John Gittings

The Complexity of the Cultural Revolution
Photos from China
Peace writings
Journal articles
Newspaper articles
Family links


Fifty years after the Chinese Cultural Revolution began, it is generally seen as "ten years of chaos" for which Mao Zedong (himself often portrayed as a "monster") was solely responsible. There is some truth in both judgments, yet that is not the complete story of what was a very complex affair which involved grassroots idealism as well as high-level intrigue. Here to mark the anniversary I am posting the text of chapter 5 of my book The Changing Face of China (Oxford University Press, 2005) which explores these issues.



Second Cultural Revolution



Just one month after Zhou Enlai had outlined the policy of the Four Modernizations at the 1975 National People's Congress, a great debate broke out among working-class students at the Shenyang College of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering over the relationship between technical skill and political morality.

            Modernization, said one group of students, taking their cue from Zhou, required what Chairman Mao himself had called a `huge contingent' of `technical cadres' in order to build social­ism. Why should those who sought to become proficient at their jobs be accused of just wanting to he a famous expert?' It was true that college students should not behave like `intellectual aristocrats', but neither should they be deterred by criticism from making the best use of their training so as to become `leaders of the working masses' after graduation. Otherwise how would China ever advance its national economy to the front ranks of the world?

            The opposing view was also published as a wall poster. Like the first, it came from a group of 'worker-peasant-soldier' students who were the product of the Revolution in Education, but took a more rigorously leftist line. They began with an assertive echo of Red Guard rhetoric: `We should criticize revisionism and uphold Marxism ... We think we should be nothing but ordinary workers, the more ordinary the better!' Those students who thought otherwise were merely repeating the old idea that `he who excels in learning can be an official' and that `the highest are the wise and the lowest are stupid'.


A proletarian intellectual is nothing but a member of the worker ranks. Moreover, to train such a vast contingent we do not primarily rely on the university. The forefront of the three great revolutionary movements is more important than ten, a hundred, or even one thousand universities. If the new-type socialist universities train nothing but plain, ordinary workers, then we can proudly say that they have completely destroyed the ladder for climbing to higher positions.


            The two opposing views were published in the Liaoning Daily with an invitation to the reader to `discuss and truly understand'. It was a rare example of real debate without editorial pre-judgement in the Chinese press. China did face genuine alternatives in the mid-1970s, and the Cultural Revolu­tion had encouraged new forces in society capable of taking part in such a debate. But it had also generated factionalism and a warped political culture which debased most arguments` into a distorted polemic. While the Liaoning students were arguing in public, secret discussions in the Party Politburo in Beijing were being conducted in a very different spirit which would lead to the final Deng Xiaoping-Gang of Four showdown a year later. [1]


The Maoist vision

There were two Cultural Revolutions. The first ended in July 1968 when Mao's reluctance to discipline the `little generals' was finally overcome. Mao summoned the main Red Guard leaders in Beijing and reproached them for their lack of unity. A year's fighting was quite enough, and factionalism was creating `tens of thousands of centres' throughout China.


Now, I am issuing a nation-wide notice. If anyone continues to oppose and fight the Liberation Army, destroy means of transportation, kill people, or set fires, he is committing a crime. Those few who turn a deaf ear to persuasion and persist in their behaviour are bandits, or Guomindang elements, subject to capture. If they continue to resist, they will be annihilated. [2]


In Guangxi province, Lin Biao added, a thousand houses had been burnt down and no one was allowed to quench the flames-the same tactic used many years ago by the Guomin­dang generals whom he fought during the revolution. (So many people had been killed in Guangxi - many of them innocent victims of factional violence - that bodies floated down the Pearl River to emerge, bound and bloated, in Hong Kong harbour. The terrible story of  how victorious factional fighters in Guangxi's Wuxuan County had ritually eaten parts of their enemies' bodies would not emerge till long after the Cultural Revolution [3]) Mao still spoke with a touch of indulgence towards the Red Guards. Young people were entitled to make mistakes, and they reminded him of his own youth. But the people were tired of ,civil wars' between the factions. It was time now to send in the armed forces and the workers to restore order in the schools. These would be reopened under military supervision, accepting new students, while those Red Guards who should by now have graduated were to be sent to the countryside. Society, said Mao, was the biggest university.


            In theory, power had now been `seized' from the capitalist-­roaders in the Party apparatus, and the new Revolutionary Committees, established at every level from factory or commune up to the province, had opened up management and government to popular participation. The bureaucrats had been chastened by criticism and by attendance at cadre schools in the countryside. Young people, the generation of revolutionary successors, were in the vanguard of social change, bridging the gap between town and village by going `down to the countryside' to `join the team and settle in a new household'. In reality a substantial transfer of authority had indeed taken place, and there was a genuine new spirit of involvement, but with certain important qualifications. First was the continuing struggle in the highest ranks of the leadership between the ultra-left and centre-left; which made ideology a battleground rather than a field for new ideas. This struggle was also diffused at lower levels, where policies were distorted into dogmas and political success usually depended upon their unquestioning implementation. Second was the dominance of the People's Liberation Army, which controlled more than one-third of the new Central Committee chosen at the Ninth Party Congress in 1969. Members of Revolutionary Committees, for example, visibly deferred to the army representative sitting democratically in their midst. Third was the continuing victimization of many of those detained in the first stage of the Cultural Revolution, often merely on the basis of past family or work connections or because they had been targets of the 1957 anti-rightist campaign.


