How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
For a long time it was thought that the way the People's Republic of China was being governed opened a new chapter in Chinese history. Some scholars argued that the communist system in China was a continuation of Confucianism, but a closer look disclosed little resemblance. The country was subject to spasmodic, repetitious political campaigns; the national economy constantly went through major reshuffles-land reform, socialization, communization, the retreat from communization and the Great Leap Forward. Traditional Chinese values were repudiated or ignored. Even the old Chinese concern for "face" seemed to be disregarded. Everybody was expected to expose in public meetings the evil words and evil deeds of friends and colleagues, of parents and brothers. The traditional Chinese family was severely disrupted, though, as the old Chinese proverb says, it is useless to attack a city if the hearts are not won over. The hearts were not won over, but for a long time it appeared that the régime was solidly established and enjoying general support, if not from love, then from fear.
The People's Republic was not a police state in the ordinary sense of the word. It was the superlative perfection of a police state in which everyone was a spy on everyone else. When two years ago at a students' meeting in Chungshan University in Canton a student was accused by another student of having said privately that Mao Tse-tung was an ordinary human being, he became, as is usual in such cases, the target of vituperation at prolonged "accusation meetings." In the end he was dismissed from the school as unworthy to be a university student.
If you lived in a Chinese city, let us say Canton, and subscribed to the newspaper of Shanghai, then the leader of your youth corps branch, or the chairman of your section of the trade union, or the party secretary of your factory, or the head of your street organization, or an official from the local police station might come and ask you most politely why you wanted to know what happened in that part of the country. Then you would know you were in trouble. You would not know whether this would end the next day when you stopped subscribing or whether it would be the beginning of a long series of meetings and accusations, which would cause all your friends to fall away from you and finally land you in a village on the Russian border. Such things did happen.
In fact everybody in any employment, especially in higher office, was subject not to one but to many organizations, which meant that there was a perpetual check and countercheck on everybody by everybody-a control developed to incredible perfection. In spite of convulsive political campaigns the system stood solid. No cracks were visible in the machine. One man dominated the scene.
The man who founded this system in China, Mao Tse-tung, is a semi- intellectual who 40 years ago held a village base with 700 soldiers in the mountains of the South. His prestige grew and he did not spare those who were against him. He and his followers, pursued by the forces of the central government, had to flee; they went a long way, on a long march, to settle in another mountainous area in the West. Their numbers grew and they came to an agreement with their former foe: they would fight the invading forces of the Japanese while jealously maintaining their own identity. Mao flew to Chungking and toasted Chiang. With U.S. mediation, he took part in negotiations while marshalling his forces and demoralizing the enemy with an able underground organization working in Nationalist-ruled territories. Finally, his able general, Lin Piao, conquered the country with little fighting, marching through China from Manchuria to the furthermost South.
In January 1949 these forces entered Peking and on October 1, 1949, the People's Republic was established. Discipline and stability were combined with bloody repression of every enemy. No less bloody was the distribution of the land to the farmers, to be collectivized three years later on the Russian model. There were punitive campaigns against the world of culture, which, however, was never completely conquered. Total subservience to the Russians lasted at least up to 1956 when-with Stalin already dead-a new Party Congress, convoked after an interval of eleven years, began to elaborate an economic program which differed from that of the Russians. And then came the Leap and the Commune, which President Liu Shao-ch'i in the international magazine, World Marxist Review (October 1959), proclaimed to be the model for the whole communist world.
Difficult years followed: disruption of the economy, food shortages and famine-denied by foreign observers but admitted last year by the Chinese press-years when under the pressure of economic hardship there was less insistence on ideological control in the cultural field. The second Five Year Plan of 1958-62 was a total failure, but then came a slow economic recovery toward the level that had been reached in 1957. In 1965 a third plan was announced, but not elaborated, to start in 1966.
