus enhancing their dominance. Two classes emerged with one comprising the owners of production and the other class entailing the working class. The owners of production included the elites, who controlled and dominated the economy. The working class depended on the dominant class for employment and survival. The owners of production controlled the working class by limiting their opportunities to grow by giving meager wages. The socio-political divisions of class struggle generated chaos, which sparked the masses to engage in the Cultural Revolution. The urge by the masses to achieve equality reflects the views of Tsang to attain democracy through mass action.

The Tiananmen experience

In the wake of the Tiananmen incident, many challenges pervaded the reform system. Even though many students had been enrolled to colleges and universities, the number of graduates joining the job market was low. The role of the state had been reduced and the private sector exercised nepotism with corrupt bureaucrats running the system. The intellectuals had envisioned guiding the country through reforms, but the vision aborted. The job market was ruled by the private industries, which gave jobs based on nepotism and favoritism rather than merit.

This unfolding scenario amounted to an intellectual insult to the university students who sought to reiterate. Facing a reduced job market and dwindling opportunities to improve their livelihood, students and intellectuals embarked on politics to seek democracy8. Socio-political groups started to form in Beijing University such as the Democracy Salon. These organizations allowed students to participate actively in political matters. Greedy and unskilled merchants started to flaunt their might by dominating the skilled unemployed population. People were becoming furious, and thus they needed immediate change.9

Student’s reactions

Professor Fang Lizhi, on return from Princeton University, had gained a broader political consciousness and he was ready to stage awareness amongst university students. He toured across universities in China talking of socio-political liberation, democracy, and separation of powers. Fang prodded students to stop living in captivity of negativity and stage their grievances in an amplified way for the government to respond.

He attracted an unparalleled criticism from government’s sycophants, who urged him to stop being swept by the Western lifestyle. Nevertheless, Fang gained support and the students were inspired, and thus they protested against the crawling implementation of reforms. The conservatives responded by denouncing the General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, who was believed to have taken a compromised position about the protests. In 1989, Hu arguably died of a heart attack, and thus the student fraternity gathered around the monument Tiananmen to mourn Hu. Speakers from different quarters echoed a common purpose to advance Hu’s quest for democracy as well as discussing socio-economic challenges. After a series of successful mobilization, students felt pressed to the periphery by government, which branded them anti- government movement.

Later on August 18, 1989, all Beijing university students demonstrated through the city to Tiananmen Square.10 With increased impatient, the students protested through the cities forcing the military to engage gunfire. The killings frustrated residents in the city and they joined the students to fight for a common course. The Tiananmen incident led to a significant instability in the economy, but the protests strengthened freedom and democracy calls.11

Donald Tsung’s statement on democracy and mass involvement underscored the Tiananmen experience. For any nation or entity to achieve democracy or the will of the majority, a great revolution has to occur. In a bid to change the status quo and overturn the conservative ideologies, mass action is inevitable in most cases as the absolutism technocrats are unwilling to cede their powers. Those in power create means to achieve their political will. After a certain period of political suppression, the oppressed population develops socio-political consciousness and resorts to protests. Since conservatives are not ready to stage reforms, they use their authority to silent and control the population. However, during such times, mass action is staged to overhaul the system and replace it with reformists who advocate democracy.

Even though the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen incidents had distinct settings, their purpose was for the well-being of the Chinese community. It suffices to state that, the immature reforms and setbacks of the Cultural Revolution aggregated to the grievances voiced by the students and some sections of the society during the Tiananmen incident. However, efforts by Mao among other revolutionary leaders were to be actualized later during the aftermath of the Tiananmen incident. Leaders expressed regret due to mass loss of life, but insisted that the revolution was the only way that people would establish democracy and enjoy it thereafter. These two events concur with Tsang’s statement, as they both involved uncontrollable masses seeking their rights through protests.


The Tiananmen incident developed many controversies from the political realm. Some refer to the incident as civil disobedience. However, some conservative leaders refer to it as an example on how to deal with popular upheavals. However, the calls culminating in the incident were justified as simple quests to socio-political reforms. The reluctance by the Chinese government to listen to the masses’ cries invited protests. After a series of forceful engagement between the protesters and the conservatives, democracy started taking shape albeit slowly. With the Cultural Revolution, proponents needed equality and classless society. This aspect would later translate into democracy. These events define the statement by Donald Tsang, which implied that through popular unrest during the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen incidents, democracy gained root in the republic of China.


Clark, Paul. Youth Culture in China: From Red Guards to Netizens. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Hudecek, Jiri. “Ancient Chinese Mathematics in Action: Wu Wen-Tsun’s Nationalist Historicism after the Cultural Revolution.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 6, no. 1 (2012): 41-64.

MacFarquhar, Roderick, and Michael Schoenhals. Mao’s Last Revolution. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Meisner, Maurice. “The concept of Cultural Revolution.” In Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, 291-311. New York: Free Press, 1986.

Meisner, Maurice. “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” In Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, 312-351. New York: Free Press, 1986.

Zheng, Yushuo. Whither China’s Democracy: Democratization in China since the Tiananmen Incident. Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press, 2011.


  1. Maurice Meisner, “The concept of Cultural Revolution,” In Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic (New York: Free Press, 1986), 291.
  2. Ibid, 291.
  3. Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 65.
  4. Paul Clark, Youth Culture in China: From Red Guards to Netizens (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 37.
  5. Jiri Hudecek, “Ancient Chinese Mathematics in Action: Wu Wen-Tsun’s Nationalist Historicism after the Cultural Revolution,” East Asian Science, Technology, and Society: An International Journal 6, no.1 (2012): 53.
  6. Clark, 35.
  7. Maurice Meisner, “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” In Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic (New York: Free Press, 1986), 321.
  8. Meisner, The concept of Cultural Revolution, 292.
  9. Yushuo Zheng, Whither China’s Democracy: Democratization in China since the Tiananmen Incident (Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press, 2011), 57.
  10. Meisner, The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 321.
  11. Zheng, 47.
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IvyPanda. 2020. "The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China." June 23, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-great-proletarian-cultural-revolution-in-china/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China'. 23 June.

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