                                                                 Nevertheless, China now entered a second phase of Cultural Revolution in which an attempt was made to translate the Maoist egalitarian vision of the mid-196os into an approximate social reality. Visitors to China saw an idealized but not wholly untruthful version of this. No tour was complete without a conversation with college students drawn from the ranks of 'worker-peasant-soldiers', another with students who had been ,sent down' to the countryside, a visit to a school-farm for city cadres (May Seventh Cadre School), a performance of a 'revolu­tionary opera', an inspection of a rural clinic run by `barefoot doctors', and a session with a Revolutionary Committee in commune or factory. These were the xinsheng shiwu, the `new (socialist) achievements', of the Cultural Revolution, and those taking part were the shehuizhuyi de xinren, the `new socialist people'. Although the collective structure of the people's com­munes antedated the Cultural Revolution, its practical approach to organizing peasant labour through the year had been integ­rated with a coherent theory on how to move to a higher socialist level in the medium to long term. Many visitors were greatly impressed, finding evidence of what the British sociologist Peter Worsley described after his own visit as an ,alternative reality' which posed `a moral challenge ... both to capitalism and to existing forms of Communist culture [in Eastern Europe]'. K. S. Karol, author of the most serious western attempt to grapple with the ideology of the Cultural Revolution, observed that `Mao's words struck home to them [the Chinese students], as to their counterparts in Berlin, Rome, and Paris.' After my own first visit in 1971, I reported in The Guardian that I had observed `a collective way of life ... which provides the moral imperatives for the youth of China'. [4]


                                  The possibility that this second Cultural Revolution offered any sort of desirable social goal or effective weapon against bureaucracy has been denied repeatedly by the post-Mao leader­ship. The 1981 Communist Party resolution summing up Chi­nese history since -1949 insisted that the Cultural Revolution `did not in fact constitute a revolution or social progress in any sense, nor could it possibly have done so. It was we and not the enemy at all who were thrown into disorder by the "cultural revolution" ... It decidedly could not come up with any constructive programme, but could only bring grave disorder, damage, and retrogression in its train.' Examples of principled behaviour and self-sacrifice are either caricatured as a ritual response to political requirements of the time, or attributed to the efforts of good people to mitigate the worst evils. In this view, Mao's scathing comment on the public ethics of the Soviet Union under Stalin - `there was supposed to be "selfless labour", but no one did an hour's more work and everyone thought about himself first' ­could be paraphrased to apply to his own China. Common sense suggests that this is an excessive denial. Although enthusiasm faded, and in retrospect is often labelled by those personally involved as misconceived, it was a genuine factor in the great social movements of the time which cannot be accounted for solely by political coercion. One Red Guard would recall that:


                        When I went to university in 1973, we former Red Guards met to exchange our experiences. We agreed that our stay with the people in the country had taught us the value of things - and of life itself.

                        Looking back dispassionately, whatever motivated Mao to launch the Cultural Revolution, some of the ideas which emerged from it are still valuable. The `barefoot doctor' and `barefoot teacher' system is certainly good for a country like China ... Basic things like how to read, write, and calculate can be taught very cheaply if they are organized by the local people themselves.

                        At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution I feel the ordinary people were exhilarated by their new right to criticize and even to attack their bosses. The suppressed humiliation that one suffers at the hands of a faceless bureaucracy builds up a resentment that is like the surging tide blocked by a dam. [5]


            Socialist new man might not be actually tilling the fields, but he could be perceived far-off on the horizon. The peasant leader of the model Dazhai brigade, Chen Yonggui, an honest man who would later become totally out of his depth in national politics (he became a Vice-premier and was denounced after the fall of the Gang of Four) summed up what seemed a reasonable ideal: `A man's ability may be great or small, but if he works heart and soul for the public, he is respected and ensured a secure life even if he has limited labour power.' The Great Leap goal of narrowing the `three great differences' (between industry and agriculture, town and country, and manual and mental labour) was reasserted. Both at the material and spiritual level, many from outside China found much to admire. `Visitors to China consistently report', wrote an agricultural specialist in Scientific American (June 1975), `that the population appears to be healthy and adequately nourished.' The economist John Gurley observed correctly that China's pavements and streets were not covered with multitudes of sleeping, begging, hungry, and illiterate human beings' - one of the earliest achievements of commun ist rule after 1949 - but went on to draw a sweeping con­clusion:


Maoists believe that while a principal aim of nations should be to raise the level of material welfare of the population, this should be done only within the context of the development of human beings, encouraging them to realize fully their manifold creative powers. And it should be done only on an egalitarian basis - that is, on the basis that develop­ment is not worth much unless everyone rises together; no one is to be left behind, either economically or culturally ... Development as a trickle-down process is therefore rejected by Maoists. [6]


            Worrying signs of factional feuding in the Chinese leadership were relegated to a subordinate place by those looking to China for solutions to more general Third World problems. It was assumed that the `production in first place' mentality ascribed to Liu Shaoqi had been liquidated for all time, and that, especially after the 1975 National People's Congress, a broad consensus had been forged under Zhou Enlai. `What should not be in doubt', wrote one commentator, `is the shared commitment [in the Chinese leadership] to completing the task of the "transition to socialism", in spite of these controversies over the means and the place of implementation, nor should this be blotted out by the echoes of factional struggle too often magnified beyond their proper volume by Western China-Watching techniques.' (I was the author of this optimistic judgement.)


