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The Mark of Cain

Liu also said something that would bring about his death during the Cultural Revolution, when his past words were held against him. “I must admit mistakes to you…. There’s no one who doesn’t make a mistake; in the whole world there is no man who doesn’t make mistakes.” This was an obvious—and for Liu, fatal—reference to Mao. Mao’s closest companions of the Yan’an Round Table had now seen how he could make a catastrophic and willful mistake. Mr. MacFarquhar observes that such doubts, although soon enough men like Liu and Zhou would crawl for having voiced them, “made Mao inordinately suspicious of their private perceptions of him as a post-revolutionary leader.”

In Anhui, where Mr. MacFarquhar believes some eight million people died of starvation, the Party First Secretary, Zeng Xisheng, bravely tried to introduce intelligent reforms in agricultural production. Mao turned on Zeng and the top leaders of the Yan’an Round Table failed to defend him. This episode demonstrated the Chairman’s power to escape condemnation for a catastrophe which he had brought about himself—and underlines one of Mr. MacFarquhar’s principal theses: “From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s…Mao was always in overall charge if not always in day-to-day command.”

Zeng was considered so capable that in 1960, in addition to Anhui, he was put in charge of Shandong—where in 1960 there had been 650,000 “extra deaths,” i.e., beyond the expected rate. In both provinces he began to experiment with a form of the “household responsibility system,” called baochan daohu, which meant that each peasant family could decide how much it would produce; if it produced more than the norm, it would receive bonuses. Zeng was careful to insist that this was not a retreat from socialism and that “the caps of individual operation, restoration, and retreat can’t be stuffed on our heads.” (“Wearing a cap” was a euphemism for disgrace for deviationism; those guilty of it, even some top leaders during the Cultural Revolution, were often forced to wear tall dunce’s caps.) Zeng reported what he intended to do to Mao, who replied that Zeng could experiment but that if it went wrong, “you’ll just have to make a self-criticism.”

At first, Zeng had his supporters in the upper echelons of the Party. Deng Xiaoping, referring to the Anhui experiment, used an Anhui peasant expression which most people think is his own: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white; so long as it catches the mouse, it’s a good cat.” Zeng and his supporters were aware of the bitter complaints of peasants that, under the Maoist system, everyone, lazy or industrious, received basically the same rewards. “The political conundrum,” notes Mr. MacFarquhar, “was how to [remedy this]…without being accused of restoring family farming or even capitalist agriculture.” In addition, some of Mao’s colleagues were moving toward other policies that he didn’t like, including relaxing hostility toward intellectuals, the United States, the Soviet Union, and India. Mao, Mr. MacFarquhar writes, was in danger of becoming outflanked by his colleagues; “his policy preferences were being implicitly questioned as irrelevant at best and harmful at worst.3

But in 1962 Zeng was dismissed. This “rid Mao of a senior official whom he felt was flouting him on rural policy…. The Anhui party fell into line… and…issued an abject self-criticism.” Zeng’s high-ranking supporters, led by President Liu Shaoqi, soon turned against him. As Mr. MacFarquhar observes, “Ironically, Mao, who believed in unleashing people, shrank from freeing the peasantry.”


The Chairman’s doubts about the soundness of his closest comrades and hence about “revolutionary successors” were sharpened by memories of 1956 in the Soviet Union and Nikita Khrushchev’s onslaught on Stalin, and of the Hungarian revolt. These had caused Mao to wonder how to avert similar developments in China, and he toyed briefly with the old Communist stratagem of a United Front that would include a variety of different tendencies. But in 1957, when he asked for advice from intellectuals on how to remedy defects within his own party, Mao was astounded by the vehement criticism with which they responded once they believed (probably wrongly) that he genuinely wanted to hear what they thought. This led to the Hundred Flowers Campaign, followed by the Anti-Rightist Movement, in which hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were purged under the direction of Deng Xiaoping, who went to his grave almost forty years later insisting it had been necessary.

In late 1962, distrusting his old comrades despite their groveling, Mao “began to assemble an informal cabinet to assist him, an ad hoc coalition of trusted supporters…which would become a truly ‘anti-party group’ when the Cultural Revolution was launched” in 1966. “If revolution from above was now impossible, it would have to be revolution from below. If the party could not change society, then Mao would unleash society to change the party.”4

