Biographies & Memoirs


Fanning the Flames

IN 1960 THE FAMINE tightened its grip across the country, exacerbated not only by a devastating drought that ruined crops on almost half of China’s farmland, but also by an erratic pattern of south-to-north typhoons that brought violent wind damage and murderous flash floods. In many areas for which accurate figures became available, between a fifth to a half of all the villagers died, with Anhui province perhaps suffering the most. And yet, so pervasive was the force of Mao’s words at Lushan, that many of the fundamental principles of the Great Leap were maintained. Communes continued to be run on the radical and egalitarian principles enunciated in 1957 and 1958. Extraction of rural “surpluses” continued, to support industry and subsidize food prices in the cities. Many peasants were taken from the land to boost the industrial labor force in the cities, where urban communes were now introduced widely, to bring the same principles of mixed and intensified production to factories, schools, and offices.

Especially during 1960, however, the focus of the leaders’ attention was not on the exact details of the domestic crisis. Instead, they were compelled to focus on the Soviet Union, which had mocked the extravagant claims put forward in the Great Leap and continued with its own policies of de-Stalinization. In particular, the leaders had to work out how to find the funds and personnel to continue the various projects abandoned by the Soviet advisers when they were pulled out of China that year. These included China’s atomic-bomb program, and also the oil fields in China’s northeast. Mao’s own writings were focused on polemics against Khrushchev and on attempts to express his interpretation of China’s place in the pattern of world revolution. Only rarely did he comment specifically on Chinese economic matters.

In 1961 this began to change. Early in the year, Mao acceded to his colleagues’ arguments that the Leap be rolled back, that productive laborers be returned to their communes, and that peasants be allowed to raise some food and livestock again on small private plots near their homes. Most aspects of communal living were canceled. Though Mao rejected Khrushchev’s unexpected offer of Soviet grain shipments to reduce the stress of hunger, the Central Committee planners decided to buy large quantities of grain from Canada. And in late January, Mao summoned one of his confidential political secretaries, Tian Jiaying, who had worked with him since 1948, to organize and dispatch three teams—each consisting of seven men—to undertake an intensive investigation of the exact situation in sample communes in three different provinces: Guangdong, Hunan, and Zhejiang. Apparently recalling his previous experiences with rural investigations in the early days of the revolution, Mao had returned to the realization that there was no substitute for hard facts in trying to come to grips with harsh reality.

We do not know whether Mao specifically turned over in his mind the contrast between his languid days in Shaoshan during the summer of 1959—chatting to elderly peasants over a banquet, lolling in the warm, shallow waters of the new mass-labor-generated Shaoshan reservoir, and poetically praising the peasants’ triumphs—with Peng Dehuai’s hard-hitting questions and bleak statistics on the same area. But clearly Mao was now trying to find out what had gone wrong. The team sent to Guangdong province was to be led by Chen Boda, his trusted aide since the two men’s dialectical-materialism discussions of 1937; the Hunan team was led by Hu Qiaomu, another close political aide and secretary to Mao (he had been present at the meeting where Deng Tuo was called “a dead man”). Others in the groups included members of Liu Shaoqi’s staff, propaganda specialists, economists, and statisticians.

Each group of seven was instructed to focus on two production brigades: one well-off, one poor. Secretary Tian pooled their conclusions and summarized them for Mao. His summary was bold and unambiguous: private plots should be allowed and compensation paid for wrongly confiscated property, the scale of the communes should be cut back, peasants should follow their own views on communal living or cooking, and cadre corruption should be addressed directly. This time Mao appeared to see that a reversal of policy was essential. He drafted—again with Tian—a document in sixty sections that addressed the main perceived problems in the communes. After Mao—who now felt he had the facts at his command—had taunted other leaders for their ignorance of the real situation in the countryside, they, too, began to undertake their own intensive explorations and were indeed horrified by what they found. Liu Shaoqi and his wife carried out their investigation in person, not through surrogates, focusing on Hunan for over a month (they also visited Mao’s old home village of Shaoshan). Everywhere they found a pattern of evasion, a reluctance to speak out, for fear of the consequences, and serious abuses of authority by the brigade officials, even those who were from poor peasant backgrounds themselves. Over the following year, Liu and his senior colleagues slowly moved China back to a more rational level of planned allocations in agriculture and industry, which would make the household or “team” the basic economic unit of accounting, though the commune system survived, with communes subdivided into smaller units.

