A generation of research on red guard politics has traced the origins of its debilitating factionalism to social and political divisions that were well established among students on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. These social interpretations impute political motives to student activists according to their positions in the pre-Cultural Revolution status quo. However, a closer examination of events in Beijing during the summer and early autumn of 1966—where the Red Guards and their factional divisions first emerged—suggests a different interpretation. Factions emerged when student activists from similar social backgrounds responded differently to ambiguous and rapidly changing political signals. These initial acts left students on opposite sides of an emerging political divide and exposed them to unforeseen risks as the movement took unpredictable turns. In this interpretation, student divisions are rooted in political interactions in the early phases of the conflict itself. Red Guard factions did not emerge in Beijing as expressions of opposed group interests based on preexisting social divisions, but as struggles to vindicate earlier actions and to avoid the harsh fate of political victims.

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