AT 3 P.M. on September 18, 1976, Beijing’s vast Tiananmen Square was filled with rows of uniformed workers and soldiers, standing silently with heads bowed. Across this nation of almost one billion people, in public squares, villages, factories, schools, and offices, Chinese citizens assembled as part of a nationwide memorial meeting for Mao Zedong, who had died nine days earlier at the age of eighty-two. All were instructed to stand in place, heads bowed, for three minutes of silence. Mao’s designated successor, the relatively unknown Hua Guofeng, read a speech filled with extravagant praise for the deceased Chairman, who had led the Chinese Communist Party since the early 1930s and had thoroughly dominated the People’s Republic since its establishment in 1949. The entire party leadership lined up in a solemn show of unity.
The illusion of unity was shattered on October 6, when Hua Guofeng moved against Mao’s radical followers. Conspiring with other senior officials, Hua ordered his security detail to arrest Mao’s key political allies. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, was arrested in her living quarters. Three others—Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao, and Yao Wenyuan—were summoned to a leadership meeting. As they arrived, one by one, the stunned officials were taken into custody by armed guards. These individuals had done Mao’s bidding during his Cultural Revolution—an assault on the party-state that crippled China’s government and economy and caused the death and suffering of millions. At the time of their arrest, they represented one-quarter of China’s sixteen-member Politburo, the party’s top decision-making body. Wang Hongwen and Zhang Chunqiao were members of the select Politburo Standing Committee, ranked second and fourth, respectively. Soon they were reviled as a Gang of Four,
charged with counterrevolutionary subversion. In reality, their crime was to have done Mao’s bidding in the last decade of his life. Still a symbol of the revolution’s legitimacy, Mao was praised in death, but this was a coup against the most distinctive elements of his political legacy. The unnamed ringleader of the Gang of Four was Mao himself.
Twenty-seven years before, on October 1, 1949, the fifty-five-year-old Mao Zedong, addressing a massive assembly at the same spot, declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. This promised the end of a century of economic and political decline, colonial intrusion, foreign invasion, and civil war. For most of the previous half-century, China was a failed state; the wreckage of an early attempt to establish a constitutional republic.1
For most of the half-century before that, it was a failing multinational empire. The last imperial dynasty (the Qing, or Manchu), established in 1644, reached its zenith in the eighteenth century, but was in deep decline in the late nineteenth century, suffering from widespread internal rebellion and the incursions of colonial powers.2
The enduring historical significance of 1949 was not the triumph of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, nor was it the victory of communism over capitalism. Mao’s declaration of the People’s Republic promised a new, more powerful Chinese state that could withstand global political competition and prevent the encroachment of other world powers.
For the first time in well over a century, there would be a Chinese state that effectively controlled its territory within secure borders, and that was able to stamp out pockets of domestic rebellion. For the first time in China’s long history, salaried state officials, not local notables, would administer Chinese society in rural villages and urban neighborhoods. These officials were part of a national hierarchy that connected the apex of power in Beijing directly, and relatively effectively, with life at the grass roots. Mao and his comrades may have viewed the victory of the Communist Party in 1949 as part of the triumph of world socialism, but it marked the birth of China’s first modern national state.
The past century had been brutal. The vast Taiping Rebellion of 1850 to 1864 engulfed much of the southeastern quadrant of the Qing empire for over a decade, and the epic battles that accompanied the rise and fall of the Heavenly Kingdom of the Taiping resulted in the deaths of more than 20 million.3
The weakened Qing state fought against an array of local rebellions, while at the same time losing a series of wars against colonial powers. The antiforeign Boxer Uprising of 1900, encouraged by
the Qing court, was crushed by an alliance of foreign armies, and the empire never recovered.4
The “revolution” of 1911 was a relatively uneventful collapse that marked the end of what had become a nearly moribund regime.5
The effort to establish a modern Chinese republic quickly failed. National parliamentary elections yielded a victory for the new Nationalist Party. Song Jiaoren, the party’s founder and architect of its electoral victory, was assassinated shortly afterward by agents of Yuan Shikai, a former Qing official who aspired to establish his own dictatorship.6
China quickly disintegrated into a collection of regional fiefdoms ruled by rival military overlords.7
In the 1920s two militant revolutionary parties sought to unify the country by armed force: the Nationalist Party, led by Sun Yatsen and later by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party, eventually taken over by the Hunan radical and guerrilla commander Mao Zedong. For a brief period in the mid-1920s the two movements joined forces and enjoyed some success, but the Communist Party’s commitment to social revolution repelled the propertied elites who were a core element of the nationalist movement, and the alliance split apart violently in 1927. Chiang Kai-shek purged Communists from the coalition, executing thousands in a lightning strike.8
The bloody struggle between these two revolutionary parties was waged for more than a decade, with the Communists driven to the edge of extinction in the mid-1930s. Then fate intervened in the form of an aggressive and militaristic imperial Japan, which initially conquered the entire northeastern region known as Manchuria (the present-day provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang) in 1931, and then in 1937 turned its attention to a massive military invasion of the Chinese homeland. The invasion and occupation crushed the Nationalist state established only a decade before, devastating the country and killing an estimated 12 million.9
The sudden surrender of Japanese forces in the wake of the American nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 led, after a brief respite, to the resumption of full-scale civil war. The Nationalists, who had survived the invasion in their southwestern wartime capital of Chongqing (Chungking), resumed the fight against the greatly revived Communists, who had steadily built their forces throughout northern China in a low-grade resistance movement against Japanese occupation that deliberately avoided direct combat. After a strong beginning, the civil war went badly for the Nationalists, who rapidly
disintegrated as a political force after suffering a series of crucial battlefield losses in Manchuria. By the time Mao stood at Tiananmen to announce the founding of the People’s Republic, most of the remaining Nationalist assets had already been evacuated to the island province of Taiwan, and Mao’s huge People’s Liberation Army was in the final stages of conquering China’s southern and western provinces.
