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Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement.

Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement, by Andrew G. Walder. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2009. xii, 400 pp. $39.95 US (cloth).

The campus unrest of the mid-to-late 1960s was a global phenomenon, but nowhere was the violence as ferocious and protracted as in China during the first two years of the Cultural Revolution. From 1966 to 1968, student Red Guards, emboldened by support from Chairman Mao, hurled accusations of "political errors" at their university administrators, faculty, and Communist Party officials. Targets of student mobs were subjected to humiliating "struggle sessions," during which they were frequently beaten, forced to issue public confessions, and paraded around campus in dunce caps and placards listing their alleged crimes. This traumatic experience not only ruined the careers of scores of leading Chinese intellectuals, but also drove a handful to suicide as the sole means of escaping the students' unrelenting cruelty. In the end, the Red Guards turned on themselves, fighting a series of pitched battles across the capital in the spring and summer of 1968 that transformed the campuses of the country's two most prestigious post-secondary institutions, Beijing University and Qinghua University, into a heavily fortified civil war zone.

Mao Zedong initiated the Cultural Revolution in May 1966 after being relegated to the political sidelines following his catastrophic Great Leap Forward. He conceived of the Cultural Revolution as a means of purging "capitalist roaders" and "black elements" within the party who supposedly wanted to undo China's communist revolution. Student Red Guards--fiercely loyal to Mao and eager to prove their revolutionary mettle--were to serve as his shock troops. Creating the Red Guard movement and whipping participants into a frenzy proved the easy part for Mao and his allies in the Central Cultural Revolution Group (CCRG); controlling this new monster, however, was an entirely different matter.

Andrew Waldner's Fractured Rebellion will appeal most to readers with an interest in the Red Guard movement, providing an excellent case study of developments in Beijing to complement Stanley Rosen's Red Guard Factionalism and the Cultural Revolution in Guangzhou (Boulder, Colo., 1982). Readers looking for a general history of the Cultural Revolution are better served by Roderick MacFarquhar and Micheal Schoenhals's Mao's Last Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 2008) or Barbara Barnouin and Changgen Yu's Ten Years of Turbulence: The Chinese Cultural Revolution (London, 1993).

Walder, a political sociologist at Stanford University, focuses specifically on the byzantine internal politics of Beijing Red Guard movement. The Chinese capital was home to a huge concentration of post-secondary students (111,000, or one-sixth of the national total), and Red Guards there had the most influence nationwide. Whereas earlier histories of the Red Guard movement are based on oral histories of former participants exiled to Hong Kong, Walder has incorporated a considerable amount of new documentary evidence--including rival faction university newspapers, wall posters, contemporary written student accounts, and transcripts of speeches delivered at Red Guard rallies and meetings--that has become available to researchers since the 1990s (p. 8). The Red Guard movement in Beijing remains a politically sensitive topic in China, however, and Walder's meticulous reconstruction of events in half of Beijing's fifty-four postsecondary institutions, encompassing 76 per cent of the city's university students, is the first account to appear in any language.

Walder challenges the view that Red Guard divisions were based on class lines and political networks, with a privileged status quo faction seeking to maintain its position in the face of a challenge from a rebel faction working to break down barriers to its own advancement within the party structure. Instead, he finds that students of similar backgrounds clashed "during the first two months of the Cultural Revolution, when outside delegations of party officials known as 'work teams' directed purges and mobilized students" (p. 10). The work teams were assembled hastily, deployed without clear guidelines, and responded in an ad hoc fashion on different campuses, but it was their decision to work with some students and sideline or punish others that provoked the greatest backlash. Students in Beijing were elites on their way to privileged positions after graduation, but a work team rebuke would be filed in a student's dossier and follow him for the rest of his life. This explains why the "rebel" Red Guards clashed with the "majority" Red Guards who were installed by the work teams in the late summer of 1966: their prospects for future career advancement were blocked unless they could expunge offending reports from their permanent files.

After Mao and the CCRG threw their backing behind the more radical rebel faction and helped it win power by early 1967, they were dismayed to find that the winning camp split and fought for control over arms of the bureaucracy once its common enemy, the work teams and their supporters, had been defeated. In 1967 the Red Guards divided again into "Heaven" and "Earth" factions, both sides professing their supreme loyalty to Mao, in response to the CCRG's ambiguous stance on the use of violence to further revolutionary aims. In this new eighteen-month phase these factions began vying to take power in Beijing through a complex network of alliances that drew in non-student segments of the bureaucracy. As Walder writes, "[f]actional warfare was so hard to curtail not because the two sides represented the fundamentally opposing interests of different social constituencies, but because the die-hard activists on each side could not ensure their personal security in the event of their defeat" (p. 252-253).

CCRG entreaties for reconciliation went unheeded, and, by the summer of 1968 a highly disillusioned Mao had no alternative but to order the military to forcibly disarm the Red Guard movement and subject its leaders to political reeducation. Walder comes to the conclusion that "what is most remarkable about the Beijing red guard movement ... is the extent to which the various mobilizations were ultimately defensive in nature, and that the conflicts and grievances they expressed were generated by recent short-term processes" (p. 261). In the end, the Red Guards "were quite simply fighting not to lose" (p. 260).

Jie Gao

University of Ottawa
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Author:Gao, Jie
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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