Revolution in education

The Revolution in Education, which between 1968 and 1976 sent over twelve million students to the countryside, and brought some of them back to attend college along with a smaller number of genuinely rural students, was the most visible `new achievement'. Mao had already sharply criticized the educa­tional system in 1964-5. His remarks echoed themes already discussed during the Great Leap Forward, and were meant to provoke discussion rather than to prescribe alternatives. Exami­nations, he said, were a method of `surprise attack' on the students which should be changed completely - he suggested publishing examination questions in advance so students could learn through preparation. Too many teachers `rambled on and on', he said, and students were entitled to doze off when they did so. The syllabuses were lifeless, the time spent studying was too long, and students were divorced from real life. `We shouldn't read too many books', Mao told his startled colleagues (who nevertheless agreed hastily). `We should read Marxist books, but not too many of them either. It will be enough to read a dozen or so.' After all,  Gorky only had two years of primary education, and Franklin `was originally a newspaper seller, yet he discovered electricity'. [7] The Red Guards, not surprisingly, would welcome Mao's ideas. In September 1966 the Beijing No. 1 Girls' Middle School wrote a letter urging Mao to abolish college entrance exams:


                        Quite a number of students have been indoctrinated with such gravely reactionary ideas of the exploiting classes as that `book learning stands above all else', of `achieving fame', `becoming experts', `making one's own way', `taking the road of becoming bourgeois specialists', and so on. The present examination system encourages these ideas ...

                        We think that at a time when their world outlook is being formed, young people of 17 or 18 years old ... should first of all get `ideological diplomas' from the working class and the poor and lower-middle peasants. The Party will select the best ... and send them on to higher schools.


In the May Seventh (1966) Directive which revived the notion of `all-round people' first put forward by Chen Boda in 1958 (see above p. xx),  Mao told students that `they should in addition to their studies learn other things, that is, industrial work, farming, and military affairs.' This did not constitute an alternative educational theory (and no one else dared to construct one except some foreign sympathizers who did so on China's behalf), yet it did suggest a very different spirit from the mixture of Confucian and Soviet pedagogy which the Chinese system had inherited.


            When the schools and colleges reopened in the early 1970s, they possessed new features which to Western educationalists were recognizably `progressive'. Schoolchildren took part in regular manual work-up to two months a year at secondary level (this had been done on a smaller scale before the Cultural Revolution). Local workers and residents served on school management committees, and taught useful skills in class. Tuition was still fairly formal, but there were few or no examinations. The `key schools' were no longer supposed to practise selective admission of the most able or privileged. College education was completely transformed, with all curri­cula reduced to a maximum length of three years. All applicants were required to have three qualifications: (a) two to three years practical experience in factory, countryside, or armed forces; (b) the recommendation of their fellow-workers; (c) at least three years of secondary education (rather than the full five previously required). Students who could claim a 'worker-peasant-soldier' (gongnongbing) background were preferred. Practical work was stressed during university courses. Architecture students would work on building sites; language students would serve as waiters in hotels for foreigners; art students spent time on the factory floor before painting industrial themes. The underlying approach was known as `open door schooling', which also involved a large number of short and part-time courses run by colleges for the community. Another directive by Mao (22 July 1968) had urged the setting-up of vocational colleges at the place of work. `Students should be selected from among workers and peasants with practical experience, and they should return to production after a few years' study.' By 1973 there were twenty-three factory-­run `universities' in Shanghai, and Beijing's prestigious Qinghua University had twenty part-time lecturers from local factories. Universities also ran correspondence courses for peasants, and established `branch schools' in the countryside.


            The problem with the Revolution in Education lay not in its philosophy but in the highly charged political atmosphere which surrounded it. Mao had instructed that `teaching material should have local character. Some material on the locality and the villages should be included.' But all textbooks were tightly controlled by the provincial or national authorities, and scruti­nized so closely for `incorrect' material that no one ventured to innovate. Recommendation `by the masses' for a college place usually meant selection by the Party committee - sometimes of the offspring of influential cadres, at other times to get rid of trouble-makers. Teachers were reluctant to criticize students for fear of being criticized themselves. (A 12-year-old girl named Huang Shuai in Beijing became nationally famous for denounc­ing her teacher.) Many of the best university teachers were still condemned to menial tasks while their places were taken by the ambitious and the ill-qualified. `Open door schooling' was often organized merely to satisfy the requirement for a fixed number of days spent away from college, with little educational value. It was not surprising that education became the new battleground in the mid-1970s between the leftists and the modernizers, or that, when they gained victory after Mao's death, the latter should condemn the whole period as `ten wasted years'.


            The ultra-left fostered its own model of `going against the tide' in the dubious case of Zhang Tiesheng, the student who filed a `blank exam paper' with a letter addressed to the authorities on the reverse. Zhang was sitting a college entrance test in 1973 after five years in the Liaoning countryside. Unable to complete it (critics later pointed out that he had not actually left it `blank'), he protested against the new requirement for a written exam:


                        To tell the truth, I have no respect for the bookworms who for many years have been taking it easy and have done nothing useful. I dislike them intensely. During the busy summer hoeing time, I just could not abandon my production task and hide myself in a small room to study. That would have been very selfish ... I would have been condemned by my own revolutionary conscience.

