Category: The Cultural Revolution

History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, including a book review.

Chapter 36: Final Thoughts

This is the final installment of my book, The Cultural Revolution: Then and Mao. Hooray! It’s finally over!
To read the previous installment, click this link.
To start at the beginning, click this link.

Chapter 36
Final Thoughts

Mao is considered by most historians to be the bloodiest dictator of the 20th century. He’s said to be responsible for the deaths of between 40 and 80 million Chinese, through starvation, persecution, prison labor, and mass executions.

Hitler comes in a distant second, with about 17 million lives lost under his policies and leadership. Stalin is thought by many to be right behind Hitler, or perhaps ahead, but this is an old notion, in vogue before the Soviet Union collapsed and its archives were opened to historians.

No, the distinction of third place now goes to King Leopold II of Belgium, who ruled until 1909. He and his Force Publique enslaved and killed roughly 10 million Congolese in Africa, and amputated the hands and feet of millions more. But Stalin rates a close fourth place, right behind Leopold, with an estimated 9 million deaths under his belt, along with other related atrocities.

But I’m dabbling in controversy. These numbers vary in estimation, from one historian to another, and it’s impossible to get an exact count because these tyrants killed so damned many people, and record keeping was often spotty. So maybe Stalin beats Leopold, or Hitler actually loses to Stalin. Who knows? Who cares? They’re all assholes.

But as we can see, it’s likely that nobody came even close to matching Mao, for pure, bloodthirsty assholery. And in addition to all those deaths, he’s also blamed for the permanent crippling of millions more, from beatings and torture. Untold amounts of hardship, grief, and pain followed in his wake. And all for a “good cause” where, in his mind, the end justified the means.

And on that note, some historians do argue that Mao did more good than harm. They contend that under his leadership, life expectancy, education, and health care improved, and the Chinese population increased from 550 million to 900 million. In this way, they try to help Mao justify the means, by pointing out a rosy end result.

I think it’s reasonable to say that some good did come out of Mao’s rule. However, I also think it’s reasonable to say that those good things could have been accomplished without all the murder and mayhem that Mao unleashed. Deng Xiaoping proved this.

The Cultural Revolution alone, killed up to 20 million people. And it idled universities for several years, while students went on a rampage of mass murder and persecution, thus setting back the advancement of knowledge, and allowing for the spread of ignorance.

It set the economy back also, as production fell by double-digits during the early years of the Cultural Revolution. And the emotional terror and trauma that people suffered through was immeasurable.

The “greater good” was an excuse by Mao to inflict maximum torment on as many people as he could. It’s a warning to everyone, to beware of leaders who promise great things at great sacrifice.

Often, they’re not really looking out for the greater good. No, they have an ulterior motive. They have a sadistic streak that they want to take out on everyone. They just need popular support, so that they can inflict their campaigns of pain and suffering on innocent people whom they choose to villainize.

“Cultural Revolution” is a grand sounding, promising label applied to one of the greatest travesties in human history. It’s helpful to remember this when we consider other revolutions, as they arise and present themselves.

When we see demonstrators in the streets, bearing starry-eyed, glorious messages of profound social change, we are wise to be cautious. For everyone’s safety, we should consider their messages with a grain of salt. And it helps to measure the worth of their movement by the level of peace, and respect for dissent, that accompanies their cause.

I believe that only then can human society evolve and progress in a direction that respects human life, and guarantees those necessary ingredients for quality of life. Which are peace and freedom. Only then can the greater good be achieved, with revolutions that benefit every individual.

Chapter 35: The Rise of Deng Xiaoping

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 35
The Rise of Deng Xiaoping

The Deng that Jiang Qing so disparagingly referred to in her suicide note was Deng Xiaoping. Deng had been persecuted by Mao and Jiang Qing’s reviled Gang of Four. The arrest of the Gang was followed by widespread celebration and calls to restore Deng to power. Ironically, part of his popularity was just the fact that Jiang hated him so much.