In 1965 one could guess that there was internal tension within the highest leadership, but it is much clearer in retrospect. Unexpectedly, generals and former military men published their reminiscences of the Japanese war, extolling the role of comrade Liu Shao-ch'i. (Previously in such writing, names were rarely mentioned.) But these reminiscences stopped and the heroic deeds of Liu were not mentioned any more after the autumn of 1965; however, he was still at his post and active. In the autumn another figure emerged-Lin Piao, the Minister of Defense.
He and Lo Jui-ch'ing, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, had been close associates for many years. At the end of 1964 Lo spoke highly of Lin, of how much he had accomplished in renewing the spirit of the army. He also spoke of modernizing the armed forces, but this he apparently considered his own job. In September 1965 Lin Piao published an article on peoples' wars that attracted world attention. Lo, a few days later, praised it and recommended it for study. The two men, we now know, were deadly enemies.
The importance of Lin Piao within the armed forces grew from 1960 onwards and the army began to play a special role in the country. It was for the army that the little red book, the Sayings of Mao, was produced in 1961; the selection was made not by Mao but by the political department of the Army. At the same time, Lin's slogan, "living study and living use of the writings of Chairman Mao," and others of the sort, were inculcated and became a trademark showing Lin's influence. A special body of communist doctrine-dedicated, aggressive and narrow-minded-was developed within the army. One of its main aims was to build up the image of Mao, not so much as a respected leader as a superhuman being. There was a systematic training of shock troops within one branch of the party, that in the army.
The army became a state within a state, but Lin Piao's ambitions were not restricted to the army. He was also one of the five vice-chairmen of the Party Central Committee, having been appointed in May 1958, just before the communes were launched. (Putting a high-ranking military man among the highest leaders of the party has always been avoided in Russia.)
In 1964 the army was set as an example before the whole nation and a serious attempt was made by Lin's followers to penetrate the civilian branches of the party machinery, which had been governing the country directly in all respects since 1957. When this failed and army men were not accepted by the administration, special "political departments" were constituted as a parallel organization to the existing party machine. Thus to the "industry and communications department" in the Party Central Committee, which had corresponding departments at all the levels down to the county, there was added an "industry and communications political department" in the Party Central Committee and also down to the county level. It was an extraordinary waste of manpower. The Peking press of that time did not hide the fact that the men in the "political departments" were drawn from the army. They were supposed to be a kind of gendarmerie supervising and controlling the whole party machinery. This operation, too, was unsuccessful and, although lip-service was paid to the army, nothing changed.
In the field of culture the little liberties allowed in earlier years were stopped and those who wrote about ancient Chinese or Western culture were subjected to criticism. But the men themselves were not purged and indeed a number of those who years before had been branded as rightist, dangerous animals were quietly rehabilitated; people who were thought to be politically dead again appeared in public.
Meanwhile a nationwide purge among lower party members was launched, but it was halfhearted, carried out in one region but not another, stopped and started again. One of its promoters was Wang Kuang-mei, the wife of Liu, who spent some months in the villages and wrote a report to the Central Committee about the corruption of village cadres. Mme. Liu's emergence in public life in 1962 was a new phenomenon. Except for a few who on their own merits had been active since the Yenan days, wives up to that time had no political existence and hardly ever appeared even at receptions for foreign visitors.
Thus there were several signs that something had gone wrong somewhere. The prominence of the army was not normal. In Chinese history the emergence of women in public life has always been an unmistakable sign of the decline of a dynasty. When the dynasty is weakened, the Emperor assigns an energetic general to defend the rights of the dynasty, and the empresses and dowagers come to the forefront.