                        I have one consolation. I have not slowed the work of the collective because of the examination ... The few hours of the examination may disqualify me from college and I have nothing further to say.


            But he had, spoiling the effect by going on to claim that given a couple of days' study he could have passed the test. He was then successful in a second `supplementary test', arranged spe­cially for him by the authorities. His letter was published in the provincial newspaper and then nationally, and Zhang was rewarded with a place in college. He later published an embroi­dered account oŁ the famous exam: he had dozed off in the lunchtime break and had to climb into the examination room through the window. He could more or less have answered the questions, but felt that they were not a proper test of real ability. [8]


Revolution in health

The Revolution in Public Health, another `newly born achieve­ment' which attracted favourable attention abroad, showed similar strengths and weaknesses. It too was based on a pre-Cultural Revolution directive from Mao (26 June 1965) criticiz­ing the Ministry of Health for its bureaucratic ways, and stating that the centre of gravity for medical work should shift to the rural areas. (`The Ministry of Health', Mao said, `is not a Ministry for the people, so why not change its name to .. . the Ministry of Urban Gentlemen's Health?') Training periods were shortened to three years for doctors and between six months and a year for `barefoot doctors' (paramedics). Many urban doctors were sent to improve rural health services, and research was directed away from complex areas to `the prevention and improved treatment of common diseases ... the masses' greatest needs'. New rural clinics were opened, and others which had been closed since the Great Leap were reopened. The most visible reform was the nation-wide introduction of a rural co­operative medical scheme by 1968, organized at the brigade or commune level. A similar scheme during the Great Leap had failed because peasant incomes were too low to subsidize it effectively. Although the co-operative system was open to abuse by local cadres who claimed preferential treatment, its positive role has not been seriously challenged by post-Mao reformers. But it became a casualty of the reaction against collective organization and a return to individual peasant `responsibility' for the land in the early 1980s. It was not until two decades later, when the SARS epidemic in 2003  threatened for a time to spread unchecked into the countryside, that the extent of the decline of rural health provision was widely deplored.


            Health also became a political battlefield. In 1976 Spring Shoots, a feature film in praise of barefoot doctors, was widely promoted by the ultra-left propaganda apparatus as a work which `reflects the maturing of barefoot doctors and new social­ist sprouts in the thick of the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie'. It told the story of Chun-miao, a young woman peasant who seeks to become a barefoot doctor after seeing a baby wrongly treated by a local witch-doctor and then allowed to die by the commune hospital. Eventually she is allowed to study at the hospital, but her efforts to learn are ,obstructed by the bourgeoisie'. `Using an injection needle is not the same as wielding a hoe', she is told. `Filled with indigna­tion', she returns to the village, gathers herbs, and makes the round with a medical kit. Eventually a plot to frame her by administering a toxic injection to a peasant for whom she is caring (a poor peasant naturally) is exposed. The villains are denounced, and the hospital returns to the hands of the people.


            A year later the same film was being condemned in anti-Gang of Four propaganda as a big poisonous weed which slandered the leadership of the Communist Party (responsible for running the hospital) and, worse still, `advocates spontaneous mass movements' for medical reform! Between these two extremes there was little room for serious discussion of the uses and limitations of barefoot doctors. (A new play, Loyal Hearts, staged in 1978, gave a very different picture of the Revolution in Health. It told the story of how an old doctor was accused of being a `bourgeois specialist' and prevented from conducting research into heart disease. `I simply wanted to do some medical research in order to cure more patients!', he cries. `Is this a crime?')  [9] In 1980 the Minister of Public Health Qian Xinzhong said that `under the slogan of putting the stress on the rural areas, medical and health work in cities, factories, and mines was weakened'. Certainly there was a shift of resources to the countryside at the expense of the urban system, although some basic-level urban services were extended in compensation. [10]


Rural revolution

From outside it was the collective structure of the people's communes which most often impressed those with experience of rural dislocation and urban immigration elsewhere in the Third World, or of the errors of Soviet collectivization in the 1930s. By the early 1970s, a coherent theory seemed to have emerged on how this post-Great Leap structure would in time evolve towards a higher level of socialism. China appeared to have struck a rational balance between individual and collective interest within a socialist framework which linked the further socializa­tion of production and distribution to material as well as political factors. Accounts were kept and the proceeds of work were distributed mostly at the basic `team' (village) level. But larger enterprises which would benefit the community - irriga­tion dams, roads, rural industry, secondary schools, and so on were handled by the higher-level commune. The intermediate-­level brigade would frequently run smaller enterprises, primary schools and often a co-operative medical scheme. The individual peasant in the team could still increase his or her income by working harder and earning more work-points, which would be converted into cash in the annual 'share-out'. But the value of these was aggregated at the village level, so that the industrious to some extent supported those who were less strong or able. (The system also benefited the more lazy, as post-Mao critics complained but few remarked at the time.) The lesson of the Great Leap Forward had apparently been learnt. There would be no `leaping ahead' to a higher stage of socialist collectivization regardless of local circumstances. Progress to a higher stage ­- transferring the accounting level from teams to the brigade and eventually to the commune - was to wait until sufficient material progress had been made for all those participating to benefit more or less equally from pooling their resources. Precise figures were set. Transfer of land ownership back to the com­mune from the villages would only be allowed when:


(a) the economy of the commune as a whole has developed so far that the cash income per inhabitant exceeds 400-500 yuan ...

