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The end of innocence

January 25, 2001

Heterodox thought on human rights & political reform
during the Cultural Revolution


Rather than being entirely a period of intellectual conformity and obedience, recent research suggests that the years 1966-76 witnessed the emergence of young thinkers whose experiences during the Cultural Revolution predisposed them to criticize the regime. Song Yongyi argues that although the consequences of the Cultural Revolution were undoubtedly catastrophic, with millions being persecuted, the resulting disillusionment among Chinese people toward their government and its ideology sparked their interest in the pursuit of political reform, paving the way for the democratic movement of the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.








When Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, he was convinced that he had become a figurehead leader and had lost much of his power within the Party, whereas his rivals - Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and their followers - occupied most of the important political positions. No sooner had the Cultural Revolution broken out in the summer of 1966 than Liu and Deng unleashed droves of Work Groups to various trouble spots to keep the movement under control. Realizing that control of the entire Party establishment and government apparatus was beyond his reach, Mao felt that the only force he could harness was the mass movement.

To mobilize a nationwide mass movement against Liu, Deng and their followers within the Party, Mao had to conceal his intentions temporarily. To this end, he formulated utopian political reforms which he knew would have mass appeal. In the “Sixteen Points,” the guiding document of the Cultural Revolution, Mao officially and publicly promised “Great Democracy” and a “general election” to the Chinese people. He based these promises on democratic elements within Marxism, such as the people’s right to dismiss and replace government officials, as had been the case in the Paris Commune in 1871. Furthermore, Mao made himself a champion for human rights and democracy by calling for a national rehabilitation campaign entitled, “The Movement against the Bourgeois Reactionary Line,” which was aimed at rescuing and vindicating those persecuted by his political opponents. He also encouraged Chinese students to study Marxism to develop independent thinking and to rebel against the Party establishment led by Liu-Deng’s “Bourgeois Headquarters.”

The championing of democracy and human rights by such a crafty politician as Mao was only ever part of his strategy to regain power. However, it was not perceived as such by naive students, who seized the opportunity to discuss political reforms and explore possible solutions for society’s ills.







One major school of heterodox thought developed in this atmosphere. Qiao Jianwu and Li Wenbo, two students from Beijing, were responsible for a number of big-character posters, including, “Three Big Rebellions: Reform the Old World and Build a New World with Mao Zedong Thought,” which was put up on August 30, 1966. Their writing focused on how to reform China’s socio-political system, denouncing pre-Cultural Revolution China as “a capitalist state without a capitalist class” and calling on people to smash the old state bureaucracy. They also emphasized the introduction of a “general election of the Paris Commune type” for government officials. In support of this big-character poster, a group of enthusiastic students at Beijing Normal University formed an editorial board and started a journal entitled The New Trend of Thought in the winter of 1966-1967, by which name their group became known.

Under the direct influence of Li Wenbo and Qiao Jianwu, two Beijing high school students, Yilin and Dixi, wrote “An Open Letter to Comrade Lin Biao” on November 15, 1966. Besides using Marxism to criticize Lin Biao for his nationwide efforts to promote the personality cult of Mao, they also pointed out that Lin, “did not perceive the problems that have become so prominent since the launching of the Cultural Revolution, such as the need to strengthen the dictatorship of the proletariat and improve the socialist system.”

The authorities soon persecuted all these student authors. However, their ideas about a new government structure modeled on the Paris Commune were accepted by millions of the rebels of that time. Indeed, the rebels who successfully seized power in Shanghai during the 1967 “January Storm” went so far as to actually name the new municipal government there the “Shanghai People’s Commune.”

As soon as he regained power, Mao reneged on his earlier promises for democracy and political reforms, much to the surprise of many of his most devoted adherents. He established a new government structure centered on the “Revolutionary Committee” which was based on the “three-in-one combination” model comprised of leadership by military representatives, revolutionary cadres and rebels. But Mao’s about-face did not prevent the younger generation from pursuing their own ideas. Indeed, the chaotic period of 1967-1968 saw considerable theoretical development and the organizational growth of the New Trend of Thought (NTT) movement. Some 20 to 30 independent study groups sprang up in Beijing and other parts of China, including the Rebelling Combat Regiment of Beijing Normal University, Shengwulian in Hunan Province, and Bei-jue-yang in Hubei Province.