China’s citizens undoubtedly hoped that 1949 would bring an end to the devastation of the first half of the twentieth century and usher in a new era of national unity, peace, and economic progress. These hopes would soon be dashed. The era of revolution was not over; in fact it had just begun. It would bring devastation on a scale that neither Mao nor his colleagues in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party could possibly have anticipated.
The two most famous instances of the devastation that defined Mao’s legacy were the Great Leap Forward of 1958–1960 and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, now the official name for the entire decade from 1966 to 1976, whose destructive force was felt most acutely during its first four years. The Great Leap Forward was a massive campaign to mobilize the entire population to work harder for longer hours, break production records, and catch up with the world’s economic powers in a few short years. It showed off the remarkable reach of the new party-state, an organizational feat that would have been unthinkable only a decade before and that few governments could have contemplated. The result, to the surprise and dismay of the campaign’s initiators, was unimaginable disaster: a massive, man-made famine that led to the deaths of close to 30 million people, and a deep industrial depression that lasted until the mid-1960s.
The economic and demographic disaster of the Great Leap was soon followed by the political disaster of the Cultural Revolution. Mao mobilized student Red Guards against party officials in 1966, and after some hesitation eventually permitted workers to join in escalating attacks against local and regional party officials, who were left largely defenseless against the onslaught. By January 1967, the civilian structure of national government virtually collapsed in most of the country, and it was slowly, fitfully, and violently rebuilt over the next two years. In the intervening period, rival rebel factions fought for power in complicated alliances and conflicts with military units that were ordered to intervene. Many regions of China were in a state resembling civil war, with no functioning civilian government. Calls for warring rebels to unite under the
victorious banner of Chairman Mao went unheeded, and this phase of the Cultural Revolution was ended only through the draconian application of military force.
With most of China effectively under martial law by the summer of 1968, many citizens may have hoped for a respite from strife. Unfortunately, however, military authorities and their civilian partners embarked on an escalating campaign of terror against imagined class enemies and political conspirators that unambiguously reestablished government authority, but led to the interrogation and torture of millions. The carnage ended only after the mysterious death of party vice chairman Lin Biao, the head of China’s armed forces and Mao’s designated successor, in September 1971. After the withdrawal of the army from civil administration, China entered an uncertain period when the former combatants of the late 1960s resumed a factional rivalry that periodically unleashed local unrest. The strife lasted until 1976, with massive protests against Mao’s legacy in Beijing and other cities in April, six months before the aging dictator’s death.
This was the history that hung heavily over the solemn assembly at Tiananmen Square in September 1976. Among the leaders on the rostrum were those who had supported Mao in his Cultural Revolution, attacked their colleagues with zeal, and who sought to keep China on the path of Maoist revolution, denigrating those who placed production and living standards above revolutionary principles. Also on the rostrum were those who had somehow managed to survive the tumult relatively unscathed, and others who had lost their posts, suffered humiliation and even the deaths of spouses and relatives, surviving imprisonment and banishment before being recalled to the capital in the 1970s to begin the task of rebuilding. Mao’s final plans for the survival and preservation of his legacy were about to unravel in a dramatic and surprising turn only a few years after his death. This was the ultimate failure of a leader who had managed to seize one defeat after another from the jaws of an astonishing victory, consigning China to two decades of destruction and pointless conflict. Mao’s destructive impulses left a China in disarray, essentially forcing his successors to start over again. Over the next three decades, they would take China in surprising new directions.
