CHAPTER 16 "Things Fall Apart"
We are now coming to the end game. The minor pieces have been swept from the board and the major pieces remain to be carefully placed around the King. After the Ninth Congress (1969), Short tells us that in the PB there were two antagonistic players with about equal support-- namely Lin Biao (1907-1971) and Madame Mao, Jiang Qing (1914-1991).
They had basically the same politics, so their struggle was over raw power, "to win the Chairman's favour." Mao thought he could control the situation, but, as Short will explain, the rivalry between Lin and Jiang "would blow apart all Mao's carefully laid plans to ensure that his policies survived him."
Short now tells us how Lin Biao fell from power. After Liu Shaoqi was removed from the scene there was no one who was "Head of State. "Lin tried to get Mao to take that post. Mao got it into his head that Lin was trying "to kick him upstairs" into a ceremonial post and trying to take the actual ruling of China himself.
In August 1970 at a CC plenum, Lin gave a speech praising Mao as a "genius." The next day Chen Boda (1904-1989) an ally of Lin, attacked Zhang Chunqiao (1917-2005) an ally of Jiang Qing for being covertly against "Mao Zedong Thought." Chen then proposed Mao for Head of State with Lin as deputy Head of State.
This however backfired, as Mao considered Zhang as one of his allies, not simply the ally of his wife. He denounced Chen (who was soon purged) and definitely refused to become "Head of State." In fact the post was abolished. "In formal terms," Short writes, "Lin himself emerged unscathed." But, Short says, he made a big mistake not to have "made a groveling self-criticism" to Mao about how his allies, led by Chen, could have acted the way they did.
Mao became suspicious of Lin and decided to reduce some of his power as Defense Minister. By August of 1971 Mao was ready to act. He took a special train to Wuhan and stopped along the way to talk to political and military leaders about the Chen Boda affair of the previous year. He suggested that Lin Biao was also partially responsible for the factional fight Chen had tried to start.
Word of these meetings got back to Lin and his followers in September. Lin's son Lin Liguo (1945-1971) was active in convincing his father that they should flee to the Soviet Union before he ended up like Liu Shaoqi (1898-1969; rehabilitated,1980)! So Lin and some of his family fled in a military aircraft which was only partially fueled!
The flight was reported to Mao but he ordered the air force to do nothing. "The skies will rain;" he said, "widows will remarry; these things are unstoppable. Let them go."
They got as far as Mongolia before the fuel ran out, then the plane crashed and everyone was killed, Lin, his son and wife, his driver and another five people. Sic transit.
Short is a little hard on Mao in the aftermath of all this. He tries to read Mao's mind, a risky procedure for any biographer. All we know is that Mao became very depressed and was bed ridden for two months "with high blood pressure and a lung infection." Short says this was "psychosomatic." and he was really just unable to handle the fact that Lin had fled instead making obeisance to him. Short himself later makes remarks that indicate that Mao's illness was far from self induced. He says for instance that Mao was suffering from "congestive heart failure" and a few months later when he passed out it was due to his still infected lungs. Neither of these are "psychosomatic."
Mao was, however, in a funk. First Liu and now Lin. It seemed to be bad news for anyone Mao chose to succeed him. Throughout the Party and in the country, except for zealous Red Guard youth, Short says the fall of Lin produced a "general cynicism." What changed the situation was the announcement that President Nixon was going to visit China-- this "after" as Short says, "twenty years of unblinking hostility."
I'm not going to go over all the backdoor dealings that led up to this meeting. It began, as some of you might remember, with Ping Pong Diplomacy, when a US Ping Pong team was invited to China (a thaw) and culminated with Nixon's trip in February 1972.
The trip resulted in two major changes in the world configuration of forces. It signaled that China had come of age as a world power and was going to be integrated into the world system (it eventually replaced Taiwan on the UN Security Council, veto and all) and it meant the end of Mao's phantasy that China would be a beacon unto the nations as the new world revolutionary center.
Nixon, who knew what he was doing, wanted to be open with China because he knew the US was going down in Vietnam and he hoped friendship with China would slow down or prevent other dominoes from falling! Short quotes from an article Nixon wrote a year earlier where he said the US should deal with China "as a great and progressing nation, not as the epicentre of world revolution." And this is what has come to pass.
A telling moment in the meeting between Mao and Nixon is recounted by Short. Mao said to Nixon, "People like me sound like a lot of big cannons. For example, things like 'the whole world should unite and defeat imperialism..." -- after this comment both Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) and Mao "laughed uproariously." The giant Red Star over China was becoming a white dwarf.
Mao was also thinking of a new successor. Past experience would indicate this was not an enviable job. He decided on Wang Hongwen (1935-1992) who ended up in the Gang of Four, a 39 year old CC member from Shanghai "whose General Headquarters had engineered the Cultural Revolutions first 'seizure of power' almost six years before."
Mao also realized that he had better start "rehabilitating" the "old guard" if he wanted to have stability and experienced people handling the country after he was gone. So he brought back "the number two Party person taking the capitalist road"-- Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) -- as a vice-premier.
In 1973 the 10th Party Congress took place. This Congress put into motion Mao's plan for a "mix of radicals and veteran cadres to rule China" when he departed. Wang Hongwen was ranked #3 after Mao and Zhou Enlai. Later he put Deng in charge of the PLA. His grand plan was to have Deng run the government and Wang the Party with Wang having ultimate authority. Short says that Mao's plan was finally in place by the summer of 1974 but "again it would turn out to be a house of cards."
Now another bout of factional struggle broke out. Mao, Short says, was trying to do the impossible by melding together the radicals and the veterans. The symbolic union of this plan was the partnership between Wang and Deng. "The fatal flaw in the logic of Mao's arrangements," Short writes, "came from the tension inspired by his contradictory impulses towards radicalism and reason."
