Chapter 31: The Tiananmen Incident

This is the next installment of my book, The Cultural Revolution: Then and Mao.
To read the previous installment, click this link.
To start at the beginning, click this link.


Chapter 31
The Tiananmen Incident

After his death, Mao worried that if Zhou was publicly mourned, people would turn against him and his Cultural Revolution policies, which they knew Zhou had been trying to reverse or moderate. So only one official memorial ceremony was held, on January 15, 1976, at the Great Hall of the People, at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

At that ceremony, Zhou’s friend and designated successor, First Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, delivered the eulogy, which included this personal tribute to Zhou’s character:

“He was open and aboveboard, paid attention to the interests of the whole, observed Party discipline, was strict in dissecting himself and good at uniting the mass of cadres, and upheld the unity and solidarity of the Party. He maintained broad and close ties with the masses and showed boundless warmheartedness towards all comrades and the people . . . We should learn from his fine style—being modest and prudent, unassuming and approachable, setting an example by his conduct, and living in a plain and hard-working way.”

This statement was interpreted by the suspicious Mao as a subtle way to criticize him and the Gang of Four, because their characters did not come anywhere close to that of Zhou’s. Deng had already been a target of their persecution, and after this eulogy they stepped up their efforts against him.

With Mao’s permission, the Gang of Four launched a Criticize Deng campaign. It was successful. First Vice Premier Deng had been expected to succeed Zhou as Premier, but instead, on February 4, 1976, another Vice Premier, Hua Guofeng, was chosen for the job.

After Zhou’s funeral, Jiang and her Gang of Four launched the Five No’s Campaign, to prevent public displays of grieving. This campaign forbade honoring Zhou’s death, and instructed that there was to be: no wearing black armbands, no mourning wreaths, no mourning halls, no memorial activities, and no handing out photos of Zhou.

You can only push people so far, and the Chinese people had had enough. Resentment over the Cultural Revolution had been building. The Five No’s backfired, as the public turned against Mao and the Gang of Four. They said no to the Five No’s, and refused to comply. So more propaganda campaigns were attempted by the Gang against Zhou’s memory. But these only led to stronger resentment toward Mao and the Gang.

Millions of mourners in Tiananmen Square, honoring Zhou Enlai.

Tensions boiled over in what became known as the Tiananmen Incident. April 4, 1976, was the eve of the annual Qingming Festival, where Chinese pay homage to their deceased ancestors. That morning, thousands of people spontaneously gathered around the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square, and commemorated the life and death of Zhou Enlai. They laid wreaths, banners, placards, written homages, and flowers at the base of the monument.

This mass of common people also criticized Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four for their attacks on Zhou, and there were even a few brickbats slung at Mao and his Cultural Revolution.

By day’s end, up to two million people visited Tiananmen Square to pay tribute, from the lowest peasants to high-ranking military officials. It seemed a popular revolt was underway, yet it was completely spontaneous, with no coordination from any leadership.

Similar spontaneous mourning incidents occurred elsewhere in China, including Zhengzhou, Kunming, Tiyuan, Changchun, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Guangzhou (Canton).

The next day more crowds arrived at Tiananmen Square, only to discover that the police had removed all the tributes that had been left by the masses the day before. A riot ensued, and police cars were set on fire. Over 100,000 people forced their way into government buildings that surrounded the square.

The crowd finally dispersed that evening, and the police managed to arrest hundreds of those rioters who had lingered on the scene. They were sentenced to hard labor, but were later pardoned by Deng Xiaoping, after he finally managed to rise to power.

But at this point, Deng was running out of power. Mao wrongly suspected that Deng had organized the Tiananmen uprising, and on April 7, 1976, he was stripped of all his leadership positions. Deng feared for his life and fled Beijing for the relative safety of Guangzhou Province.


Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 32: The Death of Mao Zedong.

17 comments

  • As a history nut, I find all of this fascinating…and horrifying, all at once. I’m also reminded of the 1989 protests.

    What made you write this book?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks. I think it’s one of the most horrifying episodes of modern human history. And yet so little has been written of it.

      Early on in the BLM protests that started after the murder of George Floyd, some political commentators were comparing the violence and “cancel culture” mentality of some of the protesters, to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I didn’t know much about the Cultural Revolution at that time, but I felt curious, so I started doing some research. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I realized I’d learned enough to write a small book. Politics aside, I found it a fascinating subject that I thought others might be interested in also, so I wrote the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  • I can understand the motive you mention above. In 1999, I pretty much fled the US and ended up in northern Thailand. Eventually, I enrolled in the technical university in ChiangMai’s, graduate Engineering Physics program, partly just to obtain a student visa. At any rate, I ended up doing a graduate project that involved the design and mass-production of a simple and durable artificial knee joint for prosthetic legs, and the “implementation” part culminated in neighboring Cambodia. Seeing up close what had resulted from Pol Pot’s version of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (Cambodia’s “Year Zero”) was sobering, if not terrifying. It caused me to learn as much as I could about the region’s history.

