The Red Guards: China’s Descent into Violence


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

As China descended into wider and deeper disorder in 1967, two questions began to occur to people: Just what did Chairman Mao know about the extent of the spreading violence and cruelty? And why didn’t he do anything to stop it? Let’s look at the manner in which the violence of the Red Guards escalated unhindered.

Red Guards gathered at Tian'anmen Square in 1966.
Mao exhortations to the Red Guards set in motion the violence that they would later be part of. (Image: 孟昭瑞/Public domain)

Mao’s Indifference

Without doubt, Mao had personally set in motion the chaotic events of 1966 and ’67. His Olympian instructions had spurred the Red Guards to “bombard the bourgeois headquarters”, “expose all demons and monsters”, “seize power”, and “drag out” the capitalist roaders. Those were his slogans.

Moreover, he had not lifted a finger to protect his oldest and closest comrades from extreme abuse, both physical and verbal, and even violent death. The chairman was an aloof and cold-blooded deity, a philosopher-king who professed deep devotion to the popular masses, but showed little concern for flesh-and-blood human beings. Seated on high, not even his closest comrades—including his own wife—could see him without an appointment.

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Jiang Qing’s Rise

It is entirely possible that Mao, living inside this imperial cocoon, didn’t fully comprehend the destructive consequences of his Delphic pronouncements. But there was one person who clearly did understand and appreciate it. That was his wife, Jiang Qing. It was she who led the brutal assault against the power-holders.

Driven partly by pent-up resentment at the party elders who had barred her from politics for 30 years, and partly by personal ambition and an evident intoxication with political power, Jiang Qing relished playing the role of “patron saint” to the Red Guards.

Jiang Qing during the Cultural Revolution
Jiang Qing was the instigator of the violence of the Red Guards. (Image: 人民画报/Public domain)

When army propaganda teams intervened to support local power-holders against rebel insurgents in the spring of 1967, Jiang Qing was furious. Later that summer, she took her revenge: she instructed her Red Guard followers to direct their anger against alleged capitalist roaders inside the People’s Liberation Army.

The Attack on the PLA

Radical students began trespassing onto a number of restricted army bases to confront military power-holders. The army itself was under direct orders from Mao not to use force in defending themselves against the revolutionary students. Thus, the army offered no resistance to the Red Guards. The Red Guards hauled away large quantities of military weaponry and equipment. When outraged PLA commanders began sending urgent messages to Beijing expressing their alarm, Mao finally intervened.

He personally rescinded Jiang Qing’s instructions and issued orders prohibiting Red Guards from entering any more army bases. But the damage had already been done. Soon afterwards, the pilfered weapons were used in a series of deadly civil wars involving pitched battles between the radical Red Guards and their factional rivals.

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Appeals from within the Party

As early as the spring of 1967 a group of senior party leaders tried to stop the spiraling madness before it got out of control. Appealing directly to the Central Cultural Revolution Group, China’s former agricultural minister, Tan Zhenlin, spoke out on behalf of the dissenting party officials. Another member of the dissident group, Foreign Minister Chen Yi, said of the Cultural Revolution that “[it] is one big torture chamber”. But Jiang Qing and her leftist comrades rudely dismissed their concerns and gave him short shrift.

For all their efforts in trying to halt the madness, Tan Zhenlin and Chen Yi were both purged for having instigated a so-called “February Adverse Current”. It seemed that there would be no stopping the leftist juggernaut. By the spring of 1968, China was perched on the thin edge of anarchy. Governing bodies in virtually all Chinese provinces and municipalities were being replaced by new “three-in-one” revolutionary committees.

Ignoring Beijing

To instill a greater sense of discipline, military officers were now appointed to fill the top positions in most of the new revolutionary committees. Meanwhile, Red Guards and revolutionary rebels throughout the country routinely ignored Beijing’s urgent requests to reconcile their factional differences and create a “great unity”.

Resisting all entreaties from above, the rebels engaged in increasingly large-scale acts of destruction. In a major escalation of factional violence, whole cities now became battlegrounds. In Wuzhou Municipality, in the southern province of Guangxi, a pitched battle occurred in April 1968 between two rival alliances. The two sides skirmished in streets and alleys, in government buildings and private homes. In two weeks of heavy fighting, more than 2,000 buildings in Wuzhou were laid waste and 40,000 inhabitants were rendered homeless. Eventually, the Alliance Command routed the Grand Army, taking 3,000 prisoners in the process.

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Red Guard Violence

The unfortunate captives were systematically interrogated and tortured, after which the victors staged three mass executions by a firing squad. More than 300 bodies were dumped into shallow graves at a local cemetery. Other corpses were thrown into the West River.

Also in Guangxi Province, the spring of 1968 brought fresh reports of particularly gruesome forms of ritualized violence, including acts of cannibalism, where one group of rebels would ceremonially carve up and then devour the vital organs of their slain enemies.

International Repercussions

According to local records, over 3,000 people in Binyang County were killed in 1968. Red Guard violence now took on an international dimension, reflecting the growing schism between Beijing and Moscow, and also between Beijing and Moscow’s allies in Hanoi, North Vietnam. In June 1968, a band of armed Red Guards stormed the North Vietnamese consulate in Guangxi’s capital city of Nanning, forcing the startled diplomatic staff to evacuate the building.

The young Chinese rebels screamed anti-revisionist, anti-Soviet slogans as the diplomats fled the building.  Other roving groups of rebels derailed and looted a number of Soviet military trains carrying weapons and war material to Hanoi. By this time, the situation was alarming and seemed to be totally out of control.

Common Questions about the Violence of the Red Guards

Q. What spurred the Red Guards to violence?

Mao’s instructions had spurred the Red Guards to violence: to “bombard the bourgeois headquarters”, “expose all demons and monsters”, “seize power”, and “drag out” the capitalist roaders.

Q. Why did Jiang Qing become the patron of the Red Guards?

Driven partly by pent-up resentment at the party elders who had barred her from politics for 30 years, and partly by personal ambition and an evident intoxication with political power, Jiang Qing relished playing the role of “patron saint” to the Red Guards.

Q. Why did the PLA not take action against the Red Guards?

Since Mao had instructed the PLA not to violently oppose the Red Guards, the PLA allowed the Red Guards free run of their compounds, even allowing them to take arms and ammunition.

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