Liu and Deng had dispatched a number of work teams to schools and universities throughout Beijing to examine the nature and circumstances of the rising factional turmoil in 1966. However, Mao strongly criticized the work teams and ordered their immediate withdrawals, accusing them of suppressing revolutionaries.
Actions by the Work Teams
As agents of the party establishment, the work teams tended to be inherently conservative in outlook. Habitually accustomed to upholding hierarchical authority and party discipline, they weren’t very likely to support rebellious students who were denouncing, and often physically abusing, established authority.
Unprepared for such anti-establishment turmoil, most of the work teams instinctively reacted by upholding the status quo. In some cases, they expelled rebellious student leaders. When the work team at Beida, as Peking University is commonly known, investigated the violent humiliation of President Lu Ping, their report characterized the incident as unprincipled hooliganism.
Learn more about Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution.
Mao’s Reaction to Work Teams
Informed of this latest turn of events in early July, Mao was livid. It was time for him to join the battle in person. But before leaving his Hanzhou hideaway in early July, the reclusive chairman wrote to his wife in Shanghai, telling her that there would soon be “Great disorder under heaven”. It was a most prescient forecast.
Mao re-entered the Chinese political scene with a splash, quite literally. On July 16, 1966, after several months of absence, his photo was spread across the front page of the People’s Daily—swimming in the Yangzi River.
It was the first time the chairman had been seen in public since November. According to accompanying press reports, Mao had swum 15 kilometers (roughly nine-and-a-half miles) down the Yangzi in 65 minutes—almost four times as fast as the world record for that distance.
Eyewitnesses told a somewhat different story. As candidly described by Mao’s physician, Li Zhisui, the chairman had not really swum at all, but rather had simply floated downstream on his back, taking advantage of a rather rapid current.
No matter how he did it, Mao was definitely back. He was physically vigorous, and he was hopping mad.
Mao’s Return to Beijing
Shortly after his Yangzi River swim, Mao boarded his private train for Beijing, where he proceeded to shake the Chinese political establishment to its very foundations.
No sooner did Mao return to the capital on July 18 than Liu Shaoqi urgently sought a private meeting with him. The request was denied. Mao was shunning him.
The following day at an informal party meeting, Mao strongly criticized the work teams, arguing that they had suppressed the masses and terrorized rebellious students at Beida and elsewhere. A week later, Mao personally ordered the work teams to be withdrawn. Henceforth, the Cultural Revolution in schools and universities would be conducted by the revolutionary students themselves, with their leaders selected from below by students and teachers rather than being appointed from above by central authorities.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Withdrawal of Work Teams
When they learned of Mao’s order, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were deeply distressed.
Mao had tested his two top lieutenants by stirring up trouble. At Mao’s initiative, the decision to withdraw the work teams was publicly announced on July 29 to a packed audience of 10,000 students in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. On stage were seated Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and Mao’s ever-faithful, Zhou Enlai.
At Mao’s behest, Liu issued a vaguely worded self-criticism, in which he accepted personal responsibility for any errors committed by the work teams. But his apology was perfunctory, half-hearted, and he claimed that the errors in question were inadvertent, the result, as he put it, of an “old revolutionary facing new problems”.
Learn more about the “Little Red Book”.
Mao’s Approval of Rebellions
Shortly after this incident, Mao further fanned the flames of rebellion when he wrote a personal note to a young high school student in Beijing, praising him for helping to form a rebel organization at his middle school, which was attached to Beida’s sister institution, the prestigious Tsinghua University.
The insurgents at the high school had called themselves hongweibing—“Red Guards”. Mao congratulated the young man; and to convey his approval, he coined a new battle cry: “Zaofan youli!”—“To rebel is justified!”
Mao’s words were reprinted in student newspapers across the country, quickly becoming the most famous rallying cry of the entire Cultural Revolution.
Learn more about the formation of student “Red Guard” units.
Mao Zedong: The Honorary Red Guard
On August 5, the People’s Daily published a short essay by Mao Zedong, entitled “My first dazibao”. In it, Mao charged that the party’s work teams had “suppressed revolutionaries, stifled dissenting opinions, and…imposed a white terror”. To rectify such “poisonous” behavior, Mao exhorted the masses to “Bombard the Headquarters” [of the bourgeoisie].
Three days later, on August 8, Mao made a rare public appearance in Tiananmen Square, where he greeted thousands of gleeful, adoring young students. It was the first of several such meet-and-greet events to be held by the chairman in August and September of 1966.
In the course of these public appearances, Mao received over one million ecstatic young Red Guards. Wearing olive-drab military-style uniforms adorned with bright red armbands, and waving copies of the Little Red Book, the students excitedly chanted, “Long live Chairman Mao! A long, long life to Chairman Mao!”
At one of these mass receptions, a female student named Song Binbin spontaneously removed her own armband and handed it to the chairman. On it, the characters “Hong-wei-bing”—Red Guard—were printed in gold letters on a field of crimson. Mao smiled broadly as he put it on. He was now an honorary Red Guard.
Mao strongly criticized the work teams, arguing that they had suppressed the masses and terrorized rebellious students.
The battle cry Zaofan youli! (To rebel is justified!) became the most famous rallying cry of the entire Cultural Revolution. It was coined by Mao Zedong to convey his approval of the insurgents at a high school in Beijing.
During his meet-and-greet events in August and September of 1966, Mao received over one million ecstatic young Red Guards. Wearing olive-drab military-style uniforms adorned with bright red armbands, they waved copies of the Little Red Book and chanted “Long live Chairman Mao!”