AT A WORK CONFERENCE with the Party leaders in late August 1966, Mao told his colleagues that matters seemed to be developing satisfactorily: “In my opinion, we should let the chaos go on for a few months and just firmly believe that the majority is good and only the minority bad.” The best thing would be to wait four months and see what happened. Let the students take to the streets, let them write “big character posters.” And “let the foreigners take pictures” of all this if they wanted to. It was of no importance what the imperialists thought.
Yet before the four months were up, Mao felt a touch of apprehension. At a follow-up meeting of the Central Work Conference on October 25, 1966, Mao reminded his colleagues that he was formally only “in the second line,” and hence did “not take charge of day-to-day work” anymore. He had taken this second place deliberately, to build up their prestige, so that “when I go to see God there won’t be such a big upheaval in the State.” The result of this policy, however, had been that “there are some things I should have kept a grip on which I did not. So I am responsible; we cannot just blame them.” With this elliptical apology over, Mao admitted that he had been swept away by the pace of events, like everyone else. “The time was so short and the events so violent” that the Red Guards had erupted and taken things into their own hands. “Since it was I who caused the havoc, it is understandable if you have some bitter words for me.”
Yet, as he had done in 1959, after being criticized by Peng Dehuai, Mao continued to pursue the policies that he knew might not be working in the short term, but from which he still expected great things. The early stage of the revolution lasted twenty-eight years, he reminded his listeners, from 1921 to 1949. It was now only five months since the first moments of the Cultural Revolution—“perhaps the movement may last another five months, or even longer.” In the earlier stage of the revolution, “our path gradually emerged in the course of practice.” The same would be true again, for “things can change, things can improve.” They would all have to work together, to benefit from the new world of change into which events had plunged them.
Students, however, were one thing, and workers and People’s Liberation Army troops were another. In the course of those next few months, through which Mao had said they must watch things develop, two issues surfaced that had to be addressed. One was whether the industrial workers should be allowed to exploit the situation by uniting (or even striking) to achieve higher pay, more autonomy, and better working conditions. With few exceptions, the opinion of even the radical Cultural Revolutionary leaders was that they should not be allowed to do so, and steps were taken to curb the power of those workers’ groups that had begun to emerge. The second issue was what the role of the army should be, now that under Lin Biao’s enthusiastically pro-Maoist rhetorical guidance many Red Guard units were bringing economic and political chaos all across the country. Again, the ultimate decision was a conservative one (though it was given a leftist-sounding air): the political leadership vacuum that had now formed in many areas should not be filled by student or other Red Guard groups alone. In every workplace and community new “revolutionary committees” should be formed, each of which would be a “three way alliance” with three constituent parts: the People’s Liberation Army; experienced party cadres who had been screened and cleared of any charge of being counterrevolutionaries or “capitalist-roaders”; and representatives of the radical mass organizations who had been recently “steeled” in revolutionary experience.
Mao himself never wrote a single, comprehensive analysis of what he intended to achieve by the Cultural Revolution, or of how he expected it to proceed. It does seem to have been a case of allowing theory to grow out of practice, as he had always interpreted the revolutionary process to be. Indeed he issued very few statements at all after the fall of 1966, and he did not speak to the masses in any public forums, with the lone exception of a few words he uttered over a microphone fitted to the rostrum on Tiananmen at the seventh mass Red Guards rally in November. The speech in its entirety ran as follows: “Long live comrades! You must let politics take command, go to the masses, and be with the masses. You must conduct the great proletarian Cultural Revolution even better.” Even in the inner circles of Party leaders, where some of his words were transcribed and later circulated, his words and thoughts were far more condensed than they had been earlier. To the new leaders who had emerged from the literary wars of the Shanghai left, he reiterated the theme that in the Cultural Revolution one class was “toppling another,” which constituted “a great revolution.” He added that “many newspapers ought to be suspended,” acknowledging in the same breath that “there must be newspapers.” The key point, therefore, was who should run them, for “to revolt, one must first of all create a public opinion.” Mao illuminated this thought with a personal flashback to the early 1920s, when he was running his journals in Hunan and also working on the early strikes of the printers: “We had no money, no publishing houses, no bicycles. When we edited newspapers, we got on intimate terms with printing workers. We chatted with them and edited articles at the same time.” Mao had always loved the idea that political power could be strengthened through such informal and unstructured means.
Even these truncated ruminations were exceptions, however. From early 1967 onward, Mao let his thoughts be known mainly in the form of aphorisms or comments, just a few characters in length. These were printed as boxed editorials in People’s Daily, usually on the front page. Thus after only a few seconds of reading, people all around the country could gauge their chairman’s current thoughts. And probably these were his thoughts—there was no need to submit such brief and simple comments to Party scrutiny and to watch for possible deviations from the correct line. Mao was the line. As he observed in April 1968: “Except in the deserts, at every place of human habitation there is the left, the center, and the right. This will continue to be so 10,000 years hence.”