Inevitably, new elements were added to the NTT theories during this stage. An influential essay, “On New Trend of Thought: the Declaration of the April 3rd Faction” of June 1967, claimed that all Party officials had become members of a privileged class in pre-Cultural Revolution China. Therefore, the Cultural Revolution would serve as a “special process for the redistribution of property.” In “Whither China?” written a year later, Yang Xiguang, of the Shengwulian, advocated the complete eradication of a new “red capitalist” class formed by the senior CCP officials, the smashing of the old state machine and the establishment of a Paris Commune-like people’s commune which would be “self-governed by the people.” In many of his writings, Yang also expressed his desire to organize all the independent study groups of the NTT to form a new and true Marxist-Maoist Party and rebuild the mass militia into a new army to take back power through civil wars in China. This kind of revolutionary action plan was similar to one Mao had formulated 50 years earlier on how to build a Red China.

Such theorizing begs the question: Since the young theorists of the NTT all seemed to have followed Marxism to the letter in their pursuit of a utopian socio-political system, why were they denounced as “extreme counterrevolutionaries,” and persecuted by Mao and his cronies? The reasons are simple.

Firstly, Mao’s theory and practice of the Cultural Revolution were against Marxism in its original form. When these young theorists studied and tried to adhere to what they perceived as true Marxism, they discovered that government policies and actions had actually deviated from or even betrayed true Marxism. The more these daring young thinkers studied Marxism, the more they ended up questioning and opposing the Cultural Revolution and the theories behind it.

Secondly, these young thinkers were too naive and inexperienced to ascertain what lay behind the rhetoric of the revolutionary leaders. Even after he had publicly abandoned his utopian ideas, young NTT theorists still believed that “Chairman Mao’s repeated concessions to the bourgeoisie are the powerful manifestations of…efforts” toward democracy.

As Wang Shaoguang has noted in a recent paper, ordinary rebels “wanted to be in power not because they needed power to realize some noble revolutionary goals, but because they were attracted by the prospect of becoming new power holders.” However, the NTT theorists “were trying not only to reshuffle the bureaucracy, but also to create a new society.” Therefore they “represented the most critical minds in the contemporary Chinese society in that they were not willing to resign themselves to being ‘passive tools of the center’.”





According to Chinese communist ideology, workers, peasants and soldiers should have formed the fundamental basis of a Red China. However, senior Party officials and their children had already become members of a separate privileged class. The Cultural Revolution was such an unprecedented “tragicomedy” in Chinese history because it succeeded in turning young students with “born-red” family backgrounds into Mao’s political opponents. These students formed the United Action Committee (UAC) and were also referred to as the “Old Red Guards” because they were the original Red Guards, responsible for the massacres during “Red August” and the “Destroying the Four Olds” campaign (old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits). As a reaction against Mao’s incessant purges, which affected 95 percent of high-ranking officials, the Old Red Guards quickly turned conservative and, ironically, became the targets of Mao’s revolution.

Unlike the NTT theorists who devoted their attention to studying and addressing the problems of the whole socio-political system, the UAC was focused more on the personal mistakes of the CCP leaders and internal political strife. The UAC called on people to “destroy the ‘Left’ opportunism of the Party Central Committee, its two chairmen and some committee members.” In other words, it was the UAC members who were the first to attack directly Mao, Lin Biao and the Central Cultural Revolution Group. The revelations by UAC members of the CCP internal power struggles played a significant role in educating the general public, who had cherished illusions about Mao and the CCP because of the effectiveness of Party propaganda.

The ultimate goal of the UAC was to return to the situation as it was before the Cultural Revolution. Interestingly, UAC members also advocated “democracy” and abolishing the autocratic system. However, the democratic system they pursued was “the principle of democratic centralism within the Party.” It is safe to say that UAC members wanted to replace Mao’s personal autocracy in the Cultural Revolution with the collective autocracy of the Party, which permeated pre-Cultural Revolution China. Nothing that the UAC members advocated was related to people’s democracy.