In 1977, the year after the Gang’s arrest, Hua Guofeng relented to popular demand. He pardoned Deng and restored him to some of his former leadership posts.

Hua had been struggling as the leader of China, and he hoped pardoning Deng would help improve his popularity. But nothing could save Hua from himself, because he was stodgy, uncharismatic, and unimaginative. In another desperate attempt to improve his standing with the people, he aligned himself with Mao’s memory.

He instructed that his picture be placed side-by-side with Mao’s, in public buildings. And he adopted a policy published in the People’s Daily on February 7, 1977, stating, “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.”

But Hua had miscalculated. It so happened that the people were sick and tired of Mao’s old ways and were hoping for change. They were put off by this policy, and derisively referred to it as the Two Whatevers. The out-of-touch Hua lost a lot of popular support over this.

This presented an opportunity for Deng, and in “gratitude” for being pardoned, Deng plotted against Hua to take control of China. In 1978, Hua favored a plain-old, milk-and-water, Soviet-style economic system, whereas Deng pushed for a more exciting market-based economic system. Party leaders supported Deng over Hua, and this further weakened Hua’s power.

By 1980, Deng’s political maneuvering had gradually ousted Hua from all his top leadership positions, and Deng became the undisputed leader of China. But he allowed Hua to quietly retire, thus establishing a new precedent in his country, where an ousted leader could lose a political struggle without suffering physical harm.

Deng would maintain leadership of China until the crackdown of the Tiananmen Square protesters, in 1989. And during his time of leadership, China was transformed into a nation that barely resembled anything Mao had created. Deng believed China was in need of deep reform, and the reforms he enacted quickly and dramatically changed Chinese society and the economy.

For this, Deng Xiaoping has been referred to as the “Architect of Modern China.”

And as for continuous revolution, Deng put a stop to that. He encouraged open criticism of the Cultural Revolution. He avoided any effort to completely destroy Mao’s reputation, but he did knock him off his god-like pedestal, by pointing out his mistakes. He famously described the late Chairman as fallible, being “seven parts good, three parts bad.”

His economic reforms were probably the most notable. He dismantled the commune system and allowed peasants to manage their own land the way they wanted, and to sell their goods in a free market. Thus, he allowed for the return of capitalism to China. The country quickly modernized, and the economy began to thrive.

Deng Xiaoping with Jimmy Carter, in 1979.

On January 1, 1979, the United States officially recognized the People’s Republic of China, and foreign trade between China and the West began to grow. Deng even visited the United States in 1979, meeting with President Carter and other dignitaries.

Deng improved relations with Japan, and set Japan’s economic system up as an example for China to follow. He also restored relations with the Soviet Union. And he negotiated with Great Britain and Portugal for the return of the colonies of Hong Kong and Macau to China, by promising a policy of “one country, two systems.”

In short, Deng Xiaoping was the fulfillment of Mao Zedong’s worst fears. Mao had justified his various persecution campaigns on the grounds that the Communist Party was full of capitalist-roaders, revisionists, and other counterrevolutionaries. Deng was guilty of all these things, because he certainly put China on a road to capitalism, he revised interpretations of Marxism, and he reversed the Cultural Revolution.

Deng proved Mao right, in a sense, but he also showed just how mistaken Mao was. Mao was a purist, always pushing for a Communist system free of capitalist notions. Mao took things to the extreme, and expected everyone to live that extreme, without moderation.

But the only way Mao was able to accomplish his extreme dream was to persecute and kill millions of his own people. That’s the problem with extremism that allows for no dissent or compromise. It can only survive behind the point of a gun. And when it eventually and inevitably collapses, it’s overwhelmed by a flood of pent-up resentment that quickly carries society in the opposite direction.

Ultimately, extremism is counterproductive, and thus both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary at the same time.

Come on back in a few days for the final installment, entitled Chapter 36: Final Thoughts.

Chapter 34: Trial of the Gang of Four

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 34
Trial of the Gang of Four

When the arrest of the Gang of Four was made public, spontaneous celebrations broke out all over China. The Chinese people were fed up with Jiang Qing and the Cultural Revolution. It was clear that their arrest was a very popular move, so the Communist Party jumped on the bandwagon.

