The downfall of the mayor of Beijing, Peng Zhen, marked the end of the first stage of Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” and the beginning of its even more dramatic second stage. In this new phase, China’s students were entrusted to carry out the struggle against bourgeois power-holders and revisionists.
Political Agitation in Peking University
In the new phase of “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, Chairman Mao bypassed the regular Communist Party apparatus and instead appealed directly to the young people of China, who had been thoroughly indoctrinated in “The Thought of Mao Zedong”.
Shortly after Peng Zhen’s dismissal, political agitation commenced on the campus of the venerable Peking University.
Founded during the Hundred Days of Reform in 1898, Beida, as the university is commonly known, is China’s oldest institution of modern higher education. It was there that the young Mao Zedong first studied Marxism with the CCP’s co-founder, Li Dazhao. And it was there that the largest student demonstrations took place during the May 4th movement. In late May, 1966, Beida once again became a hotbed of political agitation.
The purge of Peng Zhen had placed the president of Peking University, a man named Lu Ping, in a difficult situation. On the one hand, Lu Ping felt obligated to demonstrate his loyalty to Mao by showing support for the new Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, Lu was a leading member of the Beijing academic establishment, and he had little or no enthusiasm for yet another chaotic mass movement.
To resolve his dilemma, he did what many Chinese officials before and since did; he paid lip service to the need for a thorough exposure and removal of bourgeois power-holders, while at the same time arguing that class struggle should be conducted in a restrained and orderly manner, without mass meetings, without public denunciations, and without wall posters.
In the Maoist parlance of the time, Lu Ping was “waving the red flag to oppose the red flag”. That is, he was displaying a leftist banner to distract attention from his rightist intentions.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Challenge by Nie Yuanzi
On May 25, a middle-aged female philosophy instructor named Nie Yuanzi and a group of her leftist friends put up a dazibao outside the Beida students’ dining hall. In it, they directly challenged Lu Ping’s ban on wall posters and mass meetings.
Upon learning of Nie Yuanzi’s attack, Lu Ping fought back. He mobilized members of the university’s Communist Youth League branch to respond with wall posters of their own, denouncing Nie Yuanzi as a renegade and a rightist.
Pressing his counterattack, Lu Ping hauled Nie Yuanzi and her associates in front of an audience of university administrators, teachers, and party members. There the rebel leaders were harshly interrogated and accused of attempting to undermine party leadership.
Isolation of Nie Yuanzi’s Radical Group
Observing these events from the outside, the vast majority of Beida students were in a quandary. While they revered Chairman Mao on the one hand, they didn’t dare disobey the commands of their own University president and party committee. So most of them opted to take the safer course; they stayed out of the dispute.
However, when the Beida establishment stepped up its attack on Nie Yuanzi, many students felt pressured to show their support for President Lu and the party committee—mainly out of an instinct for self-preservation, rather than any firm conviction. So they fell into line with the Beida establishment, and Nie Yuanzi’s radical faction was soon isolated.
Learn more about Mao’s “Little Red Book”.
Mao’s Support to Nie Yuanzi
Mao listened intently as messengers informed him of the latest events at Beida. It didn’t take very long for him to draw his own conclusion: Nie Yuanzi was a true revolutionary; Lu Ping was a bourgeois reactionary. Signaling his support for the rebel faction at Beida, Mao hailed Nie’s dazibao as “China’s first Marxist-Leninist Big Character Poster”.
With Mao’s endorsement, Nie Yuanzi now went, literally overnight, from being a “right-wing renegade” to being a left-wing heroine.
The very next day, the People’s Daily, which was now operating under left-wing editorial control, published a ringing endorsement of Mao’s call to deepen the Cultural Revolution. A day later, the same newspaper stressed the life-and-death nature of the current class struggle.
Such authoritative articles, appearing in the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper served to trigger a virtual tsunami of radical student activity at Beida, as well as on other nearby college and high school campuses. Suddenly, rebellious students in every Beijing school were writing wall posters and convening frenzied accusation and struggle sessions against local power-holders—from college presidents and principals to classroom teachers and office administrators.
Learn more about Mao’s offensive against class struggle and capitalist thinking.
Mounting Chaos across Beijing
At Beida, a group of student rebels seized President Lu Ping and a group of his colleagues. They stuck pointed dunce caps on their heads and forced them to kneel while the frenzied students spattered black ink on their faces, beat and kicked them, and then paraded them around the campus in disgrace.
Caught completely off guard by the mounting chaos, the Central Committee of the party, still under the day-to-day direction of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, played it strictly by the book. In cases of serious or widespread disorder, the standard operating procedure of the party was to send out work teams to investigate. And so Liu and Deng dispatched a number of work teams to schools and universities throughout Beijing to examine the nature and circumstances of the rising factional turmoil. Their mandate was to identify the source of the problem and then to fix it.
Common Questions about the Involvement of China’s Youth in Mao’s Revolution
Peking University is China’s oldest institution of modern higher education. It was there that the young Mao Zedong first studied Marxism with the CCP’s co-founder, Li Dazhao.
Mao hailed Nie’s dazibao as “China’s first Marxist-Leninist Big Character Poster”. With Mao’s endorsement, Nie Yuanzi went from being a “right-wing renegade” to being a left-wing heroine.
The People’s Daily published a ringing endorsement of Mao’s call to deepen the Cultural Revolution. A day later, the same newspaper stressed the life-and-death nature of the current class struggle. Such authoritative articles, appearing in the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, served to trigger a virtual tsunami of radical student activity at Beida, as well as on other nearby college and high school campuses.