China’s Great Terror

Mao's Last Revolution

by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 693 pp., $35.00

Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own solutions. On March 18, 1966, General Luo Ruiqing, a veteran revolutionary and then chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, tried to commit suicide by jumping from the top of a three-story building. The attempt failed, though his legs were shattered and he ended up paralyzed, unable to walk. On May 17 Deng Tuo, the Beijing Party secretary for culture and education and former editor of the main Communist newspaper, People’s Daily, took his own life in Beijing. Six days later Tian Jiaying, who for many years had been one of Mao’s most effective and influential political secretaries, also committed suicide. On June 25, the director of the Beijing foreign affairs office took the same way out and he was followed on July 10 by the director of Beijing’s municipal propaganda department, Li Qi, who took his own life after being denounced as an “ultra-vanguard opponent of Mao Zedong Thought.” Two weeks after Li, another senior Communist bureaucrat hanged himself.

What was it that these experienced revolutionary professionals saw as so full of menace that they could not bear to confront it? In varying degrees all of these men had lived through terrible times: the civil wars of the 1930s, the Japanese occupation of their homeland, the renewed civil war of the 1940s against the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, the Korean War, violent land reform, the anti-rightist movement that followed the partial thaw of the Hundred Flowers period, the Great Leap Forward and subsequent famine. They all knew much about Mao’s character, his bizarre ideological swerves, his stated indifference to loss of human life, his tortuous language, his unpredictable modus operandi; they had all sat through hundreds of hours of “study groups” and had prepared numerous “self-criticisms”; they were used to purges and the sudden vanishings of relatives, friends, and colleagues.

As Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals show, the most convincing explanation for the terminal despair of so many well-placed and well-informed Party personnel was that each of them had the experience and the knowledge to see how, in late 1965 and early 1966, a complex series of intersecting pieces was being put into place by Mao and his self-selected personal advisers and confidants. This was an eclectic group that included People’s Liberation Army Marshal and Minister of Defense Lin Biao, Mao’s wife (his third), Jiang Qing, Mao’s longtime speechwriter and ideological trouble-shooter Chen Boda, his security expert Kang Sheng, two leading ideologues at the Shanghai Party headquarters, and China’s long-term premier, Zhou Enlai. Most important was their realization that Mao had clearly decided to carry out his belief that the Chinese socialist revolution was being sidelined by the “forces of revisionism” (whether these forces were meant to be pro-Soviet, pro-capitalist, or…

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