The government-run media laid it on thick, denouncing the Gang, and calling them traitors. It linked them with Lin Biao, and blamed them for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. And a new movement was begun, called the Movement of Exposition, Criticism and Uncovering, where millions of former Red Guards were publicly criticized for having committed atrocities for the Gang of Four.

The Gang of Four at trial, in 1981.

The trial of the Gang began in November 1980, and was televised so the public could see for themselves how the Party had turned against the Cultural Revolution. This trial was sometimes marked by outbursts from Jiang, who would protest loudly and sometimes burst into tears. She would then be hauled out of the courtroom.

Jiang Qing at trial, 1980.

Jiang represented herself, and was the only member of the Gang who bothered to argue against the charges. Her defense was that she was always obeying the orders of Chairman Mao Zedong, and from this trial she has been famously quoted as saying, “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite.”

But her defense fell flat. And it was bound to fall flat. It was a fait accompli. The Politburo had already determined everyone’s fate, and this trial was for show only.

While Jiang presented a defense, Zhang Chunqiao did not. He simply refused to admit he’d done anything wrong. However, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen confessed to their crimes and made a show of repentance. But confession or no, repentance or no, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. The outcome had been predetermined. They were all found guilty of various crimes related to the Cultural Revolution and alleged attempted coups.

On January 25, 1981, Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao were sentenced to death. Wang Hongwen was handed a life sentence, and Yao Wenyuan got 20 years.

Exactly two years later, on January 25, 1983, Jiang and Zhang’s death sentences were commuted to life.

But while Jiang was serving her life sentence, she was diagnosed with throat cancer. She refused an operation. Naturally her condition worsened, and in 1991 she was released from prison, on medical grounds, and admitted to a hospital. Then on May 14, 1991, at age 77, she hanged herself in a bathroom of the hospital.

She left a suicide note that read, “Today the revolution has been stolen by the revisionist clique of Deng, Peng Zhen, and Yang Shangkun. Chairman Mao exterminated Liu Shaoqi, but not Deng, and the result of this omission is that unending evils have been unleashed on the Chinese people and nation. Chairman, your student and fighter is coming to see you!”

Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 35: The Rise of Deng Xiaoping.

Chapter 33: The Coup

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 33
The Coup

Hua Guofeng

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.

Chapter 32: The Death of Mao Zedong

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 32
The Death of Mao Zedong

Jiang Qing, or Madame Mao, as she was also called, was ambitious to succeed her husband, Mao, upon his death. She wanted to be the next leader of China. But she was not very concerned about Mao’s selection of Hua Guofeng as his successor. Hua seemed like a placable, biddable pushover of a man. And this was probably why Mao had selected him. Mao preferred puppets.

When the time came for a showdown, Jiang felt confident she could easily depose Hua, or become his new marionettist.

And Mao’s health was failing, so it seemed a succession showdown could come at any time. He’d been a chain-smoker most of his adult life, and he had heart and lung disease. He’d suffered a stroke in 1972. And in March 1976, he had a major heart attack.

His last public appearance occurred on May 27, 1976. In July 1976, he suffered a second major heart attack. Then on September 5, 1976, his third major heart attack of the year left him hospitalized as an invalid.

Jiang, the ringleader of the Gang of Four, came to visit him in the hospital. But there was no sincere wish for his well-being. They had been separated for several years now, and their marriage was on the rocks, although few people knew about this.

She was allowed to tend to him, but the way she tended to him raised eyebrows with the medical staff. They warned her she was causing more harm than good, but she insisted on continuing this form of “care.”

Mao’s organs began to fail soon after Jiang’s arrival. His condition deteriorated rapidly. And shortly after midnight, on September 9, 1976, Chairman Mao Zedong passed away from this Earth on a trajectory for wherever the souls of calloused, murderous tyrants are delivered. He was 82 years old.