In January 1967, the Chinese government officially declared the UAC a “reactionary organization” and most of its key members were sent to jail. However, political persecution often helped its young victims mature ahead of their time. After their release, some former members of the UAC or “Old Red Guards” organized independent study groups, such as the Communist Group for the Capital Red Guard, to reflect on the Cultural Revolution and to explore new approaches to political reform. In 1968 some of them started an underground journal also named The New Trend of Thought, sharing the same title as the one by their forerunners in 1966. One of these groups, the “Single Sparks Combat Team,” while it did not make any theoretical breakthrough, was responsible for widening the field of discussion through asking questions such as: “What on earth is Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line? Why is it that the present line is so unpopular with the masses?” It is worth noting that the “Old Guards” tore off the “democratic” masks of Mao and the Central Cultural Revolution Group, although in most of their writings they only tried to justify or cover up their own mistakes.

In the tumultuous spring and summer of 1967, the mass movement broke into two major factions - radical and moderate - followed by armed struggles across China. This chaotic situation ignited public demands for the return of order. One moderate rebel theorist from Qinghua University, Zhou Quanyin, argued against the ultra-left NTT theories in “The 414 Trend of Thought Is Bound to Prevail” of August 1967. He denied that there had been any change in class relations and rejected the notion that a privileged class had been formed during the 17 years preceding the Cultural Revolution. Therefore, he vehemently opposed any reform of the socio-political system and any redistribution of power and property, arguing that the revolution should “rest, consolidate and compromise.”

However, Zhou and other old Party sympathizers never explained what was, in fact, the correct direction for their country. From their praise of pre-Cultural Revolution China and their criticism of NTT theories, it would appear that they were only interested in returning to the supposed “golden age” which China enjoyed before 1966.








Of all the essays reflecting the heterodox thought in circulation during the Cultural Revolutionary years, Yu Luoke’s monumental “On Family Background” of January 18, 1967, was the one that enjoyed the widest circulation and the most enduring influence. Yu was a young apprentice at the People’s Machine Factory of Beijing when the Cultural Revolution erupted. Because of his family background (his father was an engineer and had been branded as a “Rightist” in 1957), Yu had been denied college education despite his academic excellence.

During the “Red August” of 1966, Yu witnessed members of the Red Guards torturing and murdering innocent people with “bad” family backgrounds and using as their justification the now infamous blood-relation theory, which essentially asserted that people’s political standpoint was determined in part by their genetic inheritance. Yet despite its absurdity, no one refuted the blood-relation theory. Based on the extensive knowledge of Western philosophy that he had accumulated over the years, Yu decided to write “On Family Background” to refute the theory. Following its publication on January 18, 1967, “On Family Background” shook the whole of Chinese society, touching the hearts and souls of millions across the country. About 60,000 copies were sold within a week in Beijing and more than a million were reprinted nationwide.

Unlike the other nonconformist theorists of the era, Yu placed greater emphasis on being an independent thinker. He remained aloof from factional political fighting within the CCP in order to devote his full attention to the problems confronting ordinary people. The central theme of his essay was human rights, especially equal political and educational rights for millions of young people marginalized because of their family backgrounds. He raised the question, “Who are the victims of this unfair system? If things continue on like this, what would be the difference between those with ‘bad’ family backgrounds, and those living in the caste systems such as the blacks in America, Sudras in India and the untouchables in Japan?” In addition to refuting the blood-relation theory, Yu also concluded that a new privileged class had formed in Chinese society which used the blood-relation theory to protect its vested interests. He had already drawn this important conclusion before any NTT theorists explored the subject.

However, Yu went further in his discussion of equality, arguing that, “every youth is equal” and “we do not recognize any right that is not achieved through one’s personal efforts.” Yu also condemned the government-sanctioned human rights abuses when he noted, “All sorts of violations of human rights have occurred, such as ‘taking out the roots,’ the humiliating ‘debates,’ body searches, degradation, detention and beating. Such violations became the means to disrupt the lives of those youths and deprived them of their political rights, but were all done in the name of ‘Super Mao Zedong Thought’.” Yu appealed to the people: “All oppressed revolutionary youth, rise up and fight brave battles!” It is especially important that Yu used two critical terms, equality and human rights, which formed the basis of his essay, even though such terms were strictly prohibited by Mao and the CCP. Therefore, “On Family Background” was without doubt the first declaration on human rights written during the Cultural Revolution.

The CCP has never been hospitable to dissident voices. Yu was arrested on January 5, 1968, and his independent study group was denounced as a “Counterrevolutionary Clique.” At the extraordinarily young age of 27, Yu was executed on March 5, 1970, for what he believed in.