(b) the commune-owned sector has attained absolute preponderance [more than 50 per cent] within the economy of the commune as a whole.

(c) the income of the poorest teams has caught up with that of the more prosperous; and

(d) mechanization has reached at least the half-way point. [11'


            The transition from collective to state ownership was even further away. But in the meantime each team contributed `cheap' labour, especially in the slack season, for the construction of collective projects which would provide the material basis for this gradual progression. The strategy of incremental advance towards the point where the collective unit could be expanded was explained in Mao's own province of Hunan as:


To actively develop the commune and brigade enterprises, expand the accumulation of the commune and brigade, purchase large farm machinery which the production teams have no means to purchase themselves, build farmland and water conservancy projects which they also cannot manage by themselves, and help the poorer production teams to develop production ... Speaking in the long term, ownership in the people's communes always advances from ownership by the small collective to ownership by the big collective and then to ownership by the whole people. [12]


The hidden weaknesses of the system and the existence of large areas where rural poverty remained extreme, while not easily visible, prompted even those most committed to 'advancing the transition' to acknowledge that it could not be done 'ahead of time.' Zhang Chunqiao's in his 1975 polemic (see below) on the need to limit `bourgeois rights' had insisted that `the wind of  "communi­zation" ... shall never be allowed to rise again', and that changes would only occur `over a fairly long time'. However some local cadres still sought to demonstrate their zeal by promoting ill-advised schemes to 'raise the accounting level'  from team to brigade.


Revolution in leadership

Another `achievement' oŁ the early 1970s was the Revolutionary Committee which replaced local government organs up to the provincial level and also provided a collective substitute for the administration or management in factories, schools, and all other standard units into which China was divided. At the government level, the Committee was a device to harmonize the different interest groups which emerged during the first Cultural Revolution, typically, the `rebel' radicals, the Party cadres, and the armed forces. Painfully, between January 1967 and Sep­tember 1968 the twenty-nine provinces, autonomous regions, and major cities set up their Committees (the earlier ones had a more radical complexion than those at the end, which were dominated by the army). In the enterprises the magic three-thirds formula was varied: workers, cadres, and technicians in the factory; teachers, parents, and students in the school. Sometimes it was expressed in terms of `old' (cadres), `middle-aged' (techni­cians), and `young' (workers). Meaningless in some cases, in others the formula did reduce conflict and incorporate new voices into the political system, but before long the post-1971 search for unity rehabilitated many cadres and reduced the radical influence.


            In 1974 a new round of wall-posters appeared on the walls of Beijing for the first time since the Red Guard movement. Their authors had evidently taken heart from the Tenth Party Congress (1973) which wrote into the Party constitution a new clause saying that it was `absolutely impermissible to suppress criticism and retaliate' against those who exercised their right to complain to the authorities. They were also encouraged by the new Party Vice-Chairman, Wang Hongwen, presented as the proletarian ideal of new China, who told the Congress that `we must ... con­stantly use the weapons of arousing the masses to air their views freely, write big-character posters, and hold great debates . . .' Yet the 1974 posters had a spontaneous character, although their authors took advantage of the license granted by Wang to `go against the tide' and criticize authority. In Beijing six writers describing themselves as `worker rebels' put up a poster of complaint in June 1984:


We worker rebels joined the Beijing Revolutionary Committee during the great Cultural Revolution in a Great Alliance with the peasants, students, and Red Guards, but no one took any notice of us! The authorities said `The Rebels can fight but they should not sit down.' They repressed the Red Guards and told the Rebels to go back to work. The result is that out of 24 workers on the Committee only one remains, which is just four per cent of the total. Many of the Rebels have been dubbed as counter-revolutionary elements. They have been arrested, struggled with, reassigned, dismissed, and suspended. [13]


Other posters revealed a call for more industrial democracy by factory workers who took seriously the `Two Participations' (cadres taking part in work and workers taking part in manage­ment-another `new achievement'). There were claims that protesting workers had been laid off, that posters were banned upon factory premises, and that factory revolutionary commit­tees failed to meet. The official press published reports of posters which criticized factory managers for attempting to reintroduce bonuses and for stifling `the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses', but there were also less orthodox, unreported expres­sions of workers' dissent, including strikes (which were to be legalized in the new 1975 state constitution). Matters came to a head in the summer of 1975 in Hangzhou, where industrial unrest spread to twenty-five factories and required army intervention to settle. It is said that Wang Hongwen, who in theory championed the workers' right to strike, was first sent by Deng Xiaoping to handle the situation and totally failed. The strike was settled by improvements in collective welfare for the workers and by arranging for cadres to `participate in labour' as they were supposed to. [14] But Hangzhou's real significance was the emer­gence of an assertive workforce, partly radicalized by the Cul­tural Revolution, whose demands were unpalatable to all leader­ship factions in Beijing. Even the behaviour of the Shanghai workers who denounced the restoration of quotas (under the slogan `Let's be masters of the wharf, not the slaves of tonnage'), though acceptable for propaganda purposes to the ultra-left, implied a rejection of `unreasonable' Party control. While con­demning managerial `economism', the workers' argument was ultimately based on sound materialist grounds: the work would be achieved more successfully and under better working con­ditions if they were not obliged to pursue rigid targets. (One shift of dockers, for example, could more usefully prepare the ground for a second shift to unload cargo than attack the task itself by merely unloading the most accessible items.)