Mao’s own staff and family were not exempted from this process of struggle and violence, even though Red Guard units were not allowed into Zhongnanhai itself, or into the top-secret military installations such as those where scientists were working to develop the H-bomb (they had successfully constructed and detonated their own atomic bomb in October 1964, despite the refusal of the Soviets to help them). Indeed, Mao’s nephew Mao Yuanxin tried to lead a group of Red Guards into just such a location, in Manchuria, but was prevented by the army force on duty. Having decided to ally himself with Jiang Qing, Yuanxin had become an important figure in the Cultural Revolution by this time, and Jiang Qing engineered his promotion to be a political commander in the Shenyang (Mukden) region. He even set up his own office inside Zhongnanhai. Mao’s surviving son, Mao Anqing, seems to have been left alone, and his wife, Shaohua, joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1966, on graduation from Beijing University, providing liaison between the family and the two key institutions in the Cultural Revolution. (They had a son, Xinyu, in 1971, Mao’s second grandson.) Mao’s eldest daughter, Li Min, was working in the Military Defense Bureau and came under harsh criticism for at least five months. Mao refused to help her in any way (he had refused to use his influence to help Jiang Qing also, when she came under criticism in the Yan‘an rectification campaign), and Li Min and her husband had a difficult time. They had two children, a boy and a girl; the girl spent at least some of this bleak period living with her grandmother He Zizhen in Shanghai.
Mao’s younger daughter, Li Na, graduated from Beijing University in 1965, and she kept her father abreast of student and faculty sentiment there in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution. She was working then as an editor of the People’s Liberation Army newspaper, while living in Zhongnanhai. But in 1970 she was sent—perhaps on Mao’s instructions—to one of the rectification institutions, known as “May 7 cadre schools,” where hard agricultural labor was combined with ideological study. This particular “school” was in the Jinggangshan region, where Mao had led his guerrilla forces in 1928 and 1929. Now, in an odd echo of Mao’s relationship there with He Zizhen, Li Na fell in love with one of the men who were supposed to be guarding her, and married him. The couple separated a few years afterward, but at the time of the separation Li Na was already pregnant, and she bore a child in 1973, providing Mao with his third grandson.
There is no logical way to date the ending of the Cultural Revolution. For many the height of its political fury was during 1966 and 1967, but in many of its aspects—the feuds between rival groups, the long years spent living with peasants in poor areas of the countryside, the fears of sudden raids on home and property, the insistent rhetoric against any aspect of the old society, the disruption of schools, and the management of most institutions through revolutionary committees—the extremist policies endured. The cultural sphere, where Jiang Qing had the strongest hold, was strictly regimented, and the content of art was intensely monitored until the mid-1970s. Also, the ongoing tensions in the country were exacerbated by the continuing bad relations with the Soviet Union. In 1969 these erupted into armed clashes along the northern Sino-Soviet border, leading to new mass-mobilization campaigns and the spread of war scares and a fresh hunt for traitors and “revisionists.”
Mao was restless, and traveled widely during this period. Perhaps because he wished to get away from what he found was the oppressive atmosphere of Beijing, or to distance himself from Jiang Qing, he lived for long periods on his special train or in the various guest houses around the country that were always at his disposal. Though his health was not good and his eyesight was deteriorating rapidly, he seems to have kept up liaisons with various young companions.
Mao had always had irregular sleep patterns—he told friends that this was because his sleep naturally followed lunar phases, rather than the rhythms of the solar time to which most other people responded—and he took either Seconal or chloral hydrate for insomnia, getting the drugs through his physicians from a pharmacy where they were prepared for him under a code name. He also ate erratically and had poor teeth, which sometimes abscessed. In 1970, Mao had a serious case of pneumonia.
What seems to have weakened Mao’s health far more than his irregular habits and wayward lifestyle was the extraordinary shock caused to him by the defection of Lin Biao in 1971. Though the details of exactly what occurred remain elusive, it seems that Lin Biao had come to suspect that Mao was losing faith in him, and that Mao hence had abandoned any idea of making Lin his revolutionary successor. In anger and desperation, Lin and some close army confidants conceived a plan to assassinate Mao by blowing up his train, and then to take over the government. When the plot was discovered on September 13, 1971, Lin fled from China in an air force plane, with several of his family members. The plane crashed in Mongolia, and all aboard were killed. It was the most bizarre of stories, with countless loose ends, but certainly Lin Biao was dead and Mao felt betrayed. After he received the news, Mao spent days lying in bed or shuffling around his room in Zhongnanhai. His insomnia worsened, his speech slurred, and his lower legs and feet swelled up. In January 1972 he was diagnosed as having congestive heart failure, and the swelling of his limbs had grown worse, extending to his neck.
