Revolutionary Committee: Rise of a New Popular Governance


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

Chairman Mao created a less radical, more structured form of government, the “revolutionary committee”, after he was forced to backtrack on his vision of creating a destructive revolutionary people’s commune. But thereafter, the Chinese Communist Party was systematically shattered; its leaders brutalized, its morale was crushed. Slowly but surely, Mao’s radical minions pushed the country toward the brink of anarchy.

An image of the flag of China in the wind.
The revolutionary committee was less destructive than the revolutionary commune. (Image: rongyiquan/Shutterstock)

How the Revolutionary Committee Worked

In the revolutionary committee, the political and administrative authority would’ve to be wielded by a single unified committee composed of three evenly weighted constituencies: 

First were the representatives of the rebellious masses, the workers and students, second were former cadres and officials who had “passed the test” of loyalty to Chairman Mao, and third were representatives of the People’s Liberation Army. Military participation was deemed essential for the maintenance of discipline and order.

In the aftermath of the Shanghai uprising, radical Red Guards and revolutionary rebels throughout China began to seize power in factories, offices, commercial establishments, schools, and universities, in emulation of their Shanghai compatriots.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Use of Revolutionary Committee for Self-Interest

In many places, rebellious workers used the pretense of “making revolution” to press for higher wages or demand the abolition of the exploitative system of labor contracts, under which millions of temporary workers enjoyed no job security and no welfare benefits. Some were simply seeking revenge against their factory managers, foremen, or co-workers who had inflicted injury to them in the past.

As the scope of working-class participation broadened, the motives of the participants became murkier, less principled, and more patently self-interested. With all sides loudly proclaiming their loyalty to Chairman Mao, it became extremely difficult, if not impossible, to tell which groups (if any) were true revolutionaries and which were merely waving their red flags.

Mao’s Orders to Restore Principles and Discipline

As violence mounted early in 1967 and began to edge over into anarchy, Mao intervened once again. In the spring of 1967, he ordered all schools to be reopened, and he instructed itinerant Red Guards to return to their home schools to resume classes. At the same time, workers were told to make revolution only in their spare time, in their own factories after completing their daily eight-hour work shifts.

To restore order in those work units that had been hardest hit by factional violence, Mao ordered Lin Biao to dispatch PLA propaganda teams to the most trouble-plagued units, where the mandate was to “support the leftists”.

More often than not, the army propaganda teams, at a loss to determine who were the real revolutionaries and who were opportunistically “waving the red flag”, opted to uphold the established power holders. Like the work teams of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping before them, the army propaganda teams were reluctant to hand power to unruly insurgents, who often conducted themselves like hooligans.

Learn more about the Great Leap.

Humiliating Wang Guangmei

Meanwhile, the power struggle in Beijing was entering a new stage. Encouraged by members of the Central Cultural Revolution Group, radical students at Tsinghua University demanded to “drag out” Liu Shaoqi and his wife, Wang Guangmei, to face the wrath of the masses. 

Although Zhou Enlai tried to protect Liu and Wang by refusing to grant the students access to them, the rebel students outsmarted them. They devised a clever ruse to trick Wang Guangmei into coming out into the open.

A black-and-white photo of Wang Guangmei and Liu Shaoqi
Wang Guangmei (left) and Liu Shaoqi were humiliated by the Red Guards. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

An elegant woman from a well-to-do family, Wang Guangmei had worked as an interpreter for the US military in Chongqing during the anti-Japanese War. Her beauty, grace, and charm, while widely admired within China, were a source of great irritation—and envy—to Jiang Qing. One rebel later wrote that Jiang Qing “[told] me…to humiliate Wang Guangmei… We could insult her any way we wanted.”

Revolutionary Committee and Liu Shaoqi

A few months later, Liu Shaoqi himself was dragged out to face a kangaroo court of Red Guards and the revolutionary committee. As he attempted to speak, he was shouted down by the crowd, which rained blows down on his head. He was punched, kicked, and forced to assume the painful “flying sparrow” position, with knees bent and arms outstretched to the rear.

Later, Liu was sent away to the city of Kaifeng in Henan Province, where he was kept in solitary confinement for two years. Suffering from diabetes and pneumonia, contracted during his long incarceration, Liu was denied medical care. 

He died in November 1969 on a surgical gurney, alone and naked in a bare, unheated room in a Kaifeng prison hospital. The cause of death was medical neglect.

Learn more about how Great Leap policies were reversed under Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.

The Fate of Top Leaders

Other top leaders and their families were similarly brutalized after the formation of the new government, the revolutionary committee, in 1967. Bo Yibo, one of the Communist Party’s most senior economic planners, was beaten into unconsciousness at a mass rally in Beijing’s Workers Stadium. After being subjected to torture during a prolonged Red Guard interrogation, the former PLA Chief of Staff Lo Ruiqing was permanently paralyzed in a failed suicide attempt.

Peng Dehuai, Peng Zhen, and other erstwhile “capitalist roaders” were driven around Beijing in the back of an open truck, wearing dunce caps and placards denouncing them. At a series of mass rallies in athletic stadiums, they were beaten senselessly.

Peng Dehuai later died of his cumulative injuries, as did Lo Ruiqing. So, too, did the famous Long March veteran, Marshal He Long. Even Mao’s oldest comrade, Zhu De, co-founder of the Red Army, in 1928, was repeatedly beaten and struggled against.

Common Questions about Revolutionary Committee & Fate of Top Leaders

Q: How did the revolutionary committee work?

The revolutionary committee was governed by a unified committee consisting of three constituencies. These constituencies included representatives of the People’s Liberation Army, cadres, and representatives of rebellious masses.

Q: How did workers use the revolutionary committee for their own interests?

In some places, workers used the revolutionary committee for personal interests, such as pressuring managers to raise wages. Some also pretended to do revolutionary acts in order to take revenge against their managers and co-workers in factories.

Q: What became of the top leaders after the formation of the new government?

After the formation of the new government by Mao, which he called the revolutionary committee, almost all the top leaders experienced the same fate. Some were murdered, and others were tortured and became permanently disabled.

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