China’s television viewers were shocked this month at the image of their “great helmsman,” Chairman Mao Tse-tung, feebly greeting foreign visitors. The once robust Mao, who swam the Yangtze to prove he was still fit at 72, was fading visibly at 82. His leonine head lolled back and his jaw sagged as he greeted New Zealand’s prime minister, Robert Muldoon, and, later, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Both meetings lasted less than 15 minutes. Muldoon later described Mao as “weak and very fragile” and noted that he seemed to tire during their short chat. “His spirit is still there,” Muldoon added, telling newsmen in Hong Kong that “senility is too strong a word for his condition.” He was told, Muldoon said, that Mao had suffered a stroke—not recently but some time before—“and his condition seemed consistent with that.”
China-watchers in Hong Kong concluded some time ago that Mao had suffered a number of minor “cerebral accidents” which left him with aphasia, an inability to control the speech muscles. Judging by his recent appearances, Mao may have suffered further attacks this spring. Rumors circulating through China say Mao is sinking rapidly. Since midApril, security police and Communist party officials have been ordered to halt such rumors and to track down the “counterrevolutionaries” spreading them.
Premier Hua Kuo-feng, named in
early April as Mao’s virtual successor, has yet to consolidate his authority. Almost unknown, even to millions of Chinese, Hua leads a shaky and perhaps temporary coalition of radical Maoist puritans, pragmatic moderates, and conservatives. After promulgation of the “two wise decisions” (to promote Hua, and oust vice-premier Teng Hsiao-ping from his party and state posts), China’s political and military cadres were ordered to pledge allegiance to the new regime. Dutifully, oaths of loyalty poured in from mass rallies throughout the country, with all the top echelon of the party hierarchy (except, of course,
Teng) declaring they would “obey Chairman Mao to the death.” But this pro forma act of fealty has still failed to give the new Premier the kind of all-out support he will need to survive the inevitable crisis when Mao dies. So a nationwide drive for support has been launched. Hua’s own aides from the Ministry of Public Security (a portfolio he still holds) recently toured the more touchy provincial capitals and ordered a crackdown on any sign of “capitalist roaders like Teng Hsiao-ping.”
In mid-May a joint editorial of the People’s Daily newspaper, the Red Flag theoretical journal and the military’s own Liberation Army Daily frankly described the problem: “Chieftains of the revisionist line, like Liu Shao-chi, Lin Piao and Teng Hsiao-ping, hold a very large proportion of the party and state power . . . The power they hold could be used to recruit deserters and renegades, form cliques to serve their own selfish interests, rig up a bourgeois headquarters, formulate a revisionist line and push it from top to bottom.”
Such activities may already be happening within the subterranean political streams that flow almost unseen across China. Outside observers noted a strange array of occurrences which seemed to confirm that China is far more troubled than Peking pretends. While Peking propagandists cited dramatic increases in national industrial and resource production, shipments of many exports were erratic. The Philippines said its normal oil shipments were down. Cement deliveries to Hong Kong were interrupted. Japanese importers were told that major shiploads of soybeans would not be sent as scheduled. Traders at the spring Canton trade fair were disappointed by shortages of some goods. More to the issue, a man identified thus far only as a “counterrevolutionary” attempted to bomb the Soviet embassy in Peking, killing two guards.
From reports of important party meetings being held in known trouble spots such as Changsha, Chengkow and Hangchow, Hua’s new regime is deeply concerned that firm control be reestablished in the wake of the April disturbances which saw 100,000 dissenters riot in Peking’s Tien An Men square. As though to prove that the ailing “great leader” was still directing the country’s affairs, Peking propagandists were trotting out new quotations from him. “Will there be a need for revolution 1,000 years from now?” Mao asks, and then answers: “There is always a need' for revolution.” Because, he explained, people “don’t like big shots oppressing them.” HAROLD ELLITHORPE
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