During this entire period, Mao was smarting under an additional series of slights: a calculated move by many in the Party to downplay the role of the “Thought of Mao” in the fabric of the People’s Republic. It was at the 1945 congress that the Constitution of the Communist Party had been altered to include Mao’s thought as its guiding principle. Mao had acquiesced in dropping the phrase from a revision of the Constitution that was promulgated in 1956, which made sense in light of the denunciations of Stalin in the Soviet Union and a general nervousness about the “cult of personality.” But Mao had not intended his acceptance of that formal change to herald a change in the general status of his writings. But that is just what began to occur after the Lushan meetings, as statements were issued by the Communist Youth League that the phrase “Thought of Mao,” though sometimes essential, should not be overused. Fewer copies of Mao’s works were now available; a shortage of paper due to the Great Leap and the pressing needs for printing more school textbooks were both cited by Mao’s colleagues as the reasons. A report of the Party Center’s propaganda department in March 1960 warned against “vulgarization” of Mao’s works by attributing various triumphs to their beneficent effect—breakthroughs in medicine, for example, or triumphs in table tennis competitions. Liu Shaoqi, now head of state, instructed that the phrase “Thought of Mao” not be used in propaganda directed at foreign audiences. Other senior Party leaders commented publicly that Mao’s thought could in no way be said to surpass Marxism-Leninism, indeed that after the definitive analyses of political economy and imperialism by Marx and Lenin there was really no need for further discussion of those topics.

Two key Party figures, however, decided to risk their colleagues’ irritation by publicly reaffirming their faith in Mao’s thought; they were Mao’s public security chief, Kang Sheng, and the army general Lin Biao, whom Mao had appointed as minister of defense to replace the disgraced Peng Dehuai. Lin Biao was especially fulsome in talking with his own military officers, continuing to refer to Mao’s thought as the “pinnacle of Marxism-Leninism in the present era.” And in an enthusiastic accolade when the volume of Mao’sSelected Works which included the period of World War II and the civil war was published late in 1961, Lin Biao wrote that the victory in that war was also the victory of Mao’s thought; for the army as a whole “our present important fighting task [is] to arm our minds with Mao Zedong’s Thought, to defend the purity of Marxism-Leninism, and combat every form of ideological trend of modern revisionism.”

The ground was being laid for a new kind of division within the Party, one that pitted those who were truly “red”—the believers in Mao’s thought and the purifying power of trusting the masses—against those who based their prestige and policies on their specific expertise, whether that lay in precise economic planning, advanced education, or mastery of bureaucratic procedures. Between 1962 and 1966 this struggle was fought out, sometimes in public and sometimes silently, as Mao worked to prepare for the kind of renewed assault from the moral guerrilla high ground of which he had spoken in his attack at Lushan on Peng Dehuai.

To double-check his sense of how the peasants were reacting to the changes in rural policy, Mao turned again to his trusted secretary Tian Jiaying. This time Tian was to concentrate his work on three places in Hunan: Mao’s own village of Shaoshan, Mao’s grandparents’ village, and Liu Shaoqi’s home village, which was not far away from the other two. In a farewell party for Tian and his colleagues, held at a guest house in Wuchang, Mao urged them not to boss people around but to listen carefully and carry no preconceptions with them—except their belief in Marxism and knowledge of the historical context of what they saw. To his surprise, Tian found that while the peasants in Liu’s home village were comparatively content with the improvement to their current situation brought by the return of private plots and the shrinkage in the units of organization, those in Mao’s village were in favor of two policies that would be far to the “right” of the current line: these were either to apportion out production on the basis of each household (rather than any larger unit whatsoever), or else to go back to the pre-cooperative phase altogether and to divide the fields once again among the households. Nervous about the findings, Tian left Shaoshan for Shanghai, where Mao was currently living in another guest house. Though Tian sent his report in advance, Mao had clearly not read it. Instead he listened to Tian’s oral report in silence, and then made a revealing comment: “We want to follow the mass line, but there are times when we cannot completely heed the masses. For example, if they want to distribute production on the basis of the household, we cannot listen to them.” Tian also got phone calls from the head of the Central Committee’s organization department in Beijing, who was eager to discuss his findings, and met with Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi. He found that virtually all the leaders except for Mao favored some kind of redistribution of production based on the household.

