Peng Dismissed From Office
By April 1959, it had become apparent to Party officials that the Great Leap Forward was a clusterfuck of catastrophic proportions. Mumblings among Party officials led to Mao stepping down as State Chairman of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Mao’s hand-picked successor, First Vice-Chairman of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Liu Shaoqi, replaced him. Together, Liu and CPC General Secretary Deng Xiaoping were put in charge of fixing Mao’s mess. But they were mere puppets. Mao was still calling all the shots, from behind the scenes.
But there was one troublemaker who was not so easily manipulated. A year earlier, General Peng Dehuai, head of the National Defense Ministry, dared to speak out against Mao’s economic policies. In April 1958, during a tour of Guangzhou Province, he openly criticized Mao by saying, “The Chairman talks all the time about more, faster, better, and more economical results. That is annoying. What does he want with chanting these liturgies all the time?”
In the fall of 1958, Peng toured more of China and found mature crops going unharvested, due to farmers busying themselves with steel production using primitive backyard furnaces. He encountered serious food shortages, starving peasants, and angry elders. He became so concerned that he composed this poem:
Grain scattered on the ground,
Potato leaves withered,
Strong young people have left to make steel,
Only children and old women reap the crops,
How can they pass the coming year?
Allow me to raise my voice for the people!
The Communist Party held a conference in July 1959, called the Lushan Conference. Mao opened the conference by encouraging Party members to criticize and offer opinions on the government’s mistakes and shortcomings. Peng fell for it. He composed a letter to Mao that criticized the policies of the Great Leap Forward.
Most of the Party leadership agreed with Peng. But then Mao had the letter circulated among the attendees of the Lushan Conference, and then criticized the letter, and attacked Peng. Mao threatened that if the leadership sided with Peng, he would split the Party, retreat into the countryside, and lead a peasant rebellion against the government.
The leadership capitulated in the face of this threat, and turned against Peng. He was formally condemned, and forced to issue a self-criticism, where he admitted he had made “severe mistakes.” Later, he privately confessed to Premier Zhou Enlai, regarding his self-criticism, “For the first time in my life, I have spoken out against my very heart.”
A few months later, Mao replaced Peng as Defense Minister with one of his lackeys, Lin Biao, who would later rise to become the leader of China, during the Cultural Revolution.
But he didn’t stop there, with this general. In 1966 his wife, Jiang Qing, had Peng arrested by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. In fact, Peng was one of the first major public officials to be persecuted by Jiang Qing and her Cultural Revolution Group.
Peng had been a national hero. He had participated in the Long March. He had fought hard against Japanese occupation. He had defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) in northwest China during the civil war, against long odds. He had even saved Mao from being taken prisoner, when he defeated the KMT in the Battle of Shajiadian. He had directed China’s war effort during the Korean War. And now, this national hero who had given so much of himself for the Communist revolution, had become a prisoner.
Peng was publicly humiliated during Struggle Sessions, falsely accused of many crimes against the people, and tortured. He died in prison in 1974, at age 76, from the effects of years of torture, and from an order by Mao to deny him medical treatment.
In 1959, shortly after the purge of Peng Dehuai, Wu Han, the Vice Mayor of Beijing, wrote a play entitled Hai Rui Dismissed from Office. Wu Han was not just Beijing’s Vice Mayor. He was also a historian, and this play was a historical account of a Ming Dynasty official who was purged and imprisoned by the emperor for having criticized him.
The play was a popular hit, and was even praised by Mao. But then critics began to interpret it as an allegory for Peng Dehuai’s dismissal from office by Mao. And in 1962, Peng Dehuai was stupid enough to write another letter to Mao, where he wrote, “I want to be a Hai Rui!”
This effrontery pissed the hell out of Mao. But it also gave him an inspiration.
Even though Liu Shaoqi had taken his job as State Chairman in 1959, Mao remained the de facto chair, and any decisions made by Liu had to be cleared by him. Liu was merely a puppet. But in 1961, Liu managed to maneuver Party leadership enough to strip Mao of these de facto powers. And with Mao pushed out of the way, Liu was now the undisputed head of China.
This didn’t set well with the megalomaniac Mao. He liked power, and wanted it back. It gave him a way to spread his pain to the masses, and he did not enjoy giving that up. Then he received the letter from Peng Dehuai, declaring that he wanted to be a Hai Rui. And from this letter, Mao devised a sinister, twisted, highly complex plot to oust Liu Shaoqi and retake control of China. This would culminate in the Cultural Revolution.
Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 16: Continuous Revolution.