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.
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.