The weakening of the dynasty goes back to earlier years when Mao, rejecting the Russian type of organization, launched his own in the form of the Leap and the Commune, which turned out to be gigantic failures. There were complicated man?uvres within the party and at the Lushan party meeting in 1959 there was apparently violent opposition to Mao. The opposition was defeated and P'eng Teh-huai, Defense Minister and a legendary figure in the communist movement since the twenties, was deposed-not at the party conference itself but in a subsequent conference of the Central Committee's Military Committee. With P'eng, a number of higher party leaders disappeared. Their names at the time were not published; they were merely anonymous "rightist opportunists." This was not a purge that reached down to the lower ranks; it was strictly a struggle at the pinnacle.
It seems now that Mao's prestige suffered heavily. Up to 1958 he could keep all his men under control, but then his magic power was broken and he was no longer the uncontested leader. That perhaps is the reason why a new image of Mao, that of a demiurge, had to be built up with painstaking effort. This was the work of Lin Piao, the new Minister of Defense.
Years passed, the conflict with the Russians grew in intensity and it began to be said that the doctrine of Mao was "the peak" of Marxism-Leninism. This word came from Lin Piao and was promptly adopted by one of the six regional bureaus of the Central Committee, that of the Central South. "The peak?" asked Li Ta, the president of Wuhan University, who happened to be one of the twelve present in 1921 at the founding meeting of the Communist Party. "Does that mean that Marxism will not develop any further?" For this, Li Ta was condemned, but the word "peak" was quietly dropped. Mao is now the "contemporary highest attainment of Marxism," and the leader of world revolution. This has been repeated endlessly since last year and one of the four or six pages of each daily paper is filled with homage to the leader of the world from all parts of the world.
In the East, words rarely mean what they say, and exaggerated praise may mean the opposite. It may mean that the man must be magnified artificially because his natural prestige is gone-like artificial respiration given to a man drowned.
The above is a sketchy résumé of the period before the Cultural Revolution, a term which has definite meaning. "Culture" means ideology, ideology means leadership and leadership means power. Culture in this setting is a system of political thoughts and rules which has to be strictly observed and against which nobody is allowed to utter a word-in newspapers, on the stage, on the radio or in private. It is a political creed.
This campaign, however, turned out to involve a political creed different from all other campaigns previously known. It erupted in Peking where the mayor, P'eng Chen, and the whole propaganda department of the party were eliminated. The first secretary of Central-South, T'ao Chu, appeared in Peking and in the new party hierarchy that emerged from an unheralded August meeting of the Central Committee he became Number Four, after Mao, Lin Piao and Chou En-lai, followed by Ch'en Po-ta, Teng Hsiao-p'ing, K'ang Sheng, Liu Shao-ch'i, Chu Teh, Li Fu-ch'un, Ch'en Yün and so on. On August 18 at the first mass demonstration of the Red Guards at Peking, Mao and Lin appeared shoulder to shoulder, apart from others.
After this, something occurred which will be remembered in Chinese history. It was vandalism by the worst type of youngsters recruited to be Red Guards. They were responsible for acts unprecedented in the People's Republic: they invaded the privacy of homes; they destroyed books, paintings and sculpture, precious curios without discrimination; they exposed defenseless people, particularly the elderly, to vexation and physical violence; they dragged them out into the streets and tortured them in public. In one single side-street in Peking eighteen persons lost their lives. This went on all over the country, even in remote Tibet. The number of casualties must have been enormous.
Every Chinese when he hears of the burning of books and slaughter of scholars thinks instinctively of the First Emperor, Ch'in Shih Huang, in the second century B.C. He was the first unifier of China, the man who created immense engineering works and the Great Wall. But he is remembered above all as the Emperor who "burned the books and buried the scholars." In 1961 a daring scholar in Peking wrote with veiled reference to the present: "The kingdom of the Ch'in made a leap from a backward country to a progressive one and united the country. . . . However, after fifteen years the rule of the Ch'in vanished." The battle for the throne of China, after this short-lived dynasty, dragged on for five years of rivalry between two generals, Hsiang Yü and Liu Pang. This is the account of that period given in "An Outline History of China," published in English by the Foreign Language Press in Peking in 1958.