He was still a hero with the people, in spite of the events since Zhou’s death, so many Chinese were deeply saddened by the news of Mao’s passing. His body lay in state at the Great hall of the People for one week, giving one million Chinese a chance to pay their respects. Many openly wept.

On September 18, 1976, a three-minute silence was observed nationwide, in Mao’s honor. However during this time, some people chose to fire guns, blow whistles, and sound horns. A million people packed into Tiananmen Square, where a band played the socialist standard, The Internationale. Finally, Hua Guofeng, the new leader of China, stood atop Tiananmen Gate and delivered a eulogy.

Mao had wanted cremation, but Jiang Qing demanded that he be embalmed and put on public display, similar to Lenin’s body. So his corpse was preserved in formaldehyde and eventually put on permanent display in 1977, in a mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. It remains there to this day, in a dimly lit chamber, watched by a military honor guard, and with an orange light shining upon his head.

The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, in Tiananmen Square, is a very popular tourist attraction. Photo by Yongxinge. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 33: The Coup.

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.

Chapter 30: The Death of Zhou Enlai

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 30
The Death of Zhou Enlai

Portrait of Zhou Enlai.

Zhou Enlai had been a stabilizing force in the Communist Party, and a big reason why the government was able to survive the Cultural Revolution. He was also very popular with the people. Almost as popular as Mao.

Zhou and Mao also had a history of working well together. Their history went way back to the hardscrabble, bloody days of the Civil War. Zhou had masterminded the Long March of 1934-1935, and during that march, Mao got into a power struggle against two other Communist leaders. Zhou backed Mao, and helped him to emerge victorious.

Mao’s victory in the power struggle of the Long March put Mao on top as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, and established Zhou as Vice-Chairman, in second rank behind Mao. They would both maintain high-ranking positions for the rest of their lives.

Zhou was very popular in China. He was a highly regarded national hero, and this made him almost as untouchable as Mao. Not only had he been a longtime ally of Mao, but Mao must have realized that going after him could easily backfire.

Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing, were both fearful and jealous of Zhou’s popularity. Mao wisely laid off of him, but during the early years of the Cultural Revolution, Jiang was determined to somehow get to Zhou. Since she couldn’t safely attack him directly, she decided to punish him indirectly, by going after those closest to him.

She had his adopted daughter, Sun Weishi, arrested by the Red Guards. They raped and tortured her for seven months, before she finally died in prison in 1968. That same year, Jiang had the Red Guards torture and murder his adopted son, Sun Yang, in the basement of Renmin University. And again that year, Jiang forced Zhou to sign an arrest warrant for his own brother.

This must have been hell for Zhou, but he somehow survived. And he managed to maintain his sanity, as well as his commitment to the Chinese people. He did his best to mitigate the effects of the Cultural Revolution, but only met with very limited success. But it was enough success to keep the fabric of society from completely unraveling, and to maintain a small, simulacrum of moderation within the Communist Party.

Jiang hated Zhou, and the feeling was probably mutual. So after Mao named Zhou to be his successor, Jiang and her Gang of Four stepped up efforts to persecute him. In 1973 and 1974 they directed the Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius campaign. This propaganda campaign cast Confucius in an unflattering light, and attempted to equate Zhou with Confucius, in order to turn public opinion against him.

In 1975, Jiang and the Gang of Four began a new campaign called, Criticizing Song Jiang, Evaluating the Water Margin. This too was an elaborate attempt to paint Zhou as a bad politician.

But these campaigns were not very successful. Zhou was almost as beloved as Mao, and the people didn’t buy into it. He was like Teflon and seemed immune to any of Jiang’s nefarious propaganda campaigns.

Mao’s opinion of Zhou had very briefly warmed in 1972, leading him to name him as his successor. But he cooled to him soon after, because he didn’t like how Zhou had been trying to reverse and modify some of the effects of the Cultural Revolution. But he knew it was too dangerous to go after him directly. Instead, he would have to wait for some sort of chance to take him out sneakily.

