It was basically Mao’s attempt to reassert his beliefs in China, since he had been less than a dynamic leader from the late 1950’s on, and feared others in the party might be taking on a leading role that weakened his power within the party and the country. Mao wished to re-impose his authority on the party and therefore the country. The movement began in September 1965 with a speech by Lin Piao who urged pupils in schools and colleges to return to the basic principles of the revolutionary movement. Chinese youths were also encouraged to openly criticise the liberals in the Chinese Communist Party and those apparently influenced by Nikita Khruschev of the USSR. Educational establishments were considered to be too academic and, therefore, too elitist.
Mao believed that the progress China had made since 1949 had lead to a privileged class developing – engineers, scientists, factory managers etc. He also believed that these people were acquiring too much power at his expense and was concerned that a new class of mandarins was emerging in China who had no idea about the lifestyle of the normal person in China.
Red Guards (groups of youths who banded themselves together) encouraged all the youth in China to criticise those who Mao deemed untrustworthy with regards to the direction he wanted China to take. No-one was safe from criticism: writers, economists and anyone associated with the man Mao considered his main rival – Liu Shao-chi. Anyone who was deemed to have developed a superior attitude was considered an enemy of the party and people.
Mao deliberately set out to create a cult for himself and to purge the Chinese Communist Party of anyone who did not fully support him. His main selling point was a desire to create a China which had peasants, workers and educated people working together – no-one was better than anyone else and all working for the good of China – a classless society.
However, the enthusiasm of the Red Guards nearly pushed China into social turmoil. Schools and colleges were closed and the economy started to suffer. Groups of Red Guards fought one another as each separate unit believed that it knew best how China should proceed. In some areas the activities of the Red Guard got out of hand. They turned their anger on foreigners and foreign embassies got attacked.
The looming chaos was only checked when Zhou Enlai urged for a return to normality. He had been one of the leading members of the Chinese Communist Party to encourage all party members to submit themselves to criticism but he quickly realised that the experiment that was the Cultural Revolution had got out of hand and was spiralling out of control. In October 1968, Liu Shao-chi was expelled from the party and this is generally seen by historians as the end of the Cultural Revolution. Mao had witnessed the removal of a potential rival in the party and therefore saw no need for the Cultural Revolution to continue.