This growing physical weakness coincided with the last internationally significant act in Mao’s life: his decision to invite the president of the United States to China. Such a visit would be a first step toward repairing the diplomatic relations that had been severed since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and that were now freeing up somewhat, since in August 1971 the United Nations had voted to give Taiwan’s seat to the mainland regime, and the United States had not resisted. It would also lead to a realignment in global power, as the United States would be called in as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union, which Mao now saw as the greater threat. A detente with the United States might also hasten a settlement of the Vietnam War and prevent any further Soviet meddling there. It would also reassert Mao’s own power as a major foreign-policy decision-maker.
The preliminary negotiations between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai took place in complete secrecy during 1971, because so much was at stake for both sides. But on February 18, 1972, all preparations smoothly completed, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger walked together into Mao’s study in Zhongnanhai. The president noticed that Mao had to be helped to his feet by a “girl secretary,” and his first words to Nixon were “I can’t talk very well.” During their informal conversation, moreover, Mao was self-deprecatory. Praised by the two Americans for the power of his political writings and his effect on the world, Mao replied that “there is nothing instructive in what I wrote” and that he had no effect on changing the world: “I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Beijing.” In a similar vein, when his own words that one should “seize the day” were quoted to him by the president, Mao responded, “I think that, generally speaking, people like me sound like a lot of big cannons.” Such phrases, said Mao, had no more significance than things like “The whole world should unite and defeat imperialism, revisionism, and all reactionaries, and establish socialism.” As they walked to the door, Mao was shuffling and said he had not been feeling well. “You look very good,” Nixon responded. “Appearances are deceiving,” answered Mao. Kissinger, too, while noting Mao’s strong grasp of international politics, and the wit and appropriateness of his responses, observed that Mao needed “two assistants’ help” to rise from his armchair, and that Mao “could move only with difficulty and speak but with considerable effort.” Mao’s doctor mentioned later that because of physical weakness Mao “practiced sitting down and getting up” for days before his meeting with Nixon.
It had been an extraordinary shift in policy by Mao, to upend the strident attacks on United States imperialism that had flooded China’s airwaves and newspapers for decades, and it is proof of the extraordinary power that Mao knew he had over his own people. But it is one of the last times we can see that power being utilized to the full.
The last important example was Mao’s 1973 decision to allow the purged Deng Xiaoping to return to power. Deng had been ousted in the early years of the Cultural Revolution, but had never been mistreated as savagely as Liu Shaoqi or Peng Dehuai, and had spent the years of his disgrace living in Jiangxi and working—at least some of the time—in a tractor plant. Mao had even said that “if Lin Biao’s health should fail him, I will let Xiaoping come back.” Deng had laid the groundwork for his return by writing a correctly abject self-criticism, in which he admitted all the charges against him and announced that he would “sincerely and without any reservations accept the denunciations and accusations directed at me by the Party and the revolutionary masses.” Deng expressed a willingness to die for his misdeeds, but added that his greatest hope would be to have “a trivial task of some sort that will provide me with an opportunity to make up for my past mistakes and to turn over a new leaf.” Mao’s 1973 order that Deng Xioaping be recalled for active duty in Beijing deepened the rift—already long-standing—between Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing, for she and Deng loathed each other. By 1973 Mao was open about his dislike and distrust of Jiang Qing, and it is possible that Mao’s recall of Deng was done partly to infuriate her. Her attempt to stall Deng’s return could have been the trigger for a harsh letter Mao wrote her in 1974, which contained the sentences: “It would be better for us not to see each other. For years I have advised you about many things, but you have ignored most of it. So what use is there for us to see each other?”
Though Mao’s health had improved during 1973, and he seemed alert and even spritely at times, the debilitating symptoms that the Americans had noticed in 1972 were confirmed n July 1974 by medical tests that showed Mao had amyotro phic lateral sclerosis, the motor-neuron condition known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” By this time he was having great trouble reading, and sometimes eating and talking, since he could not fully close his mouth. Also, the muscles on the right side of his body began to atrophy. That fall and winter, Mao took extended trips in his special train, against his doctors’ objections: one to Wuhan and one to Changsha, scene of so many of his youthful revolutionary activities. There he tried for a last time to swim, but it turned out to be impossible. He took mainly liquid food and spent much of the time lying in bed on his left side. Yet he still followed political events enough to stop a new attempt to prevent Deng’s rise, for he knew that Zhou Enlai was dying of cancer and Deng would be the only major check to Jiang Qing and her inner circle. And Mao was able to sustain his end of the conversation when Kissinger returned to China with President Gerald Ford in 1975, even though Mao’s words were mumbled and indistinct, and he often wrote out his responses on a pad of paper held by his nurse.
