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Yan Fei – Factions in Flux: Intergroup Collaboration and Conflict in the Red Guard Movement

December 12, 2023 @ 11:30 am 1:00 pm

Speaker: Yan Fei, Associate Professor, Sociology, Tsinghua University; HYI-Radcliffe Institute Joint Fellow, 2023-24
Discussant: Yuhua Wang, Professor of Government, Harvard University

Students of social movements and collective action have traditionally concentrated on the structural factors influencing group formation during social mobilization. This conventional model depicts members of opposing factions as pursuing collective interests that are predetermined by their existing social positions, leading to well-defined political alliances with fixed objectives and unwavering identities. However, during periods of radical instability, political ambiguity and contingency often disrupt the rigidity of these established models of mobilization. Drawing from a detailed examination of popular uprisings and factional contention in Guangzhou City and Haifeng County during the years 1966-1968 with the more abundant sources available today, this study identifies two critical mechanisms—namely, contextual ambiguity and adaptive choice—that serve as intermediaries in shaping political alignments in moments of radical change. It is argued that within rapidly changing and ambiguous political environments, the process of group formation is predominantly driven by emerging interests as factional struggles evolve, rather than being firmly rooted in pre-existing social antagonisms. Throughout this dynamic process, new political identities emerge, and political interests are continuously redefined, often giving rise to violent conflicts of increasing magnitude and influence.


Harvard-Yenching Institute


Common Room, 2 Divinity Ave.

2 Divinity Ave.
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 United States

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