China after Mao: the only certainty is uncertainty
HAROLD ELLITHORPE,KEVIN DOYLESeptember201976
China after Mao: the only certainty is uncertainty
The terse announcement on Radio Peking brought an electrifying stillness to the capital’s late afternoon crowds. A solemn voice intoned the warning that in 30 minutes there would be a grave and important declaration. Hundreds of workers huddled cross-legged on the ground around loudspeakers and radio sets, waiting, glum-
faced, for news that many had expected and dreaded for months: Mao Tse-tung, perhaps the greatest revolutionary of the 20th century, was dead at the age of 82.
His passing, after a long, crippling series of illnesses, left nearly a quarter of mankind—800 million people—without a clearly defined leadership or direction. Throughout much of the rest of the world the death of the legendary Communist statesman left a profound sense of loss and uncertainty about who will eventually inherit his mantle as the head of modern China. Tributes to Mao from most national leaders were lavish. But in many Western capitals there were muted misgivings as well about the future leadership and policies of China. The death of Mao, the preeminent leader of the Chinese Revolution for nearly 50 years, comes at a time when China’s political situation seems more uncertain than in any period since the late 1960s. During the past 18 months, four other members of the nine-man standing committee of the party politburo, China’s premier policy-making body,have died, including former Premier Chou Enlai. Peking has been riven by a divisive political campaign for months. There have been isolated cases of violent conflict and persistent reports of a breakdown in public discipline. Chou’s death last winter was followed by the sudden dismissal of Teng Hsiao-ping, the man who seemed in line
for the Chinese leadership after Mao’s departure. In the days immediately following his death, there was no one in sight who could take Mao’s place as China’s overwhelmingly dominant figure, the master military strategist and political tactician who transformed the country into a modern state.
iS A consensus seemed to be emerging I among analysts that a transitional collecjn tive form of leadership will likely emerge, ^ built around the new premier Hua Kuo1 feng, relatively unknown both within and outside China until he was promoted to premier and first vice-chairman of the Communist Party last April following the downfall of Teng, accused of being a “capitalist roader.” Since then, he has managed to tighten his grip on the leadership to some extent. He headed party relief efforts after the devastating earthquake in north-
ern China in late July. Recently, in a major speech, he called for strict restoration of law and order in the country against “class enemies.” But it is not clear how much actual support he enjoys within the party or to what extent he was catapulted into office because he found favor with Mao.
The three other surviving members of the standing committee who might merit a role in a collective leadership are: Wang Hung-wen, a youthful leftist from Shanghai who gained prominence during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and was selected by Mao in 1973 as a possible heir; vice-premier Chang Chunchiao, perhaps the toughest administrator on the national scene, and Yao Wen-yuan, a propaganda expert. They have all worked with Mao’s wife, Chiang Ching and she, too, is considered a potential leadership contender.
Mao Tse-tung was born December 26, 1893, in a rural part of Hunan Province. China at the time was wracked by civil strife, beset by grinding poverty and en-
croached on by more advanced foreign powers. But the young Mao would live to fulfill his boyhood dream of restoring it to its tradition as a great nation. With stunning perseverance and exquisitely planned strategy, he harnessed the forces of agrarian discontent and nationalism to turn a tiny band of peasants into an army of millions, which he led to victory throughout China in 1949 after 22 years of fighting. In the years after the People’s Republic of China was established, he launched a series of profound, sometimes convulsive campaigns to transform a semi-feudal, illiterate agricultural country encompassing almost four million square miles into a modern, semi-industrialized socialist state.
With China’s resurgence assured, Mao turned to charting a new course in foreign affairs, putting an end to a century of humiliation at the hands of Japan and the West and regaining respect and recognition. Finally, in 1972, even the United States abandoned two decades of implacable hostility and President Richard Nixon flew to Peking where he was embraced by a smiling Mao. One of the most remarkable men of the century, the Chinese leader was an immensely complex man: an impatient, romantic dreamer at times—a legacy from his compassionate Buddhist mother—he was also by turns, shrewd, demanding, abrasive, even cruel. Describing himself as “part monkey, part tiger,” Mao was also fond of women, although he ignored them until his late twenties. He refused to consummate his first marriage, arranged by his parents. His second wife was murdered by an anticommunist warlord in 1930, but his next spouse, Ho Tzu-chen, bore him an unknown number of children. Unfortunately, the children had to be given away to peasants during the legendary Long March in 1934 as the Communists fled north from the advancing Nationalist forces. The strain is said to have driven Ho insane and she was sent to Moscow for treatment. While she was away, Mao met and married a film starlet. Chiang Ching, as she became known, was later to become a power in her own right during the Cultural Revolution.
Mao first took full control of the Chinese Communists in 1935 following a series of power struggles with rivals. One of his most active opponents was Chang Kuotao, a man who rivaled Mao in armed strength and seniority. After losing the struggle, Chang joined the Nationalists and eventually made his way to Canada. Now enfeebled and ill at 78, he predicted from his Toronto nursing home that Mao’s death will lead to a serious fight for the leadership. “It is difficult to say whether the struggles would involve bloodshed,” Chang told an interviewer. He claimed to hold no grudge against Mao. “We all have passed our time. Like me, Mao was a mortal being and death is merely a matter of time.”
After driving Chiang Kai-shek’s Na-
tionalist forces from the mainland in 1949, Mao’s foreign policy problems came thick ¡ and fast. When United Nations forces began driving toward the Yalu River in the Korean War at the start of the 1950s, he made the decision to send thousands of “volunteers” from the Chinese army to support the North Koreans, risking a massive air attack from UN units. The attack never developed, the Chinese acquitted themselves well and Mao turned his attention to Moscow where relations were already beginning to deteriorate with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who disliked China’s economic development policies. Tensions mounted rapidly and in 1960, the Soviets abruptly withdrew all their technicians from China. The conflict reached its climax in the winter of 1969 when Soviet and Chinese patrols clashed along the frozen banks of the Ussuri River. Afterward, Mao’s growing belief that Russia was the greatest threat to world peace enabled him to take a more sanguine view of the West and helped bring about a gradual improvement in relations, dramatized by President Nixon’s 1972 visit.
To revitalize China, to cleanse the party and to ensure the revolution survived him, Mao launched the Great Cultural Revolution in 1966. He acknowledged later it had consequences he did not foresee. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters vere mobilized as Red Guards. Often unruly, given to fighting among themselves, they roamed the country humiliating and chastizing Mao’s opponents in the party. After two years of turmoil and bloodshed, order was finally restored.
Mao’s vision of China in his later years was of an egalitarian, revolutionary Utopia in which mass enthusiasm alone provided society’s motive force. “I have witnessed the tremendous energy of the masses,” he once wrote. “On this foundation it is possible to accomplish any task whatsoever.” The late Edgar Snow, an American journalist and author who in 1936 was one of the first Westerners to meet Mao, offered a description of the man which seemed to endure through the years. He had, said Snow, the “personal habits of a peasant, plain speaking and plain living.” After a visit to the Communists’ guerrilla headquarters in' Shensi in 1935, Snow reported that Mao lived in a two-room cave like other peasants. His chief luxury was a mosquito net and he owned only his blankets and his cotton uniforms. But it was Mao himself who ofI fered perhaps one of the best insights into his own guiding philosophy. “A revolution,” he wrote, “is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery. It cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous.
A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” A better blueprint for the Chinese revolution would be hard to find. 0237
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.