The final struggle

In January 1975, at the long-delayed Fourth National People's Congress, Zhou Enlai made his last public appearance outside hospital to deliver the crucial `Report on the work of the government' which set the policy guidelines for the whole country. Zhou revived a target date originally set by Mao himself for substantial economic development by the end of the cen­tury - the `Year 2000', by which time China should have become a strong socialist industrial country capable of making `a bigger contribution to mankind' (Mao, November 1956). Zhou now presented a two-stage economic plan. The first, which in theory had been operating since 1965, would build a `relatively compre­hensive' industrial and economic system by -1980. The second, which would run from -1980 to 2000, was to achieve `the comprehensive modernization in agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology'. Thus the Four Modernizations appeared on the political agenda. Zhou sought to validate them by reminding his audience that he had mentioned them, with Mao's approval, at the last Congress in 1964.

            The NPC convened in an apparent spirit of compromise. It elected a strong team of Vice-Premiers spanning the political spectrum. After Deng Xiaoping and Zhang Chunqiao came former finance minister Li Xiannian. The `new left' of the Cultural Revolution had three places, including Chen Yonggui, the peasant leader of the model Dazhai Brigade. They were matched by three ministers with experience in economic plan­ning and construction, including Yu Qiuli who had almost single-handedly written China's interim one-year plans since the Cultural Revolution began. Control of the armed forces was balanced between Deng Xiaoping as chief of staff and Zhang Chunqiao as head of the political department. The appointment of this new team with an emphasis on economic expertise also seemed to indicate a political consensus for the new strategy. Deng, in charge of the team, now effectively ran Zhou's state apparatus as the Premier returned to spend the last year of his life in hospital.

            But behind the scenes a bitter factional struggle had already broken out in which Mao played an ambiguous role. It came after months of indirect sniping at Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping by the ultra-left. They had taken control of a propa­ganda campaign originally authorized by Mao, to `Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius', publishing barely disguised attacks on Zhou Enlai as the Duke of Zhou (founder of the Zhou dynasty and traditionally the source of the Way which Confucius developed). At the heart of the new dispute were legitimate questions of economic strategy, particularly concerning how far China should seek foreign imports of new technology and how they should be paid for. The reopening of relations with the US in 1971 had led to a shopping spree in which thirty complete industrial plants were purchased from the West in 1973-4 alone, worth some US $2,000 million. A second round concentrating on the energy sector was now proposed. But this debate was intertwined with a struggle for the post-Zhou and post-Mao succession, which falsified any attempt at serious argument. The struggle had begun with the `Fengqing' affair and would not end until Mao's death nearly two years later. Its intense and intricate nature is revealed by the record of the first few weeks:


4 October 1974. Mao proposes that Deng should be elected First Vice­-Premier of the State Council at the NPC.


17 October. At a meeting of the Politburo, Deng has a row with Jiang Qing over the Chinese-built freighter `Fengqing'. The ship, though hailed in the media as the first 10,000 ton ship built in China, has a poor performance which for Deng indicates the futility of a narrow policy oŁ `self-reliance'. Deng walks out of the meeting, and the Politburo is unable to reconvene for more than a month.


18 October Jiang Qing sends Wang Hongwen to Changsha where Mao is resting, to sow doubt in his mind about the relationship between Zhou and Deng. He is to insinuate that 'although the Premier is hospitalized, he is busy summoning people for talks far into the night', and that `the atmosphere in Beijing is now very much like that of the Lushan meeting [in July 1959]'. Wang is rebuffed by Mao, and told (according to the later version) not to `gang up' with Jiang Qing.

            On the same day, Mao's two interpreters, Wang Hairong (his niece) and Tang Wensheng, due to take some foreign guests to meet him in Changsha, are summoned to the Diaoyutai Guesthouse. Jiang Qing asks them to make a report to Mao about the `Fengqing'. incident. Zhang Chunqiao tells them that some `leading members of the State Council [are] worshipping everything foreign and spending too much on imports, thus causing state deficits'. Wang and Tang rush to tell Premier Zhou what they have been asked to do. Zhou explains that Deng Xiaoping has been baited many times at Politburo meetings, and has restrained himself till now.