Starting in 1968, Mao sent millions of Red Guards and educated youth who had unwittingly helped him defend his position to the mountains and countryside, as they had outlived their usefulness. The “Great Democracy” proved to be a sham as the Chinese government went about tightening control. However, the exile and imprisonment of thousands of young and independent-minded students did not halt the process of their political awakening. According to some reports, at the time there was a sizable underground reading movement in existence, with hundreds of political and literary study groups across China. The essays, diaries, fiction and poems from this movement were very sophisticated and sometimes “heretical” in nature, but they did not receive wide circulation because the nationwide mass movement had subsided from the peak it had reached in 1968.

A product of this underground movement was Li Yizhe’s 1974 big-character poster, “On Socialist Democracy and the Legal System,” which marked a significant theoretical breakthrough and constituted an important milestone in the development of heterodox thought. Li Yizhe was a pseudonym derived from three major members of the group: Li Zhengtian, Chen Yiyang and Wang Xizhe. Hailing from Guangdong Province, the big-character poster was produced in November 1974 and reprinted throughout China.

Members of the Li Yizhe group kept alight the torch of the heterodox thought movement and shared many of the views of their predecessors. Like Yu Luoke and Yang Xiguang, they believed that “there has emerged in China a privileged stratum which is similar to the one in the Soviet Union.” While others mainly focused on the problems with senior government officials in pre-Cultural Revolution China, the Li Yizhe group lamented the rise of a “newborn bourgeoisie” which “suppressed masses who rose up to oppose their special privileges.” Like Yilin and Dixi’s “Open Letter,” the Li Yizhe big-character poster fiercely attacked Lin Biao’s promotion of the personality cult of Mao and concluded, “The socialist system has to be improved; it is not perfect.” Li Yizhe fought for every victim of the system, calling upon the masses to “Demand democracy, demand socialist legality, and revolutionary and personal rights that protect the broad masses.” Following in the footsteps of the earliest heterodox thinkers, Li Yizhe’s writing also emphasized “guaranteeing people’s rights to run their own country and society,” and explored ways to make government officials accountable to the people.

On the other hand, the views put forward by the Li Yizhe group were not quite the same as those of its spiritual forerunners. Despite their shared concern about China’s socio-political system, the solutions they proposed were different. The Li Yizhe group was the first to propose the building of a new socialist legal system as a safeguard for the people. Their original aim was to persuade the Fourth People’s Congress, which was then devising the new Constitution, to re-establish the rule of law under a revived judicial system which was separated from politics and could protect the rights of ordinary citizens. The poster was also the first to advocate putting China’s future political reform on the twin tracks of “democracy” and “rule of law.” These two concepts were well received and enthusiastically promoted by the pro-reform forces within the Party during the reform years of the 1980s.







Any discerning reader will have noticed that the theories of these path-breaking young thinkers are limited in scope compared with the human rights we are fighting for today. Most of them used the original or the humanistic aspect of Marxism to oppose Maoism. Some of them merely advocated smashing the old state machine, but never gave any concrete suggestions as to how the new society should be built. There was no one, not even Li Yizhe, who could completely dismiss socialism and socialist utopian ideas. However, in view of their years of subjection to ideological indoctrination and their isolation from the outside world, the theories they did develop were quite remarkable. Their writings, no matter how embryonic and unsophisticated, reflected the spiritual journey of a generation and have, in their own unique way, paved the way for the further development of China’s reform and democratic movements in the 1980 and 1990s, and beyond.






  • Anita Chan, Stanley Rosen and Jonathan Unger, ed.s, On Socialist Democracy and the Chinese Legal System: the Li Yizhe Debates, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1985
  • Song Yongyi and Sun Dajin, Wen hua da ge ming he ta de yi duan si chao (The Cultural Revolution and its Heterodox Thought), Hong Kong: Tian yuan shu wu, 1997
  • Song Yongyi, “An Underground Reading Campaign during the Cultural Revolution,” Studies on Chinese Communism 31:7 (1997)
  • Michael Schoenhals, ed., China’s Cultural Revolution, 1966-69: Not a Dinner Party. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1996
  • Wang Shaoguang, “’New Trend of Thought’ on the Cultural Revolution,” Journal of Contemporary China, July 1999


Song Yongyi, a senior librarian and Cultural Revolution researcher at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, was detained in China from August 1999 to January 2000 for collecting materials about the Cultural Revolution. (See China Rights Forum Summer/ Fall 2000 for an interview with him about this experience.)


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