The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, later abbreviated to just “The Cultural Revolution,” was launched by Mao Zedong with a letter issued on May 16th, 1966. It launched a ruthless drive against what were alleged to be remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. Mao claimed that some of his rivals within the Communist Party were bourgeois revisionists who must be removed through violent class struggle.
Young Chinese Communists formed militant Red Guard groups across China to bully and intimidate the alleged capitalist infiltrators, and were joined by the army, workers, and party leaders. Intellectuals such as teachers were forced into the countryside to become farm workers and re-educate themselves into a proletarian mentality. China fell victim to a mass hysteria, bordering on a religion, with angry mobs waving Mao’s “little red book” into the faces of anyone remotely educated or middle class.
It will never be known how many died in the ensuing chaos. The authors of “Mao, the Unknown Story” put it as 3 million, whereas the Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates the death toll as between 5 and 10 million. It certainly set China back economically, socially and politically. After it was all over, perhaps ten years later after Mao’s death in 1976, the Party declared in 1981 that the Cultural Revolution was "responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People's Republic".
Deng Xiaoping was among the victims. He was forced to lie prostrate with his arms over his head and to confess to his “crimes” of “unorthodox thinking.” His son, Deng Pufang, was thrown out of an upstairs window by Red Guards and crippled for life. After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping outmanoeuvred the late chairman's chosen successor Hua Guofeng and the Gang of Four led by Mao’s widow, and became Paramount Leader. He never became head of state, head of government or General Secretary, but he became undisputed ruler of China. He turned China capitalist, combining socialist words with free enterprise practice under the banner "socialism with Chinese characteristics".
China since then has prospered, as have its peoples. The abandonment of collective farming and the replacement of socialist economics with free enterprise and free markets has led to spectacular and continued growth, lifting more than a billion people from subsistence and starvation. Deng will be remembered as one of the positive figures of the 20th Century, long after Mao is simply remembered along with Stalin and Hitler as a power-crazed mass murderer. The Cultural Revolution was, like the Great Leap Forward, a disaster for China, as ideology was imposed at the expense of all sense and reason. But Deng Xiaoping, the great pragmatist, had the last laugh, and it is his imprint rather than that of Mao, that is stamped upon modern China.