I’ll say that I‘ve talked with people in the older generation who think the ill effects of the Cultural Revolution were overstated. I’ve heard it said that the Cultural Revolution emboldened people’s irreverence of authority, a legacy which last till this day. People in China generally talk much more openly and critically than in America. While negative comments about high up people in the government are likely taken down, nobody really cares about what you say about a billionaire or academician if he’s genuinely unpopular. Loss of faith in the government actually began in the 80s after Deng created a major ideological turnaround, denouncing much of the past at least implicitly.
There is quite some difference between the cohort that finished college before the Cultural Revolution (born 1944 or before) and the cohort that could only enter college in 1978 (though starting in early 70s, universities did admit students again, who were often politically selected). Of course, I’ve heard many people of the latter cohort complain about having to work odd jobs or in rural areas before entering college at age 22-30. However, there was at least one person who told me that her parents didn’t mind or complain about that at all. I’ve also talked much with a guy born in early 60s whose parents were intellectuals who told me that as a kid, because there was much less academic pressure in school, he had more free time to read books. Another guy told me that by 1966 there was already a saturation of college educated people implying that even if you did graduate from college, you’d likely not get a job that actually required a college degree.
All of which were directed by the top and senseless except for one person at the top wanted to continue his grip on power.
Well, I believe Mao wanted to remove Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Almost certainly, he could have done so simply with a meeting. He instead encouraged the nation through publications such as a “Bombard the Headquarters” on the mainstream newspaper to openly criticize hidden bourgeoisie in the government, without really directly referring to Liu or Deng. A major political power struggle lasting a year or two ensued.
It is well known that Liu and Deng initially tried to obstruct the movement. When they did not succeed, they created their own Red Guard units. In the process, people attacked intellectuals and former rich as well. Eventually Liu and Deng lost the battle, and a new faction took political power. In 1968, Mao pretty much ordered the out of control Red Guards to be sent to the rural areas. The movement also initially began in the universities, which attacks against university administrators too.
Certainly, some groups used the movement to get rid of people they didn’t like. I remember Yukong Zhao writing that his family was in 1968 forced by the Maoist Left in Kunming to a remote rural village. There also were attacks against ethnic Mongols in Inner Mongolia by the Han.
As a kid, I sort of believed the story of Mao being a mad megalomanic who wanted to return to power. But now, I believe he was truly in power all along, even after the Great Leap Forward, though he was not directly managing. It was actually Liu and Deng who were promoted right before the Great Leap Forward, which is more evidence in favor of their responsibility for its failures. I believe that Mao wanted to punish the mis-performing cadres, who had seized grain and inflated numbers, through mass criticism, as that would arouse the active consciousness of the people as well. If you examine more closely, it was actually Deng who was more of a careerist power-monger, who engaged in more shady behavior to eliminate his rivals. When he returned to the Politburo Standing Committee in 1973, he was not all that powerful, and the people associated with the Gang of Four (Wang Hongwen, Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and also Kang Sheng) absolutely hated his guts, and in 1976 April, he was dismissed from all his posts. Moderates like Hua Guofeng and Wang Dongxing who had not been politically extremely powerful before were placed into top positions. They successfully removed the Gang of Four soon after Mao’s death. Then, Deng in 1977 convinced the people in power to let him re-enter, and he and his faction managed to eventually oust the moderate faction of Hua Guofeng while rehabilitating cadres disgraced during the Cultural Revolution like Liu Shaoqi and provincial leaders during Great Leap Forward and continuing the purge against Gang of Four associates, which included putting Mao’s nephew in jail and denouncing posthumously Kang Sheng. In 1981, Deng had officially replaced Hua in the top spot, and he and his faction were able to officially denounce the Cultural Revolution.
I shall mention that if not for the Lin Incident in 1971, Deng would have had no chance. Lin’s part of the army was much more powerful than that of Deng. Similarly, had Hua Guofeng, Wang Dongxing, and Ye Jianying (one of the 10 marshals who also returned to power after Lin Incident) not removed Gang of Four, Deng would certainly not have been let in again. I am inclined to believe that had Deng been more powerful, he would’ve denounced Mao as well. I believe people like Ye Jianying and Wang Zhen much regretted supporting his return to power by 1989 after seeing the consequences, though by then there was not much that they could do about it.
I’ve written about it more in detail here.
I believe in uniformity of government; when there is mutual sabotage that comes with strong factionalism, it is difficult to get much done. I believe that if there are factions, the one which wins the political power struggle by virtue of it is by default the most democratic and fit to lead. CPC began much as a part of KMT but in 1927 the tension between the CPC associated part of the KMT and the KMT right reached the point of violent conflict that resulted in a long civil war that the CPC eventually won. As a corollary I believe that multiethnic societies are bound to fail due to the ethnic groups as strong factions with competing interests occupying the same territory and political organizations. I’m in general not sympathetic towards dissidents who stay in the country or organization where they are out of the mainstream. If they can not win from within, they should strive to join a competing organization or country that supports them. The CPC is fine with dissidents taking refuge in America and badmouthing CPC there, though the CPC obviously reserves the right to denounce them and block their venues of publication in its own territory.