That opportunity presented itself in November 1972. That’s when Zhou was diagnosed with bladder cancer. But his medical team was required to report this news to Mao first. In their report, they told Mao that Zhou had an 80-90% chance of survival, with treatment, which would include immediate surgery. But Mao ordered that Zhou should not be told of this diagnosis, and that there should be no treatment nor further examinations.

By the middle of 1974, Zhou was pissing blood and probably wondering what the hell was going on. It was now impossible to hide his diagnosis, so Mao ordered surgery in June, 1974. But it was too late to be very helpful. The cancer had metastasized.

Zhou made his last public appearance in January 1975. His health went steadily downhill after that, and he died of cancer in January 1976, at the age of 77.

Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 31: The Tiananmen Incident.

Chapter 29: Successors

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 29

China kept Lin Biao’s death a secret for awhile, and the public was not informed of it until two months later. Meanwhile, Lin’s supporters were either quietly purged or managed to find refuge in Hong Kong.

When the public was finally notified of his death, and of Lin’s assassination attempts on Mao, people were left feeling shocked and bewildered. Lin had been Mao’s hand-picked successor. It seemed impossible that their revered leader, whom they had worshiped like a god, could make a mistake. And this mistake was a biggie. A real biggie. Suddenly Mao seemed human and fallible in the eyes of the public, and not like a god, after all.

Mao himself felt bummed out about these events. He slipped into a cafard and secluded himself. His health deteriorated, and in January 1972, he suffered a stroke.

Mao wanted a successor who would continue his legacy, but now he didn’t know who to trust for that job. He grew nostalgic for the good old days, and for his old comrades who’d been purged at the start of the Cultural Revolution.

Zhou Enlai was still the premier, in spite of attempts by Jiang Qing to have him purged along with the rest of Mao’s old buddies. And Zhou encouraged Mao to rehabilitate some of his old comrades that Jiang and Lin Biao had purged. Zhou openly blamed the excesses of the Cultural Revolution on Lin, and used that as his excuse for trying to correct these excesses. Encouraging Mao to rehabilitate his old cronies was part of Zhou’s effort to repair the damage.

Up to this point, Mao had been suspicious that Zhou wanted to reverse the Cultural Revolution. But now Mao saw Zhou in a new light, and his suspicions eased for a short while. And so he decided to choose him as his successor, much to the chagrin of his wife, Jiang Qing. Jiang wanted to be the chosen one.

Now Jiang would have to plot much more seriously to discredit Zhou and push him out of her way.

At Zhou’s urging, Mao rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping. Deng was an old comrade of Mao’s, who was a veteran of the Long March and the Civil War. Deng had also worked under Liu Shaoqi, and he’d been purged at the start of the Cultural Revolution, at the same time as Liu.

Mao now had Zhou as his successor. But Zhou also needed a successor. So he chose Deng, and in 1974, convinced Mao to appoint Deng as Vice Premier. This put Deng in the position to not only succeed Zhou, but also to succeed Mao, after Mao and Zhou’s death.

This further angered Jiang, since she had been behind Deng’s purging in 1966. She regarded Deng as competition for power, and as a counterrevolutionary. She controlled the propaganda apparatus of the Communist Party, so she decided to use her power to do something about him. In 1975 she began a campaign to discredit him.

Around this time, Mao appointed Wang Hongwen, a national hero of the Cultural Revolution, to a highly powerful position in the Politburo. Wang soon allied himself with Jiang, and against Zhou and Deng. Jiang now had three strong allies in a political clique that included herself, Wang, Yao Wenyuan (member of the Cultural Revolution Group, and the literary critic who had accused the Hai Rui play as a being a criticism of Mao), and Zhang Chunqiao (member of the Cultural Revolution Group). They were all members of the Politburo’s very influential Standing Committee, and wielded tremendous political power.

Mao dubbed them the Gang of Four.

I’m taking a short vacation, so the next installment will be a little delayed, until Wednesday, September 16th. It will be entitled, Chapter 30: The Death of Zhou Enlai.

