Andrew G. Walder


On his book Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement

Cover Interview of April 15, 2010

In a nutshell

It seems that almost everyone has heard of Chairman Mao and China’s Cultural Revolution and the “red guards” of the late 1960s.  The “red guards” were students who rampaged through schools and government offices, terrorizing officials and intellectuals, humiliating them, beating them, and even killing them.  These events are seen in China as a national catastrophe, so traumatic that even today publication on the period is almost completely forbidden in China.

Remarkably, there is no book in any language that describes in detail the activities of these students in the Chinese capital.  But the Beijing red guards set the trend for the movement nationwide, and many of them became national celebrities.  By trying to explain how and why students became involved in all of this, and chronicling what they did, my book is intended to fill a huge gap.

The greatest puzzle about the red guards is that they fought one another almost as violently as they persecuted intellectuals and government officials.  The question is, why?

For more than two decades academics have claimed that students divided into two different groups depending on how much they benefited from the status quo.  “Conservative” red guards benefited from the system, were close to the leaders, and defended them.  They attacked the weak and defenseless—intellectuals, old members of “capitalist” classes.  “Radical” students had build-up resentments against the status quo and wanted to change things.  They attacked the powerful—communist officials, party members.  In other words, according to this view, the students fought one another because some sought to change an oppressive system, while others tried to defend it.

In Fractured Rebellion I explain that this view turns out to be wrong.

I am, in fact, the first person to look closely at the many materials on the red guards that have become available in the past ten years or so.  I have looked closely at the backgrounds of student leaders and read their extensive writings at the time of these events.  Somewhat as a surprise to me, and I suspect to many others who thought they understood these events, it is now clear that students on both sides of the struggle were from the same background.  The leaders on both sides were close to their school’s party organizations, came from politically reliable families and already held student leadership posts in their schools.

So why did they join groups that fought with one another for almost two years?  The best short answer is that student leaders were searching for clues about how to respond in a situation where a very coercive political system was breaking down.

But this is a fairly complex story.  Students were forced to make choices in confusing and rapidly changing circumstances.  They made different choices, and took different stands, and this ended up dividing classmates and friends, even family members, against one another.  The Chinese system at the time also punished people severely for making political errors; if you ended up a loser, your future would be ruined, at best, and you might be imprisoned or sent to a labor camp, at worst.  Once you took a stand and confronted others, you paid a very heavy price if you lost.  So student red guards, in a sense, were trapped into a struggle in which the prospect of losing was unthinkable.

They fought on against one another, with increasing violence, for almost two years.  In the end Mao, disgusted with his darling student radicals, sent in the army to suppress them, and sent almost all of them to rural farms for a decade.  Fractured Rebellion tells the whole two-year story.