A CIA report on the role of the Red Guards (1968)

Emerging in the middle months of 1966, the Red Guards were politically-mobilised young students who provided both momentum and muscle to Mao Zedong‘s Cultural Revolution. This American intelligence briefing, prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and released on November 1st 1968, outlines the origins and objectives of Mao’s young “shock troops”:

“Mao Zedong’s ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ can best be understood as the ageing dictator’s reaction to real and imagined opposition to his will within the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese society at large. In the purge, which has convulsed China for the past two years and more, certain members of the party elite were clearly pre-targeted and beyond saving, no matter how ‘correctly’ they responded to later developments. Others were purged because they failed the ‘test’ by responding incorrectly to Mao’s vague and ill-defined directives. Still others, much fewer in number, survived by effecting an early mea culpa [confession], turning against Liu Shaoqi and scourging themselves of bourgeois traits with a heavy application of the ‘thought of Mao Zedong’.

The shock troops of this purge have been the Red Guards, [who] publicly surfaced at a Beijing mass rally on August 18th 1966, and the Revolutionary Rebels, who swung into action later in the year as reinforcement for the youthful fanatics. These groups, from whose ranks some new party and government cadres were to be selected, were themselves deliberately led to be steeled and purified in the course of this artificial revolution…

“A unit [of Red Guards] was established on August 1st [1966]. The unit had a membership of 152 students and four teachers. The parents of those accepted had to belong to one of the so-called ‘five Red classes’: workers, poor or lower-middle peasants, soldiers, revolutionary cadres or revolutionary martyrs… The first Red Guard recruits, generally in their late teens or early 20s, were hand-picked by the CRGs [Cultural Revolution Groups] of certain schools during early summer and were to serve at the core when their ranks were greatly expanded in August and September… During the spring and early summer of 1966, certain future Red Guards were sent to Peking for secret classes in ‘Cultural Revolution tactics’…

On August 18th, the Red Guards were publicly consecrated as the shock troops of the Cultural Revolution, at a mass rally in Tiananmen Square. Dressed in a baggy green military uniform replete with Red Guard armband, Mao reviewed his minions – a phantasmagoria of hysterical marchers, banners, ‘little red books’ and balloons… The assembled throng of some one million persons was addressed first by Lin Biao, then by Zhou Enlai. Lin, speaking on behalf of Mao and the Central Committee, called for a “general offensive” against “bourgeois ideas and all other exploiting classes”…

Lin’s call evoked an immediate and ugly response throughout China. Timed to coincide with the rally, Red Guards from the Number Two Middle School issued a “declaration of war against the old world” on August 18th. This ‘ultimatum’, which enumerated the early victims of Red Guard outrages, was directed against barbers and tailors who ostensibly specialised in Hong Kong [Western] styles, bookdealers that stocked “pornography” and “degenerate” photographers. Declaring that they would “show no mercy” toward their opponents, the ultimatum concluded:

“You bourgeois rascals, you hooligans. We give you one week to destroy your Hong Kong-style clothing, to change your odd hairdos and throw away your pornographic books and degenerate photographs. Those hoodlums who have financials difficulties may trim their cowboy pants and make them into shorts… The pointed tips of the shoes may be cut off… and high-heeled shoes may be cut down to flats. Bad books and photographs should be thrown away. We won’t stand on ceremony with those who violate these orders. Mend! Cut! Destroy! Burn!”

red guards performing 1966
A contingent of Red Guards delivering a political performance for workers in 1966