    Additionally, my dad’s foray into cultural reinvention in 1960’s Japan was to become involved in the University of Tokyo’s student communist movement. But the whole thing rapidly unraveled into anarchy and violence, not that unlike what we see with some of the BLM “protests” right now (“Zengakuren” and the “Todai riots”). This horrified my dad, who was a committed pacifist. It left him skeptical of movements that seek to suddenly or forcibly redistribute wealth or power, and I’ve inherited that skepticism. And for myself, it’s also resulted in a rather libertarian take on “free speech” and a disdain for simplistic explanations and aphorisms. I have absolutely no use for chants or group-speak. “BLM” and it’s related group-speak was what motivated my recent propaganda post.

    Sorry about the long comment, but it’s also why I’ve been following this series of articles. I think it’s too bad that so few Americans know this history or understand the implication. What we’re looking at with mainland China right now is the result, as its own emerging internal political conflict and drama presently threatens to destabilize all of Asia. It’s a repeating cycle, and probably the most important event in the world right now. And yet, it barely makes it into Western media.

    Sorry for the long comment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the long comment. I find your comments to be well-thought out and interesting.

      Having watched the movie, “The Killing Fields,” just reading the name, Pol Pot, sends shivers up my spine. I can imagine how your personal experience in Cambodia must have had a profound impact on you. Your engineering contribution to the prosthetic knee must be greatly appreciated in that country.

      It seems your dad had a big influence on your attitudes. And for the better, in my view.

      I must admit that before my research I knew damn little about the Cultural Revolution, or anything else concerning China. I was your typical ignorant American, concerning Asia. I suspect you’re right about the events in China being probably the most important events in the world right now.

      In fact, there seems to be growing evidence that the coronavirus came from a Chinese lab, and not some funky Chinese food, and that it might have been released intentionally. I reserve some skepticism about that, but I wouldn’t be surprised about anything that comes out of China. And Xi does not strike me as a paragon of virtue. We must be on careful watch concerning that part of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Unfortunately, the knee project was a bust. Learning experience regarding pragmatism (K.I.S.S.). The “Jaipur knee”, while not so elegant, fills the need far better.

        China is suffering a sort of “convergence of storms”, some literally. Epic flooding this rainy season may have wiped out as much as 70% of its rice, and 50% of its corn crops. And they’d already lost 2/3 of their pork production to an influenza. Food is going to be a big issue next year. Meanwhile, it’s the culmination of a 5-year plan that didn’t go so well. China’s economy has been stalled, manufacturers and investors are fleeing, countries are bailing on “One Belt, One Road”, and hard-currency is hemorrhaging from the country. China’s wealthiest woman is now a citizen of Cyprus. Oh yeah, and there’s Coronavirus.

        Right now, Xi is being openly challenged. His power is the result of a coalition of regional factions and “Princelings” and their wealth, and defectors have lately been simply disappearing and their wealth confiscated by the state. And yet, CCP Premier, Li Keqiang has felt confident enough to openly criticized Xi’s handling of the Coronavirus outbreak and the country’s economic policy. Two high-ranking military officers (including the head of the country’s Air Force) recently suggested that he was unnecessarily rushing China into war. Meanwhile, Taiwan remains the shining star on the horizon, rather inconveniently distracting everyone from Xi’s version of “communism with Chinese characteristics”.

        It’s “interesting”.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I see you keep up with events very closely.

          Five year plans have always left me feeling a little bored and amused. I suggest the Communists come up with a five year plan to get rid of five year plans.

          Trump has been putting the coronavirus blame squarely on China, and it seems many other world leaders are going along with that. Such international pressure must be having some effect.

          It will be interesting to see what happens should Xi fall from power.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I have a (very) close connection to China that I haven’t said anything about, as I don’t want to cause any problems. Gives a bit of an inside industry/business perspective from a fluent Mandarin speaker. My own travels to the mainland have been limited, but left me with an impression that the Chinese people have moved on while the government is somehow working by disconnect. Hong Kong (a very familiar location which I wrote about October of last year) really exemplifies the irrelevance of the CCP anymore.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I think that’s pretty cool to have that kind of inside information. And I appreciate how you’ve passed on some of it to bloggers like me. It’s exciting to get the inside scoop.

              When the government is that disconnected, I think problems are just over the horizon. A government can only get so far out of touch with people before everything starts to collapse. And as for Hong Kong, it’s my understanding that they’re no longer under the “one country, two system” rule, anymore. Perhaps their troubles have only just begun.

              Liked by 1 person

  • it seems like Mao should have gone into marketing and advertising. With all these campaigns he started, they always seem to work, except for the five no’s…

    Liked by 2 people

  • Banning showing grief?? What more outrageous stuff can Mao and the others come up with!!
    Not surprised at all that the kettle finally boiled over!
    And that people protested!
    Glad Deng was able to escape but did he stay safe?

    Liked by 1 person

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