It was clear that there was now little meeting of the minds between Mao and his own senior colleagues, apart from the small group of those boosting his thoughts. As Mao got older, he had apparently further increased his isolation from his own people, even as he claimed to speak in their name. The Mao who had so often praised the virtues of living in caves, now stayed at a series of luxurious guest houses—provided for him by Party officials—in different parts of China. It was people like Tian who now acted as his eyes and ears.

In addition, it seems clear that Mao’s lifestyle had not endeared him to his revolutionary colleagues. At the now more frequent dances in Zhongnanhai, in his private room aboard his own personal railway train, and in the numerous guest houses he visited, Mao entertained a succession of young women. News of these liaisons helped spread an aura of moral vulnerability around the chairman, which was confirmed when his private railroad car was bugged by overly zealous security officials. They were not discreet about what they learned, enraging Mao when he heard what they had done. Mao’s entourage of guards were also, at least in some cases, exploitative of their power, often corrupt, and involved in sexual liaisons of their own.

Somewhat paradoxically, it was at this very time that Mao’s own family began to settle down, apparently constructively, into the society around them. His only surviving son, Anqing, whom as recently as 1956 Mao was still describing to friends as “crippled with illness,” was married at last in 1962 at the age of thirty-nine. Anqing’s wife was the half sister of his elder brother Anying’s widow. Fluent in Russian, like Anqing himself, she entered Beijing University’s department of Chinese the same year, and graduated in 1966. Urged on by Mao, Anying’s widow remarried around the same time. Li Min, He Zizhen’s surviving daughter, graduated from teachers college and married a graduate of the air force academy. She subsequently worked in the military defense bureau, while her husband taught in the academy. Jiang Qing’s daughter, Li Na, entered Beijing University’s history department in 1961 and graduated in 1965. She was to be a key link between Mao and the student community in 1966.

Mao seems to have encouraged his immediate family to lead as ordinary a life as possible and not to take an active part in politics, but he was not so protective of his brothers’ families. Mao Yuanxin, for example, the son of Mao’s younger brother Mao Zemin (executed in Xinjiang in 1943) was enrolled in the Harbin Institute of Military Engineering in 1964, and Mao used him as a foil for many of his own ideas. Their exchanges were later published. From Mao’s questions to his nephew, we can see that he was feeling out a field for himself, in which the next round of the battle could be fought to his advantage. The fact that there was a definite enemy—the forces of “bourgeois revisionism” inside China determined to undermine the revolution—was already firming up in Mao’s mind. These enemies might be found anywhere: in rural production brigades and urban factories, in Party committees and public security departments, and in the ministry of culture and the film industry. They were even among the students in Mao Yuanxin’s own institute, listening secretly to overseas radio broadcasts and filling their diaries with subversive material. “They” were also behind the rote system of lecturing and the pointless examinations that schools used to judge a person’s performance.

Now, at the age of seventy, Mao was clearly obsessed with revolutionary continuity and his belief that the young people like Yuanxin would have to bear the standard forward. Five elements were essential in this succession, Mao told his nephew: one must be a genuine Marxist-Leninist; one must be willing to serve the masses wholeheartedly; one must work with the majority and accept their criticisms, even if the criticisms seemed misplaced at the time; one must be a model of obedient discipline under the strictures of democratic centralism; and one must be modest about oneself, always ready to indulge in self-criticism. Looking at his nephew, Mao added the harsh judgment : “You grew up eating honey, and thus far you have never known suffering. In future, if you do not become a rightist, but rather a centrist, I shall be satisfied. You have never suffered, how can you be a leftist?”