Thus it was that in 1966, Mao sacked Peng Zhen, Peking’s Party boss, Lu Dingyi, the propaganda chief, General Luo Ruiqing, who was in daily command of the army, and General Yang Shangkun, who ran the Party’s central office. (It is another irony of Chinese politics that on May 20, 1989, General Yang joined Premier Li Peng in declaring martial law in Tiananmen.) Soon he would rid himself of President Liu Shaoqi and Party Secretary Deng Xiaoping. As in 1959, when Mao purged Marshal Peng Dehuai, no one supported anyone else against Mao’s accusations. Instead, and of course vainly, each was willing to incriminate others to save himself. Was there no code of loyalty, Mr. MacFarquhar wonders? Or, in the case of Liu, who had been a Party leader longer than Mao, was it the situation of “a rabbit before a boa constrictor?”5

MacFarquhar says on the last page of his trilogy, “The Cultural Revolution bore the mark of Cain from birth.” In my judgment Mao’s mark of Cain was apparent to those about him long before he took power in Peking. For their study of Mao and the Party in Yan’an, where the Round Table which Mao would eventually shatter was formed, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic (to which Mr. MacFarquhar refers),6 David Apter of Yale and Tony Saich, then at Leiden, interviewed 150 Yan’an veterans, including peasants, workers, soldiers, teachers, writers, underground workers, one of Mao’s secretaries, and his photographers. They also interviewed “some very angry widows, survivors of those whose faction, or unit, had been on the losing side in the internal struggles for power within the CCP.” What Professors Apter and Saich—who by and large are admiring of the Party’s record during the Yan’an years—say of their subjects helps us to understand why Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, and Deng Xiaoping were as servile as they were, no matter what Mao did.

It is true that in his private life Mao was ruthless. Although Party hagiography gives the impression that he remarried after his first wife, Yang Kai-hui, was strangled by Chiang Kai-shek’s agents, in fact he abandoned her for his next wife, He Zi-zhen, while Yang was still alive. He subsequently betrayed He, who had survived the Long March, for Jiang Qing, and packed He off to Moscow for medical treatment. (When Jiang became burdensome, she too was was sent to the Soviet doctors.) This cruelty within his own family, however, would not have terrified Mao’s inner circle; Deng had three wives, Liu Shaoqi six. Zhou Enlai is renowned for having had only one.

It was Mao’s penchant for violence that was frightening. According to Mr. Apter and Mr. Saich, “Very few of those interviewed had been exempt from physical abuse and verbal assault…. All had survived by learning how to keep their mouths shut, except to parrot the appropriate line and use the exact words, phrases, and expressions countenanced by the authorities.” The authors discuss four challenges to Mao’s power, each of which “ended in the death or exile of Mao’s designated opponent. In each case his victory was complete…. By demolishing anyone who dared to challenge him…Mao was able to position himself not only as a locus of power within the party, but also as a source of power in and of himself….”

Mao’s taste for killing enemies emerged years before he arrived in Yan’an at the end of the Long March. Between 1930 and 1934—before the Long March began—he was involved in a bitter civil war in Jiangxi province. Although his main enemy was the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek, he contended, too, with shadowy provincial adversaries, referred to in documents at the time as the “AB Corps,” some of whose members were said to have infiltrated the Party. Mao directed a purge against these so-called counterrevolutionaries which resulted, Apter and Saich write, in “thousands of arrests and executions within the Red Army itself.” In December 1930 there was an “incident” in the town of Futian allegedly involving the AB Corps. The main specialist on the “Futian Incident” is Stephen Averill of Michigan State University, who is also a guest editor of the latest volume of Mao’s Road to Power, a project based at Harvard and directed by Stuart Schram, the West’s leading Mao specialist, whose aim is to collect, retranslate, and annotate every available piece of writing by Mao between 1912 and 1949.

The Futian Incident remains so controversial that the authorities in Peking still have not made public Mao’s basic document on the subject (which Mr. Schram says exists). But the Chairman mentions the problem of dealing with the AB Corps in documents included in Mr. Schram’s new volume. Mao says the AB Corps were “liquidationists” and that

although we have wiped out a large number of AB Corps members…, yet there still must be many of them hiding in our ranks, working as spies for the White army, creating rumors, sabotaging and disrupting the revolutionary forces. Right now, we have ferreted out some more AB Corps members who escaped our scrutiny last time.

In his introduction Mr. Averill seems to support this judgment, describing the AB Corps as “disgruntled, desperate, and quite possibly counterrevolutionary local cadres…[who] threatened to increase rather than reduce internal dissension.”

In another book, however, Mr. Averill exposes what seems to have been an early Maoist fiction about the Corps, a fiction that was used to justify great violence. “There is no reason whatsoever to think there were ever elaborate, multitiered secret AB Corps networks plotting the destruction of the revolution….”7 He describes the struggle as arising from “the complex society of the Jiangxi hill country, the local revolutionary movement it had nurtured, and the actions of the movement’s opponents….” On the subject of the purges, he says,

Many campaigns to suppress counterrevolutionaries were conducted within the Red Army, campaigns whose scale and organised quality leave little doubt that they were approved or directed by high leaders such as Mao…. It is impossible to say precisely how many thousands of people died in the purges, but they included virtually all the regions’ early revolutionary leaders and a large percentage of even low-ranking cadres.

