Political Movements in an Authoritarian Regime: The Chinese Cultural Revolution Revisited

BY Fei Yan

The Chinese Cultural Revolution presents students of Chinese politics and history with a remarkable intellectual puzzle. From 1966 to 1968, China experienced an incredibly chaotic period of mass conflict that ranks among the largest political upheavals of the twentieth century. A student rebellion that began in the summer of 1966 spread to industrial workers in the urban areas in late November of that year, and by early 1967 had reached deep into the rural interior. Within a very short period after early January 1967, civilian government in virtually every one of China’s thirty provincial-level units had been overthrown by mass opposition movements. Immediately afterwards, these insurgents broke into rival factions that clashed violently in schools, factories, and neighborhoods, leading to anarchy in large parts of China until the imposition of military rule in late 1968.

图片 1Andrew Walder’s Agents of Disorder addresses the multilayered puzzle posed by these momentous events. The author broaches a series of questions central to political sociology and historical sociology: Why did a highly centralized and disciplined party-state collapse so rapidly (Chapters 2, 3 and 4)? Why did opposing factional alliances adopt different political orientations toward the military units that intervened in local politics (Chapter 5)? Why did the violent warfare between factions escalate over time and become so widespread (Chapters 6 and 7)? And why did the highest level of violence come only after the suppression of rebel insurgencies (Chapter 8)?

In both focusing on and attempting to answer these questions, Walder questions the reigning interest group thesis that factional divisions can be wholly explained by either family background or affiliation with party organizations. Existing scholarship tends to identify the factional cleavages of this period as defined by a prototypical radical-conservative split, pitting opposing “interest groups” against one another—those with vested interests in preserving and protecting their privileges and positions lined up against those who sought to change the status quo. Analysts have highlighted various dimensions of radical-conservative factional difference, but all portray the political boundaries of the rebel groups as clear-cut and fixed.

Walder, however, offers a reframing of factions as the “emergent properties of political interactions” (p. 8). The ostensibly deep-rooted foundations for factional conflict were, in reality, quite dynamic and loose. During the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution, characterizing factional choices as “radical” and “conservative” is misleading as these political labels did not mean the same thing in 1966 and 1967. As the political scene changed over the course of the Cultural Revolution, political meanings also underwent change and came to reflect new political realities. The make-up and dynamics of factional alliances, therefore, were much less clear-cut than hindsight would suggest.

Moreover, Walder argues that a popular rebellion was not the leading cause for the extraordinarily rapid collapse of the civilian state during the power seizure in early 1967. Instead, a bureaucratic rebellion within an organized bureaucratic hierarchy spread with remarkable rapidity and led to the collapse of local government across the entire nation. In other words, the agents of disorder during the high tide of the Cultural Revolution were government cadres and officials who became active participants in a rebellion against state authority. These actors were self-mobilized into rebel groups that contended for power within their state agencies and in the factional struggles that followed.

Methodologically, the book draws on a national dataset that is extracted from a near-complete collection of 2,246 local county annals (xian zhi) and quantitative analysis at the provincial level. The Appendix section on the local annals data set is a must-read. Since the mid-1980s, more than two thousand county annals have been systemically published for provinces, cities, and counties and, according to Walder, the last one consulted for this study was published in 2015 (p. 205). Each of the local annals has a “chronology of major events” at the beginning of the volume, focusing primarily on events since 1949. These chronologies recount all events of note—political events, natural disasters, epidemics, health campaigns, industrial accidents, and so forth. Some local annals, in addition, include a separate section devoted to chronicling detailed narratives and statistical data on political events, such as the Cultural Revolution.

Obviously, local annals vary greatly in quality and detail in their account of the Cultural Revolution. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic itself, some local annals do not report or under-report certain events or casualties during this period. There are also many accounts that mention only “large numbers” of deaths or victims, but avoid giving specific figures. The problem of assessing the completeness of coverage and bias in reporting has generated serious thought but there is no standard solution to correct for potential biases and underreporting. To solve this problem, Walder employs the variable “length” as a control variable to estimate the impact of variables of interest. Specifically, in the county annals dataset, he uses a uniform source for virtually the entire universe of localities, and each locality has a score for completeness of coverage that provides an estimate of the probability that events are reported.

I would like to propose two new directions for this line of research in the future. Firstly, given the systematic analysis of one political episode of dramatic change on a national scale, combined with Beijing, Guangzhou, and Nanjing as several key exemplary sites demonstrating factional dynamics, there is good reason to suspect that similar processes unfolded in other localities. Ultimately, the grand narrative of the Cultural Revolution calls for a thoroughly contextualized re-examination of regions with variant degrees of local conflict. Secondly, some detailed micro-level analysis—such as, examining informal social relationships and social networks—might still be necessary, despite the author’s claims that “they (micro-level patterns) are not readily observable at the level of analysis pursued in this book” (p. 202). Essentially, this kind of work needs more first-hand interview data and examination of diaries, notes, and other personal files.

Overall, with its wealth of new data and evidence, Walder’s book helps readers to better understand the nature of mass factional politics during this still largely shrouded historical period, and makes a significant contribution to broader debates about contentious politics in the Chinese context.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Great Books for Summer Reading 2021

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