How Chairman Mao Controlled the Unruly Red Guards


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

By the late spring of 1968, Mao himself was becoming seriously alarmed over the escalating violence of the Red Guard factions. In 1965, he had called for class struggle to be waged to the bitter end. But Mao had seen the bitter fruits of his thesis on class struggle devolve into widespread, unprincipled chaos. Finally, he had had enough. The PLA moved in, and the Red Guard faced rustication.

A painting of Mao with his associates during the Cultural Revolution
Though Mao was the instigator of the Red Guards at the beginning, they soon began to ignore him. (Image: 人民画报/Public domain)

Mao’s Directives

With large-scale disorder spreading to several provinces, Mao instructed Zhou Enlai to send a directive to the PLA’s military headquarters in Guangxi, demanding that law and order be restored immediately throughout the province. But there were no accompanying orders to use force if necessary.

And so the warring factions ignored the order. Shortly afterward, a second directive was issued from Beijing, more serious than the first. This time it bore Mao’s personal imprimatur, warning that the rebels’ continued refusal to obey orders would be “severely punished”. But again, there was no order to the army to use force if necessary, and again there was no sign of compliance by the warring factions.

Mao Calls the Students

By this time, Chairman Mao’s words had begun to lose their once-magical potency. So, on July 27, 1968, Mao took the dramatic step of summoning five of the most recalcitrant student leaders, including the philosophy instructor Nie Yuanzi of Beida and another young firebrand Kuai Dafu of Tsinghua, to a 4 am emergency meeting at the Great Hall of the People.

This particular meeting went on for several hours, with the chairman sternly exhorting the fractious students to stop their fighting and unite for the greater good. The students continued to bicker, however, and the meeting ended with their mutual antagonisms and recriminations undiminished.

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The Gift of Mangoes

A few days later, on August 1, 1968 (which just happened to be the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Red Army) Mao issued a directive authorizing the PLA to suppress factional conflict by force, if necessary. A few days later, the first contingent of so-called “Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams” arrived on the campus of Tsinghua University. Commanded by uniformed PLA officers, the propaganda teams were tasked with restoring order and imposing military discipline over the unruly Red Guards.

On August 5, Mao sent a highly publicized gift to the Tsinghua University propaganda team, a basket of fresh mangoes. The next day, the entire front page of the People’s Daily was given over to the news of Mao’s “precious gift of mangoes”. The message was clear: The PLA was taking control; and force would be used to quell the violence of the Red Guards if necessary.

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“Down to the Village”

A rally during the cultural revolution
The Red Guards were a strong part of the Cultural Revolution of China, but soon became a troublesome cadre. (Image: Uncredited/Public domain)

All over China, tens of thousands of Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams entered schools and universities in August 1968. For the most part they brought factional violence to a rapid halt. Under a new slogan—“purify class ranks”— revolutionary committees across the country began to cull the fractious students and rebel workers from their ranks, subjecting them to considerable verbal abuse and humiliation.

In a move designed to permanently disband the Red Guards, Mao now revived a program, first introduced during the Great Leap Forward, to send large numbers of urban middle-school students “up to the mountains and down to the villages”. While earlier rustication movements in China had been short-term in nature, a year or two at most. This time it was to be permanent.

Intended as a form of compulsory mass re-education, rustication was accompanied by a Maoist admonition to the sent-down youths to learn humility, industriousness, and plain living from the peasantry.

Festive Send-Off

Notwithstanding the punitive aspect of the rustication movement, it was packaged for public consumption as a patriotic opportunity for young people to serve their socialist Motherland. While the program was nominally voluntary in nature, intense political and peer-group pressure was exerted on the students to sign up lest they appear selfish and unpatriotic. To drive this point home, those students who resisted such pressure often found their food ration cards cancelled.

Pre-departure rituals played upon the patriotic sentiments of the students. There were banquets and fireworks displays, and stirring send-off speeches by local officials. It was all very festive. And it’s a measure of both their faith in Chairman Mao and of their youthful optimism, that many (if not most) of the students welcomed their new assignments as a valuable opportunity to “serve the people.” As their trucks departed, many of them happily sang revolutionary songs. Only later would they realize just how bleak their future prospects had become.

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A One-Way Ticket

By the late winter of 1969, the rustication movement had witnessed the largest human migration in Chinese history. Within six months, more than 10 million youngsters, ranging in age from 14 to 23, were sent from Chinese cities to rural areas and remote border regions. From Shanghai, half a million students were “sent-down” and from Beijing, more than 200,000.

For the vast majority of these young people, this would be a one-way ticket. When they departed, the students carried with them their household registration certificates. Henceforth, they would be classified as rural dwellers, and could not return home to their original urban households. Because of this and because precious few of the “sent-down” youths would ever have an opportunity to pursue formal education again, these 10 million-plus sent-down youth have been collectively referred to as China’s “lost generation”.

Common Questions about How Chairman Mao Controlled the Unruly Red Guards

Q: What was the first step that Mao took to pacify the squabbling students?

Mao summoned five of the most recalcitrant student leaders to a 4 am emergency meeting. He exhorted them to stop their fighting and unite for the greater good.

Q: What was the famous gift of mangoes?

On August 5, Mao sent a gift to the Tsinghua University PLA propaganda team: a basket of fresh mangoes. The message was clear: The PLA was taking control; and force would be used to quell the violence if necessary.

Q: What was the final step in quelling the Red Guard?

In a move designed to permanently disband the Red Guards, Mao decided to send large numbers of urban middle-school students “up to the mountains and down to the villages”. This process of rustication was the largest human migration in Chinese history, of 10 million youths sent away to the villages and remote borders.

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