Dynamics of Factional Politics during the Chinese Cultural Revolution

The Chinese Cultural Revolution presents an internecine mass conflict that boasts the largest political upheavals of the 20th century. Insurgent students and workers formed various revolutionary rebel organizations in the summer of 1966, and took over government offices in virtually every provincial-level unit in January 1967. Immediately afterwards, these insurgents broke into rival factions that violently fought with one another in schools, factories, and neighborhoods, leading to anarchy in large parts of China until late 1968. Even in the periphery rural areas where the reach of the state was limited because of the existence of the “honeycomb polity,” political impulses did not weaken. Village residents also extensively involved themselves in the local mass conflicts and many people were killed or wrongly persecuted in factional warfare. Conservative estimates based on official sources suggest that up to 1.5 million people died in these factional conflicts and related repression, and some 36 million suffered arrest, imprisonment, lengthy interrogation, and often torture.

The enduring explanatory puzzle of this intense factional politics lies in the mechanisms and processes of insurgents’ political choice. This puzzle has also been conceived as the central question of almost every theory about political movements. Why did people join and affiliate with different insurgent groups? What decision did people make and what were their reasons? What were their underlying motives and how did these motives impel their commitment to an organization? What circumstances prompted each faction division? Were factions purely the result of opportunist choices made on the spur of the moment, or a reflection of structural solidarities and group interests embedded in society?

The most common answer, and one that is consistent with the conventional structural analyses of contentious politics, is that factional alliance was developed as a form of interest group politics. In this view, mass conflict has been identified as a prototypical radical-conservative split: a “radical” faction, principally composed of underprivileged social groups with “bad” political labels, sought to fundamentally challenge the legitimacy of existing order and to strip the privileged group of their advantages; a “conservative” faction, on the other hand, consisted mainly of members of socially-privileged groups with “good” or “red” political labels, had a vested interest in protecting the prevailing social order and conserving their status quo. While radicals were more violent and aggressive, the conservatives were more disciplined and associated with law and order. The two political alliances thus had divergent factional behaviors, different bases of support, attacked different levels of power structure, and employed different political strategies.

Obviously, previous students of the Cultural Revolution (e.g., Hong Yung Lee, Stanley Rosen) tend to trace mass conflicts to the institutional structure of the Chinese polity before the Cultural Revolution, attributing political actions of the activists to their identifiably different orientations toward predisposed sociopolitical status quo. The assigned political labels created two self-conscious status groups and drove people to acquire concrete interests in seeing these labels used in their favor and not to their harm. Once the social control was loosened, the negatively labeled group intrinsically had a strong interest to attack against particular authority and privileged sectors. They rebelled earlier and called for more fundamental change, while the positively labeled group rebelled later, demanded less fundamental change, and fought to preserve their established interests. In this regard, formal organizations and political labeling were viewed as pre-existing physical structures, rather than a dynamic element in the emergence of the movement. Identities were treated as static and pre-existing, and personal interests that motivate actors were already reified with an organized expression.

In contrast to this traditional interpretation, I propose a processual and dynamical approach to analyze processes of political division and factional contention within political movements. I argue that rebellious alignment was rooted in their political interactions in an evolving phase of the conflict, rather than rising from the tensions that existed between different socio-economic layers of society. During the times of radical instability, such as the case of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, political ambiguity and contingency were the defining characteristics. In such an unstable political environment, the basic elements of the movement changed many times: each phase of the rebel movement projected itself by means of different actors, agendas, targets, and so on. Consequently, individual rebels observed their embedded local political environment, interpreted it, and subsequently chose a course of action in a dynamic process. In this regard, mass actors from identical social strata in the previous hierarchical structure would make different political choices and tactically choose their factional camp.

I examine Guangzhou, a coastal city in the southern China and the provincial capital city of Guangdong, as my historical case study. I chose Guangzhou because it was the key case of provincial factionalism to be examined most extensively and influentially with Mao-era sources, and analysts implicitly identified Guangzhou rebel rivalry with their social structural explanations. In my research, however, I place political contingency and situational choices at the center of analysis. This raises questions about whether the two factions were in fact interest groups that exhibited different political orientations toward the status quo.

I published some preliminary findings of my Guangzhou study in Modern China. By tracing the sequences of historical episodes in early 1967, I argue that the famous Guangzhou factions, which is conventionally understood as rooted in the structural division between the “radicals” and “conservatives”—with the former challenging the political status quo and the latter protecting the existing structure of power—in fact were formed and progressively evolved through time. When the movement took unpredictable turns within a rapidly changing political context, each rebel group and constituent unit tactically shifted their rebellious alignment in efforts to end up on the winning side. Their choices created new group identities, new political motives, and new sets of allies. This was not a division between factions representing different fundamental orientations toward their prior status quo. This was a split that originated and intensified through a series of crucial political interactions among the local rebels, military forces and the central political figures.

Theoretically, processual dynamics approach predicts short-term effects of movement processes with dramatic social outcomes through dynamics. The prevailing social structural agenda emphasizes solidified and consistent identities during the entire course of action. Because identities are inherently stable and consistent, and factional coalitions are structurally given, long-term social processes with fixed and equalizing social outcomes would be expected. On the contrary, I argue that in a rapidly changing and highly staked political situation, pre-existing structural interests have less predictive power for people’s action. Individuals tend to cross the boundaries of their own social groups by tactically interpreting external political uncertainty in different paces of rhythms. During this process, new political identities emerge and clash with each other. These identities are certainly not expressions of prior social identities and irrespective of their structural contexts (e.g., elites versus masses, revolutionaries versus capitalists, Party member versus non-Party member). They are formed in the course of the conflict itself. They are endogenous in essence.

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Filed under Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research, Essay Dialogues

One response to “Dynamics of Factional Politics during the Chinese Cultural Revolution

  1. Pingback: Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research | Mobilizing Ideas

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