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Chronology of Mass Killings during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

Last modified: 23 July 2012
Song Yongyi

August 2011

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Song Yongyi, Chronology of Mass Killings during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 25 August 2011, accessed 26 May 2015, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/Chronology-of-Mass-Killings-during-the-Chinese-Cultural, ISSN 1961-9898

Chronology of Mass Killings during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

Song Yongyi

The Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was a historical tragedy launched by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It claimed the lives of several million people and inflicted cruel and inhuman treatments on hundreds of million people. However, 40 years after it ended, the total number of victims of the Cultural Revolution and especially the death toll of mass killings still remain a mystery both in China and overseas. For the Chinese communist government, it is a highly classified “state secret,” although they do maintain statistics for the so-called “abnormal death” numbers all over China. Nevertheless, the government, realizing that the totalitarian regime and the endless power struggles in the CCP Central Committee (CCP CC) were the root cause of the Cultural Revolution, has consistently discounted the significance of looking back and reflecting on this important period of Chinese history. They even forbid Chinese scholars from studying it independently and discourage overseas scholars from undertaking research on this subject in China.

Owing to difficulties that scholars in and outside China encounter in accessing “state secrets,” the exact figure of the “abnormal death” has become a recurring debate in the field of China studies. Estimates by various scholars range from one-half to eight million. According to Rummel’s 1991 analysis of, the figure should be around 7.73 million (Rummel, 1991: 253). In the following year, however, Harvard scholar John K. Fairbank arrived at a rough estimate of around one million (Fairbank, 1992: 402). Several years later, Ding Shu, an overseas Chinese scholar, disagreed with Rummel’s conclusion by using diverse analyses, and estimated the figure to be around two to three million (Ding, 1999: 214). Recently, Andrew Walder and Su Yang contributed a much more detailed analysis of the death toll in China’s rural areas based upon statistics drawn from 1,500 Chinese county annals. In their estimate, “the number killed [was] between 750,000 and 1.5 million, with roughly equal numbers permanently injured” (Walder and Su, 2003). In a newly published biography of Mao Zedong by two UK authors, the estimated totality of death is discussed: “at least 3 million people died violent deaths and post-Mao leaders acknowledged that 100 million people, one-ninth of the entire population, suffered in one way or another” (Chang and Halliday, 2005: 547). Interestingly, the reporter of a Hong Kong-based political journal released the classified official statistics, according to which nearly two million Chinese were killed and another 125 million were either persecuted or “struggled against”(subjected to “struggle sessions”) as a result of the state-sponsored killings and atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution (Cheng Min, 1996: 21-22). The average death toll based on the aforementioned six investigators’ figures is nearly 2.95 million. Considering that the Cultural Revolution took place in China during a period when it was not invaded by other states, the number of victims estimated above is extremely high.

The widespread phenomenon of mass killings in the Cultural Revolution consisted of five types: 1) mass terror or mass dictatorship encouraged by the government – victims were humiliated and then killed by mobs or forced to commit suicide on streets or other public places; 2) direct killing of unarmed civilians by armed forces; 3) pogroms against traditional “class enemies” by government-led perpetrators such as local security officers, militias and mass; 4) killings as part of political witch-hunts (a huge number of suspects of alleged conspiratorial groups were tortured to death during investigations); and 5) summary execution of captives, that is, disarmed prisoners from factional armed conflicts. The most frequent forms of massacres were the first four types, which were all state-sponsored killings. The degree of brutality in the mass killings of the Cultural Revolution was very high. Usually, the victims perished only after first being humiliated, struggled and then imprisoned for a long period of time.

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