My interest in the topic of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was jump-started by Tsinghua sociologist Guo Yuhua. In the summer of 2008, in the aftermath of a month-long fieldwork conducted in Beijing and Shanghai, I came back to Paris to attend the conference La Chine et l’internationalisation de la sociologie. There, Guo Yuhua delivered a presentation about political rituals in rural China, emphasizing the role of “movements” as being instrumental in creating a certain form of emerging governance in remote provinces. By movements, Chinese authorities traditionally mean loosely-designed public campaigns promoting ever-changing (and often contradictory) policies: movements to “save the country through physical fitness”, movements to “chase away sparrows”, movements to “voice dissent”, movements to “repress dissent”, movements to “kill and bury stray dogs”, and so on. Something like western democracies national plans, but less clear as to scope, budget and timing, and more bottom-up and arbitrary in their application: “is one hour of exercise per day sufficient to stay healthy?”; “on what exactly should I voice my dissent?”; “how many dogs do we have to kill, overall?” All these questions are not answered by Chinese policymakers. Rather, the answer is supposed to emerge consensually, after a period of collective negotiation sometimes leading to tensions, struggle and social criticism.
The idea that popped in more than one head that day, while listening to Guo Yuhua, was that maybe the long series of disruptive political events that we conventionally call the “Cultural Revolution” should not be regarded as a coherent political masterplan, but as the random combination of some of those campaigns – starting with the “Destruction of the Four Olds” in 1966, peaking with the “Down to the Countryside movement” in the early 1970s, and fading away after the “Criticize Lin Piao, Criticize Confucius” movement in the mid-1970s.