Instigated by Mao, the Cultural Revolution plunged China into chaos. Production all but stopped. Political futures became uncertain. Self-styled revolutionaries took over factories. Universities closed their doors. Middle school students beat up, even killed, their teachers. The Chairman loomed large in the background, the focal point of a movement that ultimately did little to benefit the people.
Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals describe these chaotic times in almost oppressive detail in Mao's Last Revolution.
Offering little in the way of judgment but much in the way of evidence, the two scholars have compiled a comprehensive history of the period, the time leading up to it and the aftermath that culminated in the ultimate opening up of China in the time of Deng Xiaoping.
Through some 461 pages of narrative – coupled with another 200-plus pages of references and a glossary – they navigate the often convoluted political waters of China in the 1960s and 1970s.
They go into a lot of detail to convey the impact of Mao's often intractable and elusive approach to decision making. This includes tracing the political fortunes of some of China's brightest figures, who saw their careers pivot depending on their leader's mood, and charting the currents and countercurrents at the top levels of a government ruled by whim first and need second.
It is an impressive achievement in scholarship, displaying in-depth knowledge of the convoluted period that started after the Great Leap Forward and ran all the way through to the late 1970s.
Passing the buck
Mao rarely gave an order straight out but rather endorsed or criticized the orders of others while his subordinates were left to "work towards the chairman". As Mao busied himself encouraging people across the country to revolt, it was these subordinates who were left to meet the often contradictory goals of staying in Mao's favor and running the country.
Premier Zhou Enlai was such a subordinate. Throughout the story that unfolds, he comes across as a hard working and savvy leader who endeavors to keep the country afloat without opposing Mao. From time to time he tries to protect fellow officials but he seems aware that it is best to go with the wind than try to sail against it.
Another story that unfolds is the now legendary rise, fall and rise again of Deng Xiaoping, who Mao later described as a man of "rare talent".
Not all fared as well as Deng in the long run. Mao favorites like Lin Biao – a PLA general who ran the country until his death in a plane crash while attempting to defect from China in 1971 – rose and fell with the surges of the revolution. Others, like ideologue Chen Boda, served their purpose until their served it no more.
And Mao's wife Jiang Qing, who virtually headed the Central Cultural Revolution Group, seemed intent in creating whatever chaos she could regardless of consequence.
It is very difficult to do justice, in just a few words, to the depth of research that Mao's Last Revolution encompasses. The book certainly does not make for a light dose of reading.
Four decades after Mao's death, China is still reeling from the effects of his constant revolution. If nothing else, the book makes it clear what blind following can do – and how an accomplished tactician with blind followers can find in a willing population fertile soil for seeds of paranoia and discord.