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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 pro-nationalist was not always clear) that had wormed their way into the heart of the political, cultural, educational, military, and economic institutions of China. In his determination to wipe out these trends, Mao was willing to assault any of the senior leaders of the Communist Party and their staffs, no matter how strong were their prior revolutionary credentials, starting with the Beijing Party establishment, and following whatever leads might emanate from these assaults. Chief of Staff Luo had been persecuted in part because Mao wanted to be absolutely sure that the military was personally loyal to Mao himself.

In early 1966 Mao moved to Shanghai, where his wife Jiang Qing had already formed a partnership with local leaders. With their help she had launched an ideological assault against a group of writers prominent in the Beijing Party world who, Mao believed, were guilty of privately trying to undercut his prestige. Jiang Qing and Mao also worked closely with Lin Biao, who had used the army as a testing ground for the mass popularization of Mao’s image and thoughts, most famously through the brief collection drawn from a wide range of Mao’s earlier writings which became known as the Little Red Book. Lin made no secret of his ardent loyalty to Chairman Mao, and the army’s broad range of cultural organizations, such as dance troupes and opera teams, were all pledged to spread Mao’s already omnipresent image. By late April 1966 the senior Beijing Party leader Peng Zhen had effectively been isolated and removed from his several powerful posts, joining General Luo and two other once-dominant Party leaders in the political wilderness.

Party members not marked as targets in this initial purge were especially contemptuous of Luo’s suicide attempt. The head of state, Liu Shaoqi, remarked that “if you are going to commit suicide, you have to have some technique, that is, heavy head and light feet, but he arrived feet first and did not injure his head.” Liu’s dismissal of Luo’s suicide attempt was supplemented by Deng Xiaoping, who commented that Luo had “jumped like a female athlete diver”; Deng added that the trajectory of the falling general must have resembled a popsicle on a stick. Perhaps the contempt shown to Luo helped make the later group of suicides all the more determined to succeed in their attempts, for Luo’s failure was defined as “resistance to the Party,” and for months after the disaster Luo still was forced to attend a series of struggle meetings, bundled in the kind of large basket used by farmers to carry their vegetables to market. (He was rehabilitated in 1975 and died in 1978.)

The conclusion of this opening phase of Mao’s assault on his own Party hierarchy came with a series of “notifications” presented to the Politburo Standing Committee on May 16, 1966. In these notifications, Mao and his supporters announced the coming of a “cultural revolution”—whether that revolution should be termed “great,” “proletarian,” or “socialist” had not yet been determined. Mao and his surrogates summed up the scale of the issues confronting the nation. “Far from being a minor issue,” the notifications declared, “the struggle against this revisionist line is an issue of prime importance having a vital bearing on the destiny and future of our party and state, on the future complexion of our party and state, and on the world revolution.”

As MacFarquhar and Schoenhals write in their sweeping panorama of the Cultural Revolution, many senior Party figures in China found the charges against those four senior leaders “literally incomprehensible.” Nevertheless, the two authors point out, as late as December 1965 the most influential noncommitted Party leaders might have had a chance to close ranks and tell Mao that “they could not go along with this travesty.” But they let the moment pass, and such an opportunity did not offer itself again. By the late spring of 1966 Mao’s most radical group of allies, with the chairman’s obvious encouragement, had triumphantly institutionalized themselves in the form of “The Central Cultural Revolution Group” (often known simply as “the small group”), and this informal-sounding body was to be the center of the radicals’ power for the next decade. As the authors add, “the more profound result of Mao’s secretiveness was that during the Cultural Revolution his ardent supporters had to try and intuit what he wanted and to fulfill what they believed to be his aims.”

Mysterious though the “May 16 Notifications” seemed to many Party members, Mao was determined to widen the circles of his assault on what he may have truly believed were counterrevolutionary forces that had pushed their way deep into the Party and its leadership, and through those organs to the society as a whole. Mao’s decision to focus on schools and universities as a spearhead of his assault on the Party establishment was confirmed by the appearance on May 25 of the first inflammatory “big character poster” attacking the Peking University leadership for being a “bunch of Khrushchev-type revisionist elements.” The initial poster—which did indeed use very big Chinese characters—was soon followed by others, and the criticisms spread to Tsinghua University, and from there to other campuses and schools. The scale rapidly became immense: 65,000 posters were displayed at Tsinghua in June. According to records in Shanghai, in the first three weeks of June 2.7 million people joined the protest movements inside the city; 88,000 posters appeared, attacking 1,390 people (by name) for various “crimes.” Mao declared that this spreading movement was “more significant than the Paris Commune,” and the pressure built up even more after June 13, when the State Council, acting on Mao’s instructions, suspended all classes at all schools nationwide. This freed for political action some 103 million primary school students, 13 million middle or high school students, and just over half a million at colleges and universities. When senior Party leaders outside the Central Culture Revolution Group ordered investigative “work teams” to go to campuses and schools and double-check the nature of the accusations being made, and to restore some semblance of order, Mao charged them with trying to stifle the revolutionary impulses of the people, and condemned them for backsliding and encouraging “revisionist” behavior.

In a fine example of their mastery of specific details on the logistics of the Cultural Revolution, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals point out that even when Mao was away from Beijing, as he so often was, traveling in his special train and staying in spacious residences in Hangzhou, Shanghai, or Wuhan, he was kept in touch with events on a daily basis, by special planes that brought important documents to an airfield near wherever he happened to be staying, whence they were driven to his residence in special cars. Even more importantly, Mao’s power was bolstered by a highly secretive office known as the Central Case Examination Group, whose name was never mentioned in the press.

This special body (which the authors suggest had strong parallels with the Gestapo and the Cheka) reported directly to Mao. Its mandate was to check out all senior Party personnel charged with treachery, spying, or “collusion with the enemy.” With a staff of several thousand, including 789 People’s Liberation Army officers, the group was subdivided into three main sections, each devoted to specific cases, such as digging out evidence against Peng Zhen and Liu Shaoqi, checking at least eighty-eight members, or alternates, of the Party Central Committee, many senior army officers, and the members of a huge and shadowy alleged plot known as the May 16 Conspiracy. The scale of operations was enormous: seven hundred army officers, for example, worked for eighteen months to investigate the entire archive of the Ministry of Public Security. The work of digging into the past became so arduous and time-consuming that some of it was outsourced to groups of trusted Red Guards at leading universities; eventually branch offices of the Central Case Examination Group were opened in eighteen cities besides Beijing.1 Clearly Mao trusted the members of this secretive and ruthless institution, though the authors do not fully explain why Mao did not also suspect it might have ideological traitors within its ranks.

  1. 1

    Michael Schoenhals pioneered Western research on this topic. See his essay “The Central Case Examination Group, 1966–79,” The China Quarterly, No. 145 (March 1996), pp. 87–111.

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