This book aims to make sense of these events and other dramatic developments of the period. Recent scholarship on Mao and his era has brought into clear focus the conflicts and motives of actors at the top of the
political system, as well as the consequences of these leadership decisions for Chinese society. I draw on these works, but my account shifts attention from the question of what happened to the question of why. At the center of the narrative is Mao Zedong—what he wanted to accomplish, how he hoped to do so, and what ideas and commitments motivated his actions. The core theme is that the results of his initiatives were often unintended, unanticipated, and unwanted, not only by the broad population and the party leadership, but by Mao himself. To understand why, we need to understand the revolutionary organization that conquered the Chinese mainland by military force in 1948–1949, and the legacies of its long struggle for power. We need to understand the reconstruction of state and society in the 1950s. We need to understand how the party was organized, and how it recruited, rewarded, and disciplined its members. We need to understand the flaws inherent in the economic system imported from the Soviet Union, a system that China’s leaders, especially Mao, saw as the key to China’s rapid industrialization. These two organizations—the party system and Soviet command economy—were at the very core of the struggles and conflicts of the Mao era. They were the focus of Mao’s dissatisfactions, and their features repeatedly frustrated his aims. The Mao that emerges from this history is in many ways an irresponsible and blundering figure, gripped by a rigid and anachronistic revolutionary ideology. Mao’s personal failings, however, do not take us very far toward explaining why matters turned out the way that they did. My account begins with Mao’s interventions, and follows their consequences as they coursed through the regime that he created, and ultimately throughout Chinese society.
The next five chapters of this book set the stage for the dramatic series of events that follow. They explain how China was reshaped in the decade after 1947 into a powerful and cohesive new nation-state, one with peculiar features and striking vulnerabilities. Chapter 2
is an account of the Communist Party’s long road to power and the legacy of this struggle for subsequent developments. It underplays the legacy of guerrilla communism and the anti-Japanese war, so central to the founding myth of the People’s Republic. The wartime base area of Yan’an was where the intense Stalinization of the Chinese party began, and where Mao absorbed the central tenets of Stalin-era communism, especially the doctrine of class struggle under socialism, long misunderstood as Mao’s singular innovation. In Yan’an, the party perfected its
techniques for enforcing draconian demands on its members for loyalty and conformity, and for punishing those who fell short. This would be a source of both great strength and destructive excess in future years. Long after the strategy of guerrilla war was abandoned, the massive mobilization of civilian populations to support conventional armed forces for civil war in the late 1940s was a decisive influence over the regime founded in the 1950s.
The 1950s were a period of regime building, but they were also an era of social revolution. Chapters 3
sketch the revolution’s main outlines, respectively, in the countryside and cities. A system of land tenure that had existed for centuries, and much of the social structure that was built on it, was wiped out in a few short years. Landlordism and tenant farming disappeared, and the rural elites that derived power from it were eliminated. China quickly became a nation of small independent farmers. Yet within a few years the land would be taken back and farmers would be absorbed into collective farms. Urban life was similarly transformed. Shopkeepers, merchants, and wealthy capitalists who had not fled the mainland had their holdings steadily expropriated, as their firms were consolidated into government-managed collectives or nationalized as state enterprises. Urban and rural populations were registered, labeled, and tied to local communities. The organized crime and armed gangs that had plagued urban and rural China were effectively wiped out, as were the drug and sex trades and criminal protection rackets. Urban and rural society attained a new level of stability and order. In the process, the Communist Party was building a new and effective national state, and was using it to eliminate the sources of inequity and insecurity that had long plagued ordinary Chinese citizens.
As the 1950s progressed, this new national order assumed a strong Soviet flavor. Chapter 5
describes the way that China rapidly installed a version of the state socialist growth machine developed after the 1920s in Stalin’s Soviet Union. In retrospect, this was an ill-fated choice, because that model of development was deeply flawed and eventually failed everywhere it was installed. But in the early 1950s this was still far from evident. The model generated rapid industrial growth in the Soviet Union, helping it to defeat Nazi Germany, and it sustained a postwar growth spurt that augmented the USSR’s military might and threatened the Western powers. In the first half of the 1950s, China implemented the model with a vengeance. This was a model that dictated high rates of
savings and investment, which by design ensured that consumption and living standards would not rise far above subsistence guarantees for the foreseeable future. Rationing, shortages, and substandard housing and public infrastructure prevailed in China through the end of the Mao era.
While all of these changes were fundamental, the most important change in the 1950s was the extension of the Communist Party’s reach into every dimension of the country’s government, social institutions, and enterprises. This trend, described in Chapter 6
, is widely acknowledged but not well understood. The party did not seek to control everything. It focused its attention on organizations where key government functions were performed, where major decisions about resource allocation were made, and where China’s future elite would be trained. The party organization quickly developed the capacity to allocate resources and career opportunities. This dramatically altered the incentives for individuals to join the party, inevitably changing the meaning of party membership and the motives of the people who entered into its service. Before the party’s victory seemed secure, the decision to join was one that entailed considerable sacrifice, personal risk...