All-Round Civil War
The Red Guards, in spite of their cruelty, were highly regarded by many Chinese. But not by all. By 1967, Chinese society had divided into two main rival factions. There was the radical faction, which wanted to purge the Communist Party of moderates, and the conservative faction, which wanted to preserve the moderate Party establishment. Mao backed the radicals and declared an “all-round civil war” against the conservatives.
Mao encouraged the radicals to seize power from the Party establishment. This led to Red Guards and conservatives fighting each other over control of local governments. These were violent and bloody struggles, with both sides deploying tanks, artillery, firearms, and any other type of weapon they could lay their hands on. Cities were bombarded, and many civilians were killed in all the combat.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was divided. Some officers were loyal to Mao, and others loyal to the establishment. For instance, General Chen Zaidao was the Army general in charge of the Wuhan area. He sided with the establishment, and fought to repress the anti-establishment radicals in the city of Wuhan.
Premier Zhou Enlai sent orders to General Chen to back down, and switch his support to the radicals. But Chen refused. And this refusal was quite surprising. It marked a pivotal turning point in the Cultural Revolution. It was the first time that the military had refused a direct order, and it became known as the Wuhan Incident.
Mao feared that this Incident might spark a more widespread revolt by the PLA. So in July 1967, he had Zhou send Xie Fuzhi and Wang Li, who were members of the Cultural Revolution Group, to Wuhan. Their desperate mission was to persuade Chen to stop siding with the establishment, and to start following orders to back the radicals.
Xie was the Minister of Public Security. He was staunchly loyal to Mao, and a rabid supporter of the Cultural Revolution. He had given a speech the year before that gave carte blanche to the Red Guards to kill their opponents.
Wang was also a rabid supporter of the Cultural Revolution, and was the lead drafter of the May 16 Notification that marked the start of the Cultural Revolution.
Xie and Wang immediately ordered Chen to switch his allegiance to the radicals. But Chen refused. Chen and his PLA forces feared that by switching sides, they would be tacitly admitting to have taken the wrong side, and that this could be used against them in the future. It would open them up to accusations of being counterrevolutionary.
This is a problem with movements that engage in blame and punishment of others. The fear they generate can lead to resistance. And this resistance quickly hardens to an obstinate and intractable resistance, because to finally give in might lead to as much blame and punishment as refusal to give in. It’s a Catch-22.
On July 20, 1967, both Mao and Zhou flew to the Wuhan area to try to resolve this crisis. Their presence was kept a secret from the public, but Chen was made aware. He felt very impressed that Mao was so close, and was swayed enough to write a self-criticism, and back down from his support for the conservatives.
This emboldened Wang Li to reprimand 200 divisional officers under Chen, accusing them of not having grasped the essence of the Cultural Revolution. And so the blame these officers feared, immediately came true.
They felt alarmed and pissed off about this, and in their ire, they arrested both Xie and Wang. They slapped Xie around and humiliated him. And they held them both for a short while, until they were rescued in a secret military operation. Xie and Wang then returned to Beijing, to a hero’s welcome, having supposedly saved the city from counterrevolutionaries, even though it had been Mao and Zhou’s efforts that had turned Chen around.
On July 26, Chen was brought before the Cultural Revolution Group and a large contingent of senior military and political leaders, and put on trial for supporting the “wrong” group in Wuhan. He was accused of a kludge of crimes, and beaten by security personnel. These accusations, and the beating, left many of the leaders present feeling disgusted, and they left the trial in protest. Clearly, support for the Cultural Revolution was also on trial, and not doing very well.
Mao was beginning to realize that perhaps his revolution had gone too far. So he had Chen dismissed from office, but not imprisoned. But he needed a scapegoat to appease moderate factions of the PLA, so he had Wang Li arrested for being a “bad person” and a “cockroach.” Wang was never charged with a crime, but spent the next 15 years in prison, making his criminal case one of the craziest for historians to try to figure out.
Soon after Wang’s arrest, Mao dialed down on appeals for violent civil war against the establishment, and the Cultural Revolution became just a little less dangerous for everyone. But the Wuhan Incident marked the end of future PLA resistance to the Cultural Revolution. After this, the takeover of local governments by radical Red Guards was ensured. Mao had won his “all-round civil war.”
Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 26: Mango Fever.
Categories: Series (History): The Cultural Revolution