The consensus minimum death toll figure for that period in Chinese history is 400,000. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday place the number at up to three million in Mao: The Unknown Story. But even without a single death, the Cultural Revolution would have been horrific. It was an attempt—in some ways entirely successful and in other ways not—to destroy the fabric of Chinese civilization.
The opening event was the Politburo’s issuance of the so-called “May 16th Notification.” That fevered document laid out Mao’s justification for the attack:
Chairman Mao often says that there is no construction without destruction. Destruction means criticism and repudiation; it means revolution. It involves reasoning things out, which is construction. Put destruction first, and in the process you have construction.
The May 16th Notification is full of class warfare and conspiracy-minded paranoia:
Those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various spheres of culture are a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists. Once conditions are ripe, they will seize political power and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Some of them we have already seen through; others we have not. Some are still trusted by us and are being trained as our successors, persons like Khrushchev for example, who are still nestling beside us.
In the coming months, things spun out of control. Red Guard students (often financed by the Party) were instructed to attack the “Four Olds”—old customs, cultures, habits and ideas. And attack they did. Entire libraries, temples, monasteries and mosques were destroyed. Clergy were arrested and sent off to camps. The national police chief declared that it was “no big deal” if Red Guards were beating “bad people” to death. Countless enemies of the people were denounced, humiliated, and made to confess their sins. Many were tortured. Many were sent off to the countryside for re-education, where they often died, since the villages did not have enough to feed them. China was brought to its knees by gangs of thuggish teenagers, drunk with power.
Can it happen here? Probably not—at least not the way it happened in China. America’s equivalent of the Chinese “counter-revolutionaries” have more resources to fall back on and hence can afford to push back. (They are also increasingly armed. Even I, the original Miss Fumblefingers, have a mean-looking (though antique) firearm in my bedroom. Just thought you’d want to know.)
Still, when faint echoes of the Cultural Revolution occur here—as they frequently do these days—I get butterflies in my stomach. Our civilization, like every civilization, is in many ways more fragile than most people understand.