On August 8, 1966, the Central Committee of the CPC passed its "Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" (also known as "the 16 Points"). This decision defined the GPCR as "a great revolution that touches people to their very souls and constitutes a new stage in the development of the socialist revolution in our country, a deeper and more extensive stage".
The freedoms granted in the 16 Points were later written into the PRC constitution as "the four great rights (四大自由)" of "great democracy (大民主)": the right to speak out freely, to air one's views fully, to write big-character posters, and to hold great debates (大鸣、大放、大字报、大辩论 - the first two are basically synonyms). (In other contexts the second was sometimes replaced by 大串联 - the right to "link up," meaning for students to cut class and travel across the country to meet other young activists and propagate Mao Zedong Thought.).
For two years, until July 1968 (and in some places for much longer), student activists such as the Red Guards expanded their areas of authority, and accelerated their efforts at socialist reconstruction. They assembled in large groups, held "great debates," and wrote educational plays. They held public meetings to criticize and solicit self-criticisms from suspected "counter-revolutionaries."
Although the 16 Points and other pronouncements of the central Maoist leaders forbade "physical struggle (武斗)" in favor of "verbal struggle" (文斗), these struggle sessions often led to physical violence. Initially verbal struggles among activist groups became even more violent, especially when activists began to seize weapons from the Army in 1967. The central Maoist leaders limited their intervention in activist violence to verbal criticism, sometimes even appearing to encourage "physical struggle," and only after the PLA began to intervene in 1969 did authorities begin to suppress the mass movement.
On August 22, 1966, Mao issued a public notice, which stopped "all police intervention in Red Guard tactics and actions." Those in the police force who dared to defy this notice were labeled "counter-revolutionaries."
Public security in China deteriorated rapidly as a result of central officials lifting restraints on violent behavior. Said Xie Fuzhi, national police chief:
“ I've just come back from a meeting at the center and want to say a few words: We must protect and support the Red Guards . . . Recently the number of people killed has gone up, so let us try to talk the Red Guards out of it and persuade them to act according to the Sixteen points. First support, then persuasion. The Red Guards are obedient , so talk to them and try to make friends with them. Don't give them orders. Don't say it is wrong of them to beat up bad persons: if in anger they beat someone to death, then so be it. If we say it's wrong, then we'll be supporting the bad persons. After all bad persons are bad, so if they are beaten to death it's no big deal. ”
The police relayed Xie's remarks to the Red Guards and they acted accordingly. In the course of about two weeks, the violence left some one hundred teachers, school officials, and educated cadres dead in Beijing's western district alone. The number injured was "too large to be calculated."
The most gruesome aspects of the campaign ended up being the numerous incidents of torture and killing, and the suicides that were the final option of many who suffered beatings and humiliation. In August and September 1966, there were 1,772 people murdered in Beijing alone. In Shanghai there were 704 suicides and 534 deaths related to the Cultural Revolution in September. In Wuhan there were 62 suicides and 32 murders during September.
On January 3, 1967, Lin Biao and Jiang Qing employed local media and cadres to generate the so-called "January Storm", in which many prominent Shanghai municipal government leaders were heavily criticized and purged. This paved the way for Wang Hongwen to take charge of the city as leader of its Municipal Revolutionary Committee(革命委员会). The Municipal government was thus abolished.
On 24 January 1967, Mao Zedong renamed the Shanghai People's Commune as the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee. These Revolutionary Committees , which were supposedly based on a "three-way alliance of Red Guards, Party cadres and army men", were to replace the original political structures that had existed until then in China.
One of their main functions, however, was to bring the factional struggle to an end that crippled the nation. The term "revolutionary committee" itself originated in the Soviet Union, where it refered to a power structure which combined the military and the state.
The formation of the revolutionary committees was the result of the power seizures by rebel and Red Guard factions that had led to nation-wide administrative paralysis. The introduction of the committees was a very slow process. Only by 5 September 1968, almost a year and a half after their inception, the committees had been set up in all provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, "with the exception of Taiwan".
Although Mao himself had allowed that the committees were merely provisional organs of power, they remained in existence until 1979, when they were abolished and replaced by people's governments at all levels.
The revolutionary committees were not merely organizational tools that served political purposes. All work units, from factories to schools, from workshops to rural communes, formed their own revolutionary committees to take care of day-to-day administration.
On January 8, 1967,Mao praised these actions through the party-run People's Daily, urging all local government leaders to rise in self-criticism, or the criticism and purging of others suspected of "counterrevolutionary activity". This led to massive power struggles which took the form of purge after purge among local governments, many of which stopped functioning altogether. Involvement in some sort of "revolutionary" activity was the only way to avoid being purged, but it was no guarantee.
In February 1967, Jiang Qing and Lin Biao, with support from Mao, insisted that the "class struggles" be extended to the military.
On July 22, 1967, Jiang Qing directed the Red Guards to replace the People's Liberation Army if necessary, and thereby to render the existing forces powerless. After the initial praise by Jiang Qing, the Red Guards began to steal and loot from barracks and other army buildings. This activity, which could not be stopped by army generals, continued until the autumn of 1968.
On July 27, 1968, the Red Guards' power over the army was officially ended and the central government sent in units to protect many areas that remained targets for the Red Guards.
A year later, the Red Guard factions were dismantled entirely; Mao feared that the chaos they caused—and could still cause—might harm the very foundation of the Communist Party of China.
The violence and chaos during cultural revolution drove neighbor against neighbor, destroyed the economy, drove the country to the brink of famine and forced a generation of intellectual to work in the countryside. Nearly every Chinese city dweller today who was alive then knows of a friend or relative that have was beaten, harassed or driven to suicide during the Cultural Revolution.
No one knows exactly how many died, but estimates range from hundreds of thousands to 20 million. Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party chief, was quoting as saying that 1 million people died, but his figure apparently excluded deaths that resulted from fighting between Red Guard factions, which most scholars believed resulted in an additional one million deaths. Most of those who died during the Cultural Revolution died from fighting among Red Guard factions and violence caused by the collapse of government and the absence of police authority.