Chapter 28: A Mysterious Death

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 28
A Mysterious Death

By the middle of 1969, the Red Guards had been completely disbanded. Now, with all opposition crushed and order finally returning to his nation, Mao could focus on rebuilding China in his own image.

Lin Biao was officially the new leader of China, after the purging of Liu Shaoqi, even though Mao controlled Lin. Mao ensured that Lin was constitutionally confirmed to be his successor, and that Maoism was made the official ideology of the Communist Party.

But this doesn’t mean the Cultural Revolution was over. No, not by a longshot. The Cultural Revolution was part of Mao’s vision of continuous revolution, and as such the revolution had to continue on. No, it wasn’t over, but it was entering a new phase.

This new phase was a safer phase for most citizens. It was a phase of new order, where they could rebuild their country out of the ashes of the chaos they had just survived.

But for the leaders of the Communist Party and government, things weren’t so safe. A tension lingered. Everyone near the top maintained a hyperconsciousness of the one at the very top. Mao was the man, and he was not one to be challenged in any manner. Everyone knew, or should have known, that they had to walk on eggshells if they wanted successful careers and good, long lives.

But one day someone forgot about this and slipped up. And that person was none other than the man directly below Chairman Mao himself. It was Lin Biao. Lin Biao, who was instrumental in the sacking of Liu Shaoqi, and who took his place as the official leader of China, suddenly found himself in the hot seat.

Lin had been a very effective general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), during the civil war. He had led the PLA to decisive victories in Manchuria, and in the taking of coastal provinces in Southeast China. His many successes had led him to the number three ranking among generals in the PLA.

So he had great influence within the PLA, and enjoyed its strong support. And although this was helpful for Lin, it was also problematic, since the PLA had many members in the Politburo. It left Mao feeling a little wary about what Lin could do with his political power, should he choose to usurp Mao.

But Lin knew it was wise to stay on Mao’s good side. And he tried. But this was not always easy to do, especially because of China’s deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union.

When the Cultural Revolution began, China isolated itself after declaring that both the Soviet Union and the United States were its enemies. The Soviets had once been allies of China, but Mao rejected them after he came to believe they were adopting revisionism and straying from the pure teachings of Marx and Engels.

Friction between China and the USSR increased, and they almost went to war in March of 1969, after a border clash near Siberia. By October 1969, war seemed inevitable and senior leaders evacuated Beijing, expecting hostilities to break out at any moment. So on October 18, Lin Biao issued an executive order to the PLA to prepare for war.

This seemed like a routine order one would expect from any ordinary leader of a country in a similar situation. But the problem for Lin Biao was that he was no ordinary leader. Even though it was a routine executive order, he had to pass it through Mao first, to gain his approval. Mao had him on that short of a leash. And he failed to pass it through him. Whoops.

The ever-paranoid Mao felt alarmed, and worried Lin was trying to usurp his authority. And he also worried that war would make the PLA even more powerful within the Politburo, and closer to Lin, thus increasing Lin’s stature at the expense of Mao’s.

Tension developed between Mao and Lin. Mao’s ruminating mind saw Lin as possibly allied with the Soviets, secretly plotting a small war with the USSR as a ruse to gain enough popular support to depose Mao from power. This may sound crazy, but Mao was no stranger to complex plots, so it was easy for his imagination to run so wild.

Lin, on the other hand, feared Mao, and wanted to avoid getting on his bad side. He realized he’d screwed up big time, with that executive order, and he wasn’t sure how to get out of it. So for the next few years, he worried he was going to suffer the same fate as his predecessor, Liu Shaoqi.

In 1971, Mao invited U.S. President Richard Nixon to visit China. It’s speculated by some historians that one reason behind this invitation was to ally himself with the United States, in order to deter the Soviet Union from attacking China and assisting any coup plot Lin might be planning against him. But while this is speculation, it does make sense, due to Mao’s habitual manner of thinking in terms of complex plots to gain power.

Lin Biao in 1971, reading Mao’s Little Red Book, shortly before the author turned on him.