With these last words, Mao had posed a question that was to obsess him and many of China’s youth into the early years of the Cultural Revolution. His answer was to be based on the idea that waning leftist revolutionary activism could be regenerated by identifying the enemies correctly, and then using all one’s ingenuity in rooting them out and destroying them. Mao had stated in the past that it was necessary to “set fires” every few years to keep the revolution alive. But doing that could also frighten people: “It’s certainly not easy to set a fire to burn oneself. I’ve heard that around this area there were some people who had second thoughts and didn’t set a big fire.” Mao came to see his mission as partly to set the fire, but also to teach the young to do it for themselves.

In this strangely apocalyptic mission, Mao found a loose association of allies. One was the defense minister, Lin Biao, who was willing to lead the People’s Liberation Army forward into revolution, via the “little red book” of Mao’s thought, which Lin commissioned in 1964 and ordered every soldier to read. A year later Lin Biao ordered the abolition of insignia, Soviet-style uniforms, and other signs of officer status throughout the army, re-creating—at least in Mao’s mind—an image of the simpler guerrilla aura of military life with which Mao had so long been associated. A second group of allies consisted of certain intellectuals and cadres, many of them based in Shanghai, who had a strongly leftist orientation and were genuinely dismayed by what they saw as the backward-looking direction of industrial and rural policy. A third was centered on Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who for twenty years after their marriage in Yan‘an had not been active in politics. But in 1956, after returning from her medical trip to the Soviet Union, she began to take a lively interest in the current state of film and theater in China. Gradually she formed a nucleus of fellow believers who sought to reinstill revolutionary attitudes into the cultural world and to root out those revisionist elements that—she agreed with Mao—were lurking everywhere. A fourth ally was Kang Sheng, a revolutionary Shanghai labor organizer and spymaster in the 1920s, later trained in police techniques in the Soviet Union. He had introduced Mao to Jiang Qing in Yan’an, and later became head of the Central Committee’s security apparatus and of the Central Party School. Kang Sheng had been a pioneer in orchestrating a literary inquisition to prove that rightists were “using novels to promote anti-Party activities.”

It was natural for these disparate forces to gradually coalesce, to find novelists, dramatists, historians, and philosophers on whom to pile their criticisms, and to use Shanghai as a base for mass campaigns that could also be coordinated with the army’s various cultural departments. Once the apparatus of leftist criticism was in place in the cultural sphere, it could easily be switched to tackle problems of education in schools and universities, the municipal Party committees that were technically in charge of those cultural realms or educational systems, and the individual Party leaders to whom those committees reported. If galvanized from the center, a remarkable force might be generated.

By late 1965 this was exactly what began to happen. Mao was frustrated with the laggardly implementation of revolutionary policies, and genuinely suspicious of his own bureaucracy. He had grown to distrust the head of state, Liu Shaoqi, and to be skeptical about Liu’s ability to guide the revolution after Mao. Mao also had grown more hostile to intellectuals as the years went by—perhaps because he knew he would never really be one, not even at the level of his own secretaries, whom he would commission to go to the libraries to track down classical sources for him and help with historical references. Mao knew, too, that scholars of the old school like Deng Tuo, the man he had summarily ousted from the People’s Daily, had their own erudite circles of friends with whom the pursued leisurely hours of classical connoisseurship, which was scarcely different from the lives they might have enjoyed under the old society. They wrote elegant and amusing essays, which were printed in various literary newspapers, that used allegory and analogy to tease the kind of “commandism” that had been so present in the Great Leap, and indeed in the Communist leadership as a whole. It was surely of such men that Mao was thinking when he wrote: “All wisdom comes from the masses. I’ve always said that intellectuals are the most lacking in intellect. The intellectuals cock their tails in the air, and they think, ‘If I don’t rank number one in all the world, then I’m at least number two.’ ”

Mao did not precisely orchestrate the coming of the Cultural Revolution, but he established an environment that made it possible and helped to set many of the people and issues in place. In November 1965 a new round of polemics appeared in a Shanghai journal, attacking the historian Wu Han, who was the direct subordinate of the powerful Party boss Peng Zhen, controller of a five-man group that was the arbiter of the Beijing cultural realm. Peng Zhen was unprepared to handle the onslaught, though publication of the article in Beijing was blocked by his staff. Seizing on the chance disruption as a good trigger for action, Mao moved swiftly to remove the head of the Central Committee’s general office, which controlled the flow of crucial information for senior Party leaders. It must have been an added inducement to Mao that this man was Yang Shangkun, who had ordered the bugging devices planted in Mao’s personal train and in the guest houses where he stayed. In Yang’s place, Mao appointed the head of the central Beijing garrison, whom he knew to be fiercely loyal.