20 October. After Mao has seen the foreign guests, Wang and Tang pass on the story (as interpreted by Zhou, they later claim, not by Jiang Qing). Mao is very angry, dismissing the freighter row as a trifle which has already been settled. He sends them back to Beijing with an `instruction': The Premier should remain in charge. Matters relating to the National People's Congress and new appointments should be `handled jointly' by Zhou and Wang Hongwen. Deng should be appointed First Vice-Premier, a Vice-Chairman of the Party, and Vice­Chairman of the Party Military Committee. [15]


But Mao would change his mind again, failing to attend the Congress or even send it an opening message. The People's Daily on 9 February quoted a new `instruction' from him warning that `lack of clarity' on the need to `exercise dictatorship over the bourgeoisie' would `lead to revisionism'. The editorial clearly labelled Deng Xiaoping's group as `sham Marxists' and reproached the mainstream Maoists - leaders such as Chen Yonggui - with having `muddled ideas of one kind or another . ..' This was soon followed by two polemical articles by Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan which plunged the country into a new campaign to `study the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat'. [16]


The flawed debate

The articles by Yao and Zhang, backed up in the official press, presented an ambiguous mixture of serious theoretical argument and vicious polemic. Their starting-point, already endorsed by Mao and capable of being supported by carefully chosen quotes from Marx and Lenin, was the persistence of inequality under socialism and of the conditions in which a `new bourgeoisie' could re-form. Mao provided the authority with an `instruction' which reflected that, although China's system of ownership had changed, it still possessed an `unequal' wage-system and a commodity economy which was not so different from that under capitalism. It would be quite easy, he reflected moodily, `for people like Lin Biao to push the capitalist system, if they came to power'.


            A group of theoretical workers in Shanghai, under Zhang Chunqiao's guidance, had been preparing since 1971 a new textbook on the political economy of socialism. Their work (no doubt nudged in the desired direction by Zhang) strongly emphasized the `incomplete' aspects of socialist society which provided the material basis for the possibility of the emergence of a new bourgeoisie and the restoration of capitalism. Echoing Mao, they argued that `many cultural revolutions' would be required to prevent this happening, until the surviving capitalist factors in the `relations of production' (ownership, distribution, and management) had all been eliminated. Only when this had been done would the material basis for a new `privileged class' have been eliminated. [17]


            The political cutting edge of this theory of `capitalist restora­tion' (which had originated in Mao's view that such a restora­tion had already occurred in the Soviet Union) lay in the assertion by Yao and Zhang that a new bourgeois class could be formed within the ranks of the Communist Party itself, and indeed that in some areas this `new bourgeoisie' was already in place. The ideological form of such a restoration, it was argued, would be a new `theory of productive forces'. Thus the target was pinpointed as Zhou and Deng, the champions of the Four Modernizations. The argument also underlined the necessity of maintaining forward progress in the development of new 'social­ist achievements' and in the struggle to substitute the new for the old. The Cultural Revolution, it implied, must be resumed. One ultra-left polemicist wrote:


Socialist new things may look somewhat weak and not deep-rooted at the start, but they are full of revolutionary vigour. Compared to the old things which seem strong and deep-rooted but reek of decay, they have a fine future for development ... The development of new things always proceeds from superficial to deep, from weak to strong, and from a low to a higher level. A big revolutionary movement, like the turbulent Yangtze rushing down from the gorges on the upper reaches to swell at the mouth, must pass through a process involving a beginning, a climax, and a deepening stage. [18]


This call for a new revolutionary tide - Yao liked to say that `the tide of history is just like a river' - was given a precise political target by Zhang. One-half of his article was a rational discussion of the `incomplete' nature of socialist ownership in China. He pointed out that state ownership in industry accounted for nearly all the fixed assets but only 63 per cent of the industrial population, while agriculture was almost entirely still in collect­ive hands, and hence that the issue of ownership had `not yet been entirely settled'. The persistence of the `capitalist factors' discussed above meant necessarily that `new bourgeois elements would be engendered'. Then abruptly shifting style and mood, Zhang attacked his real target:


There are undeniably some comrades among us who have joined the Communist Party organizationally but not ideologically. In their world outlook they have not yet overstepped the bounds of small production and of the bourgeoisie. They do approve of the dictatorship of the proletariat at a certain stage and within a certain sphere and are pleased with certain victories of the proletariat, because these will bring them some gains; once they have secured their gains, they feel it's time to settle down and feather their cosy nests. As for exercising all-round dictatorship over the bourgeoisie, as for going on after the first step on the 10,000 1i march, sorry, let others do the job; here is my stop and I must get off the bus. We would like to offer a piece of advice to these comrades: it's dangerous to stop half-way! The bourgeoisie is beckoning to you. Catch up with the ranks and continue to advance!


            Deng regarded these documents correctly as a declaration of war, and decided to take on his enemies while Mao was still alive and all around him hesitated. In the summer Of 1975 Deng launched a counter-attack on the ultra-left. He called them `sham Marxist political swindlers' and announced his intention of purging them from the Party. `These anti-Marxist class enemies', it was said in the first important document (the General Programme of Work) which Deng inspired in his role as deputy for Zhou Enlai, `have stepped into the shoes of Lin Biao. They take over our revolutionary slogans all the time, distort them, twist them, and appropriate them for their own use, mix up black and white, confound right and wrong.' Judging correctly that the ultra-left would overreach itself and that accounts would be settled after Mao's death, Deng challenged them on their own ground, orchestrating a critique of leftist policies in education, led by the Minister of Education Zhou Rongxin. Other documents inspired by Deng in 1975-6 dealt with problems of industrial development and science and tech­nology, where he argued that China had fallen dangerously behind. He rephrased his provocative view that the colour of the cat did not matter so long as it could catch the mice. The best scientists, he said, should be `red and expert', but those who were `white and expert' could also serve China. They were a much greater asset than `those who just lie idle, cause factional fighting, and hold up everything'. With a touch of Mao's scatological style, Deng denounced the Gang and their followers as the sort of people who would `sit on the lavatory and not do a shit'. [19]