In July 1971, Mao’s paranoia took him over the edge. He decided it was time to purge Lin and his supporters. What happened after this was bizarre, and has been subject to much debate, and has never been completely resolved.

The official Chinese government explanation is that Lin tried to assassinate Mao on September 11, 1971. First he tried to sabotage Mao’s train. But Mao unexpectedly changed his route and bypassed the saboteurs. Then he tried a couple of other assassination attempts, but Mao’s bodyguards intervened.

By the official explanation, it seemed Mao had incredible luck that day, perhaps bringing to mind the luck of Inspector Clouseau.

Wreckage of Lin Biao’s plane near Ondorkhaan, Mongolia.

The official account goes on to say that Lin tried to flee the country after his repeated failures to kill Mao. On September 13, 1971, he boarded an airplane with his wife and son, and headed for the Soviet Union to seek asylum. But he never made it. His plane got as far as Mongolia, where it crashed, killing all onboard.

That was the official explanation.

But in the late-1970’s, the Chinese government destroyed records related to their investigation of Lin’s death, lending concerns of some sort of cover-up. Analysts and experts outside China have expressed a lot of skepticism about China’s version of events. This is not only because the investigative records were destroyed, but also because the explanation seems improbable and somewhat nonsensical.

However historians do agree that Lin was killed in a plane crash in Mongolia on 9/13/71. But they have never figured out how or why he would have flown to that location in the first place. Much of it makes no sense, and the details of Lin’s death remain a mystery to this day.

Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 29: Successors.

Chapter 27: The Lost Generation

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 27
The Lost Generation

Mango Fever happened quite by accident, without any planning on Mao’s part. But many other aspects of the Cultural Revolution were carefully planned and instigated by this madman, to effect as much pain as possible on the people he ruled.

On May 25, 1968, Mao launched the Cleansing the Class Ranks campaign, which was the next part of his Cultural Revolution. The stated purpose of this movement was to purge Communist society of traitors, spies, capitalist-roaders, and the Five Black Categories. These five black categories were:

Rich farmers

The Red Guards stepped up their persecution efforts, Struggle Sessions, and beatings. Lynchings took place. Suspects were tortured, and many massacres were carried out. Around 30 million people were persecuted, and up to 1.5 million perished. Or, that is, they were “cleansed” from the ranks.

By the summer of 1968, Mao had succeeded in gaining the complete control and cooperation of the military. His reign over China was undisputed. Except from one area. The Red Guards.

Mao decided he no longer needed the Red Guards. And by god, these assholes were wreaking havoc across the country. Things were getting too dangerous and out of hand, so Mao decided it was time for them to disband.

But the fervor and zeal of these young radicals was hard to contain. They refused to disband.

Urban youths from Shenyang being sent down to the countryside, in 1968.

This was a big problem. How do you get 12 million people to go home? But the ever ingenious Mao finally came up with a solution. In December 1968, he launched the Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement.

Mao declared that privileged urban youth must be sent to rural areas to learn from workers and farmers. These privileged urban youth were high school and college graduates.

Mao proclaimed that by moving to the countryside, youths could “develop their talents to the full” through education among the rural population. According to Mao, “the countryside is a vast expanse of heaven and earth where we can flourish.” These lofty words became the slogan for the Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement.

This program effectively dispersed the Red Guards, who mostly consisted of privileged urban youth. They moved to less populated areas where they would cause less disruption and be reeducated. This program went on for the next 10 years, displacing a total of 17 million youths.

Conditions for them were often harsh, and those who could not handle the grueling labor and tough lifestyle often died. They’re referred to in China as the Lost Generation, as some never returned from this exile. However, one who did return was Xi Jinping, the current Communist Party General Secretary, and leader of China.

Xi has revived some aspects of the Cultural Revolution, such as by imprisoning and reeducating millions of ethnic Uighurs, while subjecting them to hard labor. But this is not a tale about Xi. It’s about someone whose cruelty has not yet been eclipsed by Xi. It’s about Xi’s inspiration from the past, Chairman Mao.

Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 28: A Mysterious Death.


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