At the same time, Lin Biao began to replace key personnel at the top of the military, including the current army chief of staff and former minister of security Luo Ruiqing. In March 1966, after months of relentless questioning about his political loyalties and his attitudes toward political indoctrination in the army ranks, as well as a major series of “struggle sessions” with his inquisitors, Luo tried to commit suicide by jumping from a building. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, joined the fray by briefing army commanders on the bourgeois decadence and corruption in the arts, which led to the publication of a joint “army forum on literature and art work.” Mao had already, in a meeting with his secretaries, shared with them his conviction that the works of the historian Wu Han were intended to be defenses of Peng Dehuai in his earlier struggle at Lushan, and he proceeded to deepen the attacks on the Beijing party and cultural establishment. Lin Biao sharpened the tension by warning that the “right” was planning a coup against Mao. Security was tightened in the Zhongnanhai residential area. Two men knew, as well as any in China, what all this must portend. They were Deng Tuo, the former editor of People’s Daily, and Tian Jiaying, Mao’s confidential secretary for eighteen years, who had reported negatively on the peasants’ feelings about communes. In the last weeks of May, both men committed suicide.

Much of this struggle had taken place in secret, or at least in the well-insulated world of the Party hierarchy. But in late May, some Beijing University teachers put up wall posters denouncing the rightists, or “capitalist-roaders,” in their campuses and in the cultural bureaucracy; Mao endorsed the posters, and students began to follow suit, with attacks against their own teachers. People’s Daily editorialized in favor of the dissidents, and the movement spread to other cities in China, and from colleges to high schools. Groups of students began to wear paramilitary uniforms with red armbands and to declare themselves Red Guards and defenders of Chairman Mao. Mao himself, who had been watching these events from the security of a guest house in the celebrated beauty spot of Hangzhou, traveled in July to Wuhan and took a leisurely swim down the Yangtze, which was rapturously publicized across the nation as proof of the chairman’s energy and fitness.

Returning to Beijing, Mao reconstituted the Politburo Standing Committee, to remove or demote those he had identified as his enemies. As for himself, Mao wrote in a brief editorial comment that appeared in People’s Daily: “My wish is to join all the comrades of our party to learn from the masses, to continue to be a schoolboy.” In August, with the oracular pronouncement that “to rebel is justified,” and that it was good “to bombard the headquarters,” Mao donned military uniform and from the top of Tiananmen reviewed hundreds of thousands of chanting students, accepting from them a Red Guard armband as evidence of his support. By September, several of the rallies were attended by a million people, who began to flock to Beijing from around China. The students from Beijing, in turn, began to travel the countryside in squads—free train travel was made available to them—to spread the word of what was now called the Cultural Revolution.

The violence of the Cultural Revolution was manifested at two levels. One of these was orchestrated from the political center, which was now controlled by a small group totally loyal to Mao, through what was called “The Central Case Examination Group,” chaired by China’s premier Zhou Enlai but directly accountable to Mao. In its heyday this group was composed of eleven Party members, including Jiang Qing, Chen Boda, and Kang Sheng. Under this leadership group were three bureaus that were assigned their own cases and worked closely with the Beijing garrison command, the army general staff, and the Ministry of Public Security. They investigated 1,262 “principal cases” and an unknown number of “related case offenders.”