To use a crude dialectical analogy, the opposite trends symbolized by Wang and Deng were not really transcended in the new synthesis represented by the Tenth Congress. The synthesis was really held together by the force of Mao's authority so it was artificial, and exterior rather than an immanent synthetic growth and reconciliation from within the Party. Now Mao's health was failing, he was to be in a bad way for the last two years left to him. Whenever his hand was relaxed due to his ailments the two groups represented by Wang and Deng "grew into warring factions."
A month before the opening of the Tenth Congress, Mao had opened an initiative for a big campaign to attack Confucius. Ostensibly this was really to attack the remaining followers of Lin Biao. It was claimed that Lin Biao was an admirer of Confucius and, Short says, "of the feudal landlord system that the sage extolled in his writings." [Historical note: Confucius did not leave behind any writings nor did he "extol feudalism. What we actually know about his thought comes from the Analects, a work compiled by his followers-- Cf. my "Confucius: A Marxist Dialogue" archived on Midwestern Marx].
Short thinks that Zhou Enlai was the real target and that Mao was following the Chinese precept of "pointing at the locust tree in order to revile the mulberry." Confucius was not really the problem, nor was Lin. It appears that the real instigator of this movement was Jiang Qing and her manipulation of Mao.
Jiang Qing accused Zhou of "being impatient" to replace Mao. Mao thought this ridiculous and, Short says, told Zhou and Wang Hongwen that it was Jiang Qing who was impatient to be rid of him. Zhou was very sick with cancer and was beyond plotting against Mao. Since the 30s he had been loyal to Mao in any case. Probably due to his illness Zhou gave up his foreign minister role to Deng Xiaoping. Meanwhile, the struggle against Confucius "became a full-fledged national movement."
But Jiang Qing used this movement for her own factional purposes, which were to undermine Zhou and keep Deng from getting too much influence so that she might assume the real power after Mao was gone. Mao figured this out and struck back.
Short recounts that at the PB meeting of 17 July 1974 he stated that Jiang Qing "does not represent me, she only represents herself." He also attacked his nominal successor Wang Hongwen, who was a weak reed and instead of staying above the factional struggles had joined with Jiang Qing. Mao denounced Wang for being "in a small faction of four people." This was the origin of the famous "Gang of Four" [Wang Hongwen, Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan (1931-2005)].
After this meeting, the Gang of Four, instead of learning from Mao's rebuke, redoubled its efforts to undermine Zhou and Deng. Mao began to think of Wang, his number 2, as a fool. As a result he promoted Deng and gave him more authority, saying he was "a person of extraordinary ability with a firm ideological standpoint." After January 1975, the CC meetings were no longer chaired by Zhou [too sick] or Wang [Mao was going to dump him] but by Deng [but not for long!].
Nevertheless,Mao still dreamed of a unified leadership. So he wanted one of the radicals to have power too, as "a counterweight to Deng." Wang was a fool, so he was out. Jiang Qing "was the kiss of death" as too many of the rank and file were against her. Yao was too inexperienced. That left Zhang Chunqiao, so he was appointed Second Vice -Premier [Deng was First] and head of the PLA General Political Department.
Since it was obvious Zhou was very sick and on his way out, the anti-Confucius movement tapered off. Instead the Gang of Four concentrated on Deng. Mao, however, wanted a united party and a program to modernize China to prepare for the 21th Century. He and Zhou, Short writes, drew up a program "for modernising agriculture, industry, defense and science and technology before the end of the century, so that our national economy will be ... in the world's front rank."
Deng and his allies went to work to get this new program off the ground and up and running. His work was attacked by the Gang of Four as "empiricism" -- "a code-word for Deng's emphasis on solving practical problems rather than giving attention to politics and ideology."
Mao, who wanted unity in the Party now, attacked the anti-empiricists as "dogmatists" and stated that both sides were examples of Revisionism. He also soon realized that Zhang would not be a good successor so he decided on a more neutral figure, Hua Guofeng (1921-2008).
Meanwhile, the Gang of Four kept up its anti-Deng struggle. At this time, Deng made a slip. The message Mao was getting was that once he was gone Deng would renounce the Cultural Revolution.
So Mao asked Deng to give a report and judgment of the CR. Deng thought it was 70% correct and 30% wrong (Short says this was his usual formula in evaluating things [very mechanical it seems]). He "politely declined' the assignment. Mao surmised that Deng did not want to go on record saying anything really positive about the CR.
This led to Mao's opinion that "the capitalist-roaders are still on the capitalist road." By the end of 1975 Deng had not lost his positions, but "for all practical purposes ... had been stripped of his responsibilities."
[It is interesting to note that Deng did eventually come to power, rejected the Cultural Revolution and, many think, firmly put China on the capitalist road. Yet the road he took fulfilled Mao's program to put China in the front ranks of the world's powers. What road China is on is a matter of dispute.]
In early January 1976 Zhou Enlai died. There was a spontaneous outpouring of grief from the Chinese people that took Mao and the Gang of Four leadership by surprise. A low key funeral had been planned but the people staged unofficial demonstrations of grief. On Jan. 15 Deng gave the official eulogy "but it was to be his last public appearance."
In April, Hua Guofeng became First Vice-Chairman of the CPC and the Premier of China. It was obvious that Mao was failing (he died five months later) and the Gang of Four was not happy with the idea of the chairmanship going to Hua. Short says, however, that it was the "arrogance and stupidity" of Jiang Qing which would ultimately lead to the downfall of the Gang.
Mao died on September 9, 1976. The journey of a thousand li that had begun on December 26, 1893 was over. It lasted 83 years, 8 months and 14 days.
Next Up: Epilog
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.