            The argument on foreign trade and economic strategy also continued. An anti-Jiang Qing cartoon published after the Gang's arrest would show her shouting `Foreign slave! Compra­dore' at an unseen Deng Xiaoping, while wearing a wig made in France and false teeth made in Japan. Total two-way trade had already increased significantly from some US $3.9 billion in 1969 to 14 billion in 1975. Trade deficits were incurred in 1974-5 for the first time, and China had begun to purchase complete plant from the West on deferred terms, although still refusing to accept foreign loans. Deng proposed to modernize the Chinese coal and oil industry through the import of new technology, to be paid back out of future production. More generally, he argued that for China to `catch up' with the advanced world, it must study foreign technology with an open mind and import it where required. Technology was international, argued Deng. `Dis­mantle any imported product and you will find that many of its parts are from yet other countries.' Raw materials should also be imported if the alternative was idle production lines. Oil customers should be sought in Europe as well as Japan in return for `fine technical equipment'. The ultra-left seized on the target presented by Deng, but countered it in chauvinistic terms:


We absolutely cannot place our hopes for realizing the four moderniza­tions on imports. If we do not rely mainly on our own efforts but, as Deng Xiaoping advocated, rely solely on importing foreign techniques, copying foreign designs and technological processes and patterning our equipment on foreign models, we will forever trail behind foreigners and our country's development of technology and even its entire national economy will fall under the control of foreign monopoly capital ... China would be reduced step by step to a raw materials supplying base for imperialism and social-imperialism, a market for their commodities, and an outlet for their investments. [20]


            The educational debate was resumed in an atmosphere of tragicomedy. Zhang Tiesheng, the student with the `blank paper', now toured the country as a spokesman for the ultra-left attacking Minister Zhou Rongxin. Zhou complained that 'cul­ture' and even `socialist conscience' had become forbidden words. He did not object to students being selected from the working-class, but asked why after graduation they had to go back to being `simple workers' instead of using their talents as technicians and cadres. Zhang Tiesheng challenged Zhou to a. debate, which was widely believed to have precipitated a heart attack from which Zhou died soon afterwards. After the Gang's fall Zhang was denounced in the press as `not worth a horse's fart' (he had trained as a veterinary student), and was later gaoled as a counter-revolutionary. A young man who found himself totally out of his depth, Zhang Tiesheng illustrates how the potential material for serious discussion, based on the ideals of the Cultural Revolution, was turned so easily into farce by its warped political culture.



At noon on 5 April 1976, with Mao Zedong just five months from death, China's supreme leaders - several of them barely on speaking terms - gathered in the Great Hall of the People to watch an amazing event outside. On the previous day thousands of Beijing citizens had come to Tiananmen Square with wreaths to mourn the recent death of Premier Zhou Enlai. (The Gang of Four had tried, unsuccessfully, to ban the sale of crepe paper in the mourning colour of white.) Slogans, letters, poems, and cartoons had been held aloft, pasted to the marble sides of the Martyrs' Memorial, or chalked on the polished stone pavement. One or two were written in blood and read out by their authors. A banner saying `We mourn the Premier' was launched, sus­pended from a bunch of balloons. During the night, all the wreaths were removed from the square by pro-Gang militia. The demonstrators returned on the morning of the 5th, and furious quarrels broke out with militia and policemen on the steps of the Great Hall. Soon after noon, the first car was set on fire. Later on, a police station was also set alight. The square was eventually cleared by force as darkness fell.

            All of this was watched by the leadership from inside the Hall, through binoculars which aides had hastily provided to help them read the slogans and follow the action on the other side of the square. No one had any doubt that by demonstrating for the late Premier, the crowd was also demonstrating against the ultra-­left leadership. Zhang Chunqiao lay down his binoculars, turned to Deng Xiaoping and accused him of having organized the demonstration. Zhang `scolded Deng face to face', according to the account given four years later at the trial of the Gang of Four, and called him `an ugly traitor'. Within days, Mao had been persuaded to dismiss Deng from all his Party offices, and Zhang, the number two in the ultra-left leadership, wrote triumphantly to his son that the struggle for the succession had been decided. But he was wrong. Deng made a diplomatic retreat to the south to wait out the summer, while the People's Daily, firmly under the control of the ultra-left, raged against the "ghosts and monsters, demons and clowns who dance to the music from Deng Xiaoping's flute".  Rumour and speculation  -- denounced by the paper was "counter-revolutionary" began to spread while Mao lived out his last enfeebled months. There was popular talk of  portents and ill omens: these seemed borne out when the coal-mining city of Tangshan was devastated by an earthquake on 27 July.  More than two hundred thousand perished and the interim regime under Hua Guofeng, now confirmed as premier, proved incapable of providing adequate aid. The Red, Red Sun himself died  just over a month later on 7 September: within another month the Gang of Four had been arrested and in the black-bordered magazines which mourned the chairman's death, they were clumsily airbrushed out of the photographs of his funeral.


The Notes to the above chapter are not included in this online version. They may be found in
The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market (Oxford University Press, 2005 & 2006), available through Kobo, Kindle and other ebook providers.