Mr. Averill quotes Xiao Ke, one of the Party’s military leaders at the time of the AB Corps allegations, in 1982: “We comrades who participated in this movement, regardless of whether we were executers or victims, all remember that…aside from oral confessions there was really no evidence to prove the existence of [the AB Corps]…. Today, fifty years later… we still cannot find any concrete evidence proving the existence of [the AB Corps] in the Soviet areas at that time.”

After he settled down in Yan’an and for almost thirty years thereafter, Mao was aided in eliminating his enemies by Kang Sheng, who eventually rose to the Politburo. Mr. MacFarquhar has much to say about Kang, “a sinister and shadowy figure even to his colleagues, sinister because of his activities in the Soviet Union and Yan’an prior to 1949.” (He also introduced Mao to Jiang Qing, who may have been Kang’s lover.)

In Yan’an, Kang, who claimed that 80 percent of the youth and cadres there were politically undependable, was known as “Mao’s pistol.” Trained in Moscow by the NKVD, Kang is remembered by the Yan’an survivors as dressing in black leather, riding a black horse, and leading a black police dog. David Apter describes the 1942 campaign which Kang directed—to “rescue” people from their “anti-Party thoughts” by questioning and then accusing them of error, and in some cases killing them. Although it lasted only three months, the campaign “forever changed the character of Maoism. In time, it would prove a precursor to the Cultural Revolution, in which Kang Sheng played the same role.”8

The Futian Incident shows how Mao and his comrades took to killing their adversaries very early, justifying their acts with high-sounding Leninist language. Futian foreshadowed the Yan’an “rescue” movement, which in turn underpinned the purges of the Fifties, which led to the Cultural Revolution. And on June 9, 1989, when Deng Xiaoping congratulated his army commanders, whom he praised as “the Great Wall of Steel,” for having killed over a thousand people in Tiananmen (also called “a revolutionary uprising”), he assured them, “This had to happen.”

Nonetheless, it is a mark of the Deng period that high-level inner-party conflicts no longer end in bloodshed. Deng removed Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, so gently that he remains—although in total obscurity—on the Central Committee. Deng’s two protégés, Party General Secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were plainly sacked, and Zhao was placed under the house arrest in which he still languishes. Neither was “smashed” in the traditional Party manner. Still, in Tiananmen Square Deng had no difficulty using terror, and the Party still uses violence to compel obedience from Tibetans and Muslims. What Roderick MacFarquhar makes chillingly plain in the final volume of his great trilogy is that “the mark of Cain” has always stained China’s Communist Party and stains it still.

  1. 3

    It is an irony, pointed out by Mr. MacFarquhar, that Mao’s potential difficulties with international affairs were alleviated by his victory in the 1962 Indian border war, in which the Russians supported China, and by assurances from Washington that it would not back a Taiwanese invasion of the mainland and had no intention of crushing North Vietnam—to which China had supplied weapons and tens of thousands of soldiers.

  2. 4

    In one of his pithy footnotes, Mr. MacFarquhar quotes Alan Bullock’s observation in his Hitler and Stalin, that Stalin needed “to win the recognition of those he had defeated, that he was the successor and equal of Lenin.” To this Mr. MacFarquhar adds “Mao’s need was to prove to himself and his colleagues that his concept of the revolution was right.”

  3. 5

    Mr. MacFarquhar recalls “Molotov’s devotion to Stalin and his continuing praise of him after his death despite the latter’s imprisonment of his wife.”

  4. 6

    Harvard University Press, 1994.

  5. 7

    Stephen C. Averill, “The Origins of the Futian Incident,” in Tony Saich and Han van de Ven, editors, New Perspectives on the Chinese Communist Revolution (M.E. Sharpe, 1995), pp. 79-115.

  6. 8

    David Apter, “Discourse as Power,” in Saich and van de Ven, editors, New Perspectives on the Chinese Communist Revolution, pp. 211-212. In her book Wang Shiwei and ‘Wild Lilies’(M.E. Sharpe, 1994), a specialist in China of the Yan’an purges, the scientist and journalist Dai Qing, conducts an interview with a survivor of the Yan’an—and later the Cultural Revolution—purges. He says that in 1942 “the whole thing destroyed me physically and psychologically.” He told Ms. Dai, “The judgment of my innocence was not issued until ten years later. I was tortured a great deal while my family was destroyed. I am the only one left alive.”

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