But in the main, Mao was restricted to following the political dramas through intermediaries. One of his contacts with the Politburo was his nephew Mao Yuanxin, whom Mao trusted, even though the young man was close to Jiang Qing. For those seeking to communicate with Mao himself, the main route was now through his female confidant and attendant Zhang Yufeng, who could transform his murmured sounds into intelligible words for others, and was the one who read many of the policy documents aloud to him. Fifty years younger than Mao, Zhang had been born in Manchuria in 1944 while it was still the puppet Japanese state of Manchukuo, and after finishing high school she got a job in 1960 serving on the trains used by senior cadres and foreign dignitaries. In 1962 she was assigned to Mao’s private train, and by the end of that year, on a journey to Changsha, she became one of the young women who regularly joined Mao for dance parties. Although she had married a worker in the railway bureau in 1967, and bore him a daughter, Zhang Yufeng began to accompany Mao on all his long trips, including a three-month journey along the Yangtze in 1969. The following year she joined him as a personal attendant in his home in Zhongnanhai. They separated for a while, after an argument, but she was ordered to return. Thereafter she became Mao’s secretary and nurse, and as his sight failed, she read key documents to him. From 1972 onward, the two of them regularly ate together, and she began to control access to Mao by deciding how and when his health made it suitable for visitors to be with him. She had become Mao’s main conduit to the outside world.
A cataract operation in the summer of 1975 and the fitting of special glasses gave Mao back some reading ability, and he was even able to watch movies with Zhang Yufeng in his study. Invited members of his staff were allowed to watch the same movies in a special screening room nearby. But Mao sometimes needed oxygen to breathe, and his right side was virtually paralyzed. His doctors decided, over his objections, to give him amino acids intravenously. When Zhou Enlai was dying of cancer in the hospital in January 1976, Mao was considered too ill to visit him. Through his nephew Mao Yuanxin, Mao did receive news of the great crowds that assembled to mourn the dead premier in Tiananmen Square on the tomb-sweeping day of April 5. Through the same source he heard of the swift and violent military and police suppression of the demonstration. Though Mao had previously backed Deng Xiaoping’s return to power, he appears to have agreed with the argument made by some senior colleagues that Deng Xiaoping’s scheming lay behind the demonstrations, and that Deng should be again dismissed. It seems to have been Mao’s personal decision to appoint Hua Guofeng, formerly the Party secretary in Hunan province, to be the new premier, and Party first vice chairman. This remarkable promotion transformed the previously almost unknown Hua into Mao’s probable successor. Though an odd and risky decision, the appointment of Hua was a deliberate compromise, to balance off Deng Xiaoping supporters against those of Jiang Qing.
Mao suffered a major heart attack on May 11, 1976, and the Politburo decided—without informing him—that they would choose on a case-by-case basis whether to share their deliberations with him. At the same time they began to hold some of their meetings in the swimming-pool area next to Mao’s rooms, so they could be present swiftly in any emergency. On June 26, Mao had a second heart attack. A third came on September 2, more serious than the previous two, leaving him weakened and comatose. On September 8, he was alert enough to spend some short periods reading reports, but he dozed off repeatedly. Around 11:15 P.M., he drifted into a coma. Ten minutes after midnight, on September 9, 1976, Mao died in the presence of the ranking members of the Politburo, who had been summoned to his room, and his attendant physicians.
The nearest thing that we have to Mao’s thoughts about his approaching death comes from notes of a meeting he held, with several members of the Politburo, in Zhongnanhai on June 15, shortly before his second heart attack. Mao told his colleagues that reaching the age of seventy was unusual, and passing eighty inevitably made one think about funeral arrangements. It was therefore time to implement the old Chinese saying that, when appropriate, one should “seal the coffin and pass the final verdict.” Mao had done two things that mattered, he said. He had battled Chiang Kai-shek for years and finally chased him off to “that little island” of Taiwan. And in the long war of resistance he had “asked the Japanese to return to their ancestral home” and had fought his way into the Forbidden City. Few people would argue that those were achievements. But what about the Cultural Revolution, where he had few supporters and “quite a few opponents”? That revolution remained unfinished, said Mao, and all he could do was pass the task on to the next generation. If he could not pass it on peacefully, then he would have to pass it on in turmoil. “What will happen to the next generation if it all fails?” he asked. “There may be a foul wind and a rain of blood. How will you cope? Heaven only knows!”