The job of the three bureaus was to prove the correctness of “rightist” charges—including being Taiwan or Guomindang spies, or “Khrushchev-type persons”—and to use whatever means were necessary to achieve that goal. Torture, sleep deprivation, round-the-clock group interrogations, withholding of food, and many types of mental and physical pressure were used by the case investigators—in virtually all cases their victims were prominent or even once-revered revolutionaries. Peng Dehuai was brought back from Sichuan to face his own group of investigators. Incarcerated in high-security prisons (of which Qincheng was the most terrifyingly notorious), the victims could not write letters home or see family. Letters they wrote to Mao or Zhou Enlai requesting more compassionate treatment were filed away, unread. Only “confessions” were considered a tolerable form of writing.

These political prisoners only encountered the outside “revolutionary masses” at carefully orchestrated occasions. Red Guard groups would use printed forms to apply to “borrow” one of the victims, as long as they were “returned promptly.” Red Guard units might have to pay the cost of renting a place for these confrontations, which would then be advertised in advance. Certain “struggle rallies” were postponed in case of rain, and some victims were in such demand that their appearances had to be limited to three denunciations a week. Liu Shaoqi died from these experiences, as did Peng Dehuai. Deng Xiaoping survived, perhaps because Mao only intended to intimidate him, not to destroy him altogether. This system of case investigation was spread systematically to the provinces, and by the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 as many as two million cadres had been investigated by these or similar means.

The second level of cultural revolutionary violence was unorchestrated, coursing down its own channels in an only vaguely designated direction, in search of rightists or “feudal remnants,” “snakes and monsters,” or “people in authority taking the capitalist road.” An announcement from the “Beijing Number 26 Middle School Red Guards,” dated August 1966, gave the kind of program that was to be followed by countless others. Every street was to have a quotation from Chairman Mao prominently displayed, and loudspeakers at every intersection and in all parks were to broadcast his thought. Every household as well as all trains and buses, bicycles and pedicabs, had to have a picture of Mao on its walls. Ticket takers on trains and buses should all declaim Mao’s thought. Every bookstore had to stock Mao’s quotations, and every hand in China had to hold one. No one could wear blue jeans, tight pants, “weird women’s outfits,” or have “slick hairdos or wear rocket shoes.” No perfumes or beauty creams could be used. No one could keep pet fish, cats, or dogs, or raise fighting crickets. No shop could sell classical books. All those identified by the masses as landlords, hooligans, rightists, and capitalists had to wear a plaque identifying themselves as such whenever they went out. The minimum amount of persons living in any room could be three—all other space had to be given to the state housing bureaus. Children should criticize their elders, and students their teachers. No one under thirty-five might smoke or drink. Hospital service would be simplified, and “complicated treatment must be abolished”; doctors had to write their prescriptions legibly, and not use English words. All schools and colleges were to combine study with productive labor and farmwork. As a proof of its own transformation, the “Number 26 Middle School” would change its name, effectively immediately, to “The Maoism School.”

The number of victims from the uncoordinated violence of the Cultural Revolution is incalculable, but there were many millions. Some of these were killed, some committed suicide. Some were crippled or scarred emotionally for life. Others were tormented for varying periods of time, for an imprecise number of “crimes,” such as having known foreigners, owned foreign books or art objects, indulged in classical studies, been dictatorial teachers, or denigrated Mao or the Party through some chance remark. Children suffered for their parents’ or grandparents’ deeds, or sought to clear themselves of such charges by exhibiting unusual “revolutionary zeal,” which might include trashing their own parents’ apartments, beating up their school-teachers, or going to border areas to “serve the people” and “learn from the masses.” Many families destroyed their own art objects, burned or shredded their family photographs, diaries, and letters, all of which might be purloined by roving Red Guards. Many Red Guards units fought each other, sometimes to the death, divided along lines of local allegiance or class background, or by occupation, as in the case of some labor union members, construction workers, even prison wardens.

The tiny figure atop the rostrum at Tiananmen, waving his hand in a slow sideways motion to the chanting sea of red flags and little red books spread out before him as far as the eye could see, had only the faintest inklings of the emotions passing through the minds of the weeping faithful. It was enough that they were there, chanting and with tears in their eyes. It was enough that to them he had become, at last, the “Great Helmsman, great teacher, great leader, and the Red, Red sun in their hearts.”

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