Following many years of poverty and famine, in 1966 the Communist leader Mao Zedong launched ‘the (Great Proletarian) Cultural Revolution’ in an attempt to recentralize his position in the party, to reinvigorate its Marxist ideology, and to combat reactionary, capitalist tendencies. Cadres of young, zealous ‘Red Guards’ were recruited around the country, armed with ‘Chairman’ Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ of political philosophy and urged to conduct violent class struggle against revisionism. City-dwelling intellectuals, artists and bourgeois professionals were exiled to the countryside and forced into menial agricultural work, while unrest amongst factory workers was quelled by the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA), headed by Marshal Lin Biao. Public humiliations, torture and imprisonment were widespread, millions were persecuted, and the damage to the Chinese economy was huge, with a death toll estimated as high as 20 million. Besides inflicting this human cost, the Red Guards destroyed many of China’s ancient religious and cultural buildings and artefacts. Mao himself tried to bring an end to the movement in 1969, but was opposed by Lin Biao, who was accused of an attempted coup and died in a plane crash in 1971. The notorious ‘Gang of Four’, led by Jiang Qing, continued to promote Mao’s programme, but with Mao’s death and the Gang’s arrest, the Cultural Revolution at last came to an end in 1976.
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