Radicalism and Factionalism of the Red Guards

By Yang Zhang

red guard

Yang, Guobin. 2016. The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China. New York: Columbia University Press.


At the fiftieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, Yang Guobin’s just-released book, The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China, offers a vivid account of the genesis of the political activism of the Red Guards and their life courses from that time to the present day. A transformative event, the Red Guard Movement contains at least three important components: radicalism and internal factionalism as a political movement; the Red Guard generation’s continuous political activism, albeit in different forms; the resurgence of political populism and leftism over the last decade as this generation rose to power in China. Drawing upon twenty-year research, Yang touches upon all of these vital issues. In doing so, he also offers theoretical contributions to the study of political movements, collective violence, and political culture.

This rich text tackles a number of chronologically organized topics—rebellions, reflections, revenge, reversal, remembrance, and return—that characterize the ideal-typical Red Guard radicalism and its evolution. It starts from a case study of rebellions in the city of Chongqing, with a focus on intra-rebel factional conflicts (Chapter 1). In addition to the practical actions, it also examines a group of Red Guards’ theoretical reflections on revolutions (Chapter 3). The Cultural Revolution was, ironically, revenged by its most devoted activists: the same radicalism sparked their skepticism and criticism throughout underground cultural movements in the 1970s and eventually turned them against the Cultural Revolution even before its official end (Chapter 5). Then, in the late 1970s, China witnessed a great reversal of the revolution, not merely in the form of the official reform policy, but as was demonstrated by a series of grassroots movements such as the preliminary pre-democracy unrest in 1980—often organized by former Red Guards—that marked a farewell to idolatry and a precursor to the new enlightenment movement and political activism during the entire decade of the 1980s (Chapter 6). Another central theme of the Reform era was remembrance: the memory of the Cultural Revolution was kept in a way as factionalized as the movement’s first appearance in the 1960s, suggesting this event’s durable legacy (Chapter 7). Finally, over the last decade, China has witnessed the return to political radicalism and populism in one way or another, which may profoundly affect China’s political and social changes in the near future (Chapter 7 and Conclusion).

In particular, social movement scholars might have special interest in Red Guard factionalism, as analyzed in a case study in Chapter 1. This chapter engages in a classical, and recently resurging, debate about the nature of the origins and development of movement factionalism. In Chongqing, between 1966 and 1968 factional divisions led to a series of violent conflicts in which about 1200 people died. The most extraordinary nature of this event is this: the two rival factions initially belonged to the same faction that was organized to fight against the so-called conservative faction, which had been sponsored by local party authorities. However, after defeating their common enemy, the two factions split and engaged in fierce conflicts with each other over the course of one year. How does one explain the factional realignment and escalating violence?

Given that this was a pervasive phenomenon during the Cultural Revolution, this question has been addressed in previous works. Early scholars held an interest-based approach—in particular, class interest served the very foundation of factional divisions. However, recent works have criticized this classical approach. Most notably, in line with Tilly’s relational approach, Andrew Walder’s widely acclaimed work—Fractured Rebellions: The Beijing Red Guard Movement—provides a contextual and processual account: due to the ambiguity and rapid shift of the political context, individuals with even similar structural positions often made divergent choices that eventually led to rapidly shifting factional alignment and realignment over a short period. To some extent, this relational and contextual account is echoed in Yang’s elaboration of the processes of the movement in Chongqing: from local authority-led “conservative” mobilization, to the competitive mobilization of more radical “rebel” organizations, to split of the rebels, to the violent conflicts between the two rebel factions, and finally to their demobilization.

While this relational approach has well explained the dynamic and contingent nature of factional realignment, it has not told us why the violence was so pervasive among Red Guard factions. It is this gap to which Yang makes distinctive contributions by raising “a performance theory” that seeks to integrate relations and ideas into a coherent model. For Yang, the key mechanism leading to the escalating violence is what he calls “revolutionary competition”: Red Guards employed violence as an essential method of proving their revolutionary credentials, a performance to demonstrate their loyalty, courage, and passion in front of the supra-authority in Beijing (especially Chairman Mao), and a ritual to sacralize their actions in honor of the martyrdom in the sacred history of worldwide proletarian revolutions. After all, “to the red guard generation, no revolution would be a true revolution without violence.” In a nutshell, revolutionary competition as performance serves as the underlying mechanism to the radicalization of factionalism and escalation of violence during the Red Guard Movement and beyond.

The Cultural Revolution as a whole and the Red Guard Movement as its vibrant component is the most dramatic political movement in twentieth-century China. They have been inspiring a number of fine studies on social movements and collective violence. Yang’s beautifully written book makes major contributions to this scholarly tradition. It is also timely for understanding the present situation and future scenarios of Chinese politics.

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Filed under Great Books for Summer Reading 2016, Uncategorized

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