Chapter 33: The Coup
Hua Guofeng was Mao’s chosen successor, but he had only held the number two position for seven months before Mao died. He was the new kid on the block, and so his influence among top Party members had not had time to gel. His position was tenuous, and he knew he was in for a tough power struggle with Jiang Qing and her powerful Gang of Four.
Jiang thought Hua was weak, and figured she’d quickly topple him. And she wasted no time in her efforts. The Gang of Four controlled state media, and shortly after Mao died, articles appeared in state-run publications about “principles” that Mao had supposedly laid down shortly before his death.
Also, urban militia groups commanded by supporters of the Gang were placed on high alert.
A meeting of the Politburo took place in late September, a few weeks after Mao’s death. Here Hua and Jiang openly clashed. Hua attacked the “principles” that had been appearing in state media. Jiang emphatically disagreed, stood up for the principles, and insisted that she be named the new Party Chairman. The Politburo was unable to decide which way to go, and ended the meeting without a ruling.
On October 4, 1976, an article appeared in state media warning that any revisionist who interfered with the principles would “come to no good end.” This was the Gang of Four telling Hua and his supporters to back off.
But for Hua, this was a life or death struggle. After all, he was up against one of the main leaders of the Cultural Revolution. He knew he had to win, or else risk persecution, imprisonment, and death by torture.
A few days after Mao’s death, Hua had made contact with General Ye Jianying to discuss what to do about the Gang of Four. Ye was a powerful man. He was a member of the Politburo, the Defense Minister, and the Vice Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. And Ye didn’t like the Gang, so he and Hua quickly agreed to conspire against it.
They reached out to Wang Dongxing, commander of an elite unit of the Secret Service. Wang had once been the chief of Mao’s personal bodyguard force, and was thought to be an ally of the Gang. The Gang trusted him, so if anyone could help out with a coup, Wang was their man.
Luckily, he agreed to be part of the effort.
The conspiracy grew larger when Politburo members, Wu De and Chen Xilian joined the group. The cabal met secretly and passed notes to each other, rather than speaking out loud, in case they were being bugged. They quickly dismissed the idea of using official Party procedure to remove the Gang from power. This seemed like too much of a longshot, because the Gang had too many supporters within the Party. So they concluded that their best chances lay with using force.
They planned a coup, with all their note passing, and on October 6, 1976, they put this plan into motion. It was a Mission Impossible. A dangerous idea. But with Wang Dongxing’s invaluable help, perhaps they could pull it off.
Hua summoned three members of the Gang of Four to Zhongnanhai, which is a complex forming the central headquarters of the Communist Party of China, located adjacent to the Forbidden City. These three members were Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen.
Hua’s reason given for requesting their presence was to discuss the publication of Mao’s latest works, and the building of Mao’s Mausoleum. Meanwhile, Wang Dongxing had organized a group of Secret Service officers, who were made to swear an oath of loyalty and secrecy. They were to arrest these three Gang members at the meeting, and were instructed to shoot to kill if any resisted.
Hua and General Ye awaited their arrival. And they each showed up, one-by-one, at separate times. When they passed through the swinging door of the entrance lobby, Wang Dongxing’s men arrested them, while Hua read off the charges against them. Then they were held at a lower level of the Zhongnanhai.
Zhang and Yao gave up without a fight. However, according to one historian, Wang Hongwen pulled out a gun and shot and killed two of Wang Dongxing’s men, before he was wounded and taken into custody. This could be true, as Wang Hongwen had gained national fame during the Cultural Revolution for his feats of bravery while fighting establishment forces in Shanghai.
Now all that was left was Mao’s widow, Jiang. She was also at the Zhongnanhai, in a different area, and oblivious to what was happening to her fellow Gang members. She was conducting a “Study Mao’s Work” session with her aides. After the study session ended, she took a few aides over to nearby Jingshan Park to pick apples. Here she was apprehended and arrested by Zhang Yaoci, one of Wang Dongxing’s men.
The arrest was easy, almost anticlimactic. She didn’t put up a fight. Nor did she say much. But as she was being led away, one of her servants spat at her. Apparently, Madame Mao was not well liked by those who worked for her.
That same evening, a task force was sent to occupy the Party’s propaganda headquarters, and take over the broadcast and TV stations of Beijing. Another group was sent to Shanghai, which was the Gang of Four’s main power base, to ensure nobody there rebelled against the coup.
The Gang of Four was sent to Qicheng prison in northwestern Beijing, where they would spend the next four years awaiting trial.
The next day, October 7, 1976, the Politburo met, and Hua Guofeng was named to the posts of Chairman of the Communist Party Central Committee, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. The coup was complete. Hua was now safe as Mao’s successor, and the Cultural Revolution was finally brought to an end.
Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 34: Trial of the Gang of Four.