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How ‘Mao’s little generals’ wreaked havoc in China

No matter how hard Chinese communists tried to control the economy, they could not stop the free market from flourishing. This was the message given by historian Frank Dikötter on 7 February during a lecture on the Cultural Revolution. He will be awarded an Honorary Doctorate on 8 February.

When propagandists from the Chinese government paid a visit to Yan’an in 1974, they could not believe their eyes. In this city, where party leader Mao Zedong had established his headquarters during the Second World War, the black market was flourishing. Many farmers no longer tried to grow corn collectively on the infertile land, but bred pigs instead on their own private plots.  

Planned economy

‘This was the writing on the wall: the collectivisation of agriculture had failed,’ says Frank Dikötter, Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. He will be awarded an Honorary Doctorate on 8 February, during the Dies Natalis of Leiden University. 'Even before Mao died in September 1976, large parts of the countryside had abandoned the planned economy.’  

Great Leap Forward

Mao used drastic measures to modernise the economy in 1958. During the Great Leap Forward he turned every man and woman in the countryside into a foot soldier in one giant army, to be deployed day and night to transform the economy. His ill-conceived plan ended in disaster, as more than forty-five million people died as a result of forced labour and plunging agricultural yields.

Little Red Book

In 1966 Mao changed tack, Dikötter explains. ‘He called on his countrymen to condemn representatives of the middle classes as traitors who wanted to return the country to capitalism. And all the remnants of the old culture – whether freedom of trade or freedom of spirit – had to be eradicated.’ He plunged the country into a Cultural Revolution. Students were forced to read his Little Red Book, and were taught class hatred against alleged enemies of communism. Even schoolchildren were encouraged to fire air guns at portraits of former President Chiang Kai-shek and ‘American imperialists’.

Class enemies

‘To rebel is justified,’ became Mao’s battle cry in the summer of 1966. After years of indoctrination, many students turned themselves into Red Guards, vowing to carry out the Cultural Revolution. They attacked people suspected of being traitors or class enemies. In Shanghai alone, ‘Mao’s little generals’ carried out a quarter of a million house searches, confiscating everything that had any connection with the past, from antique bronzes to rare manuscripts. And more than 1,700 people lost their lives in Beijing in that year. During the ‘dark years’ from 1968 to 1971, the army sent millions of class enemies to the countryside to be re-educated by the peasants. Ironically, they included many of the students who had taken Mao at his word in 1966.


According to Dikötter, the Cultural Revolution was not only a struggle against people deemed to be revisionist or anti-revolutionary. ‘It was also the struggle of an old man who wanted to secure his place in history. In 1956 Sovjet leader Nikita Chroesjtsjov denounced his former master Joseph Stalin, accusing him of having presided over a reign of terror. Mao, who had modelled himself on Stalin, felt threatened by this de-Stalinisation. The Cultural Revolution was an attempt to consolidate his own legacy and make sure no 'Chinese Chroesjtsjov' would ever denounce him.’


By the end of 1971 the army fell victim to the Cultural Revolution and was purged in turn, as soldiers returned to their barracks. By now the country was exhausted by the revolutionary frenzy. Realising that the party as well as the army had been weakened by the Cultural Revolution, millions upon millions of villagers started quietly dividing up collective assets, trading their goods on the black market and opening underground factories.  They did so in order to overcome the food shortages caused by the planned economy. It was the final nail in the coffin of collectivisation, one of the main pillars of the Communist Party. Dikötter: ‘But there was a price to pay. By undermining the planned economy, villagers not only forced the regime to adapt, they also allowed it to last. Even though ordinary people were able to wrench basic economic freedoms from the state, the party continued to repress their political aspirations.’

Leiden Asia Year

In 2017 Leiden will be celebrating the Leiden Asia Year, a year in which Asia will be the key theme for both the University and the city. Leiden University is one of the world’s leading players in the field of research on Asia, and will be organising performances, exhibitions and numerous other activities to mark this special year. One very special event will be the official opening of the new Asian Library on the roof of the University Library, to be held in September 2017.

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