Out-Sourcing the Inquisition: "Mass Dictatorship" in China's Cultural Revolution

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This paper looks at an important yet little known component of what Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong designated the “dictatorship of the masses”—the outsourcing by the supreme state leadership of selected surveillance, inquisitorial, and other violent tasks to what in a different political system would have been regarded as simply members of the public and/or non-governmental organizations. Making use of rare archival records, the paper documents the activities in the summer of 1967 of a group of eager and enthusiastic Beijing university students tasked by the highest authority with substantiating a case of alleged treachery by Mao’s nemesis and top-priority target of his Cultural Revolution, the PRC President Liu Shaoqi. Rather than merely build a single-strand narrative around this example of mass dictatorship in action and set out to prove the complicity of members of China’s public in state-sanctioned atrocity, the paper attempts to transcend such simple dichotomizing “perpetrators vs. victims” explanatory schemes by choosing a trope that allows for multiple and alternative readings of history.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • History and Archaeology


  • out-sourcing, Mao Zedong, Cultural Revolution, China, Red Guards
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-19
JournalTotalitarian Movements and Political Religions
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

In 2011, the author met with and interviewed one of the Cultural Revolutionary "rebels" whose activities are the subject of this article. His observations on this meeting are to be found in the postscript, here available as a PDF document.

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