So, here’s the gist of how Mao Zedong’s “Thought Reform” worked, as described for us in Richard Baum’s informative The Fall And Rise Of China.
The general model was put into practice even before Mao gained national power. Back in the 1940s, Mao was in the Yan’an hills avoiding direct battle with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. Mao’s own force was a hodge-podge of people from many different backgrounds. In order to mold them into a unified fighting force, he felt he needed to make certain that each team member had successfully purged him- or herself of any incorrect thoughts developed during their former life, when they had lived in a society built upon class distinctions. To facilitate this re-education, Mao conducted what Baum called “intensive, group-oriented study and criticism.”
At these sessions, someone would read aloud important texts from Communistic writings (probably often from Mao’s own writings). Each group member would then give his reaction to the text. Mao apparently was very serious that these little reaction-speeches should come FROM THE HEART, and demanded sincere self-examination during these times. He expected his comrades to really drudge up whatever sunken Bourgeois-baggage lurked in the deep waters of their souls. They were supposed to lay themselves bare, acknowledging any doubts or confusions they had concerning Party dogma. Not only that, but they were to UNBURDEN themselves of guilt and remorse by admitting before the entire group any mistakes they had made in their lives when viewed through the lens of Communist ideology.
Also, the meetings were an opportunity to rat-out their friends for their mistakes… and caught up in the drama of this soul-cleansing experience, they seemed to have done just that. One gets the feeling that there was cult-like situation developing, and the comrades (under intense strain from both inside and outside the struggle) believed they were only helping their comrades to shed their Bourgeois past and clinging class prejudices by exposing them.
If the group sessions failed to correct someone’s thinking, Mao would have him incarcerated, or even according to Baum, tortured.
“With the final defeat of the Nationalists in 1949,” says Baum […] “the rectification campaign model first devised in Yan’an was applied to Chinese society as a whole.” During the reign of Chairman Mao and his Chinese Communist Party, “tens of thousands of Bourgeois intellectuals were subjected to mandatory Thought Reform.”