The action of juvenile vandals was called "destruction of the four olds"- bad habits and customs. When this first phase of the cultural revolution broke, and Lin Piao was declared to be Number Two in the country, the provincial authorities, even as close to Peking as Shantung, reacted vigorously. As Lin Piao said at another Red Guard demonstration, there were persons using the workers and peasants to fight against the revolutionary students. This is just what happened. Provincial authorities organized their own Red Guards and, using the same names and same tricks, they protected their own regions against interference from Peking. This was the beginning of general confusion which has not yet ended. The downfall en bloc of the Peking party committee (which had the status of a provincial committee) was a warning to the party committees in the provinces.
After a short lull at the end of November, Mao's wife, Chiang Ch'ing, demanded an escalation of the purge-at least in the theatre, about which she, as an ex-film actress, knew something. She was also the Number One deputy of the Central Cultural Revolution Team founded in the summer of 1966 and headed by Ch'en Po-ta, and in November she became "adviser on cultural matters to the Liberation Army."
As the escalation was put into effect, the Red Guards were encouraged to extend their activities to factories and villages. The reaction was instantaneous. In December and January the country was in turmoil. Industrial laborers in many cities and provinces left their work. They went on strike-an unheard-of thing in the People's Republic-and a great number went, as Red Guards had previously gone, to Peking; but these went to protest. There were stoppages on the railways in many regions, from Manchuria to Canton. In the villages peasants dissolved the collectives and communes, seized money and foodgrain from the common stores, and in many places redistributed the land. What was worse, and most alarming, people under forced labor escaped or, as the official jargon says, "got out from the cage." These men had nothing to lose and they were the sworn enemies of the régime. Then in many provinces resistance troops were organized; the Peking press admitted that a number of them were made up of demobilized soldiers.
How could all this happen in a country where formerly people did not dare even to whisper one word against the rulers? Now there were no rulers. The Red Guards and those behind them were acting against the whole party machinery, breaking into offices and party committees, searching, investigating and humiliating the men in charge. The party machinery which for all these years had been ruling the country was paralyzed.
The Peking version of the disorders was different. They said that the party committees, in the provinces and elsewhere, had encouraged these scoundrels to stop work, to seize the goods of the collectives, to cause harm. It was the party committees who gave them money, leading to a widespread buying spree that menaced the economy. The fact, reported by a number of provincial broadcasts, was that mobs were breaking into state banks. The pro-Mao men from the army issued regulation after regulation threatening heavy sanctions, but this did not improve the situation.
In Peking the leadership itself was badly shattered. At the end of the year Liu Shao-ch'i, President of the Republic, and Teng Hsiao-p'ing, the General Secretary of the Central Committee, began to be openly criticized, even by T'ao Chu. But soon afterwards T'ao Chu himself fell. And then followed a series of convulsive acts in which it was difficult to say who was standing and who falling. Peking wall posters, faithfully recorded by Japanese correspondents, reported an abortive military coup in which Liu Chih-chien, the head of the army's cultural revolution team and a deputy of Hsiao Hua (the right-hand man of Lin Piao), was involved, as were Marshal Ho Lung (who not long ago at one of the Red Guard demonstrations was standing in a car next to Mao), Chu Teh, the venerable military leader of the party, and a number of leaders in different branches of the armed forces. This was reported only on wall posters, but the men involved no longer appeared at public functions and their names were dropped from the newspapers. (A single wrall poster was not always to be believed but when many were consistent the news was rarely false, and often confirmed by other sources.)
Finally, in the second half of January, it was decided that the military should become directly involved. It was an ugly decision for it appeared to be, and in fact was, an attack by the army on the Communist Party in order to overthrow the party committees in the provinces. The Peoples Daily reported that the entry of the army was at the order of Mao and the Military Committee. Every move is supposed to come from Mao.
One should remember that the normal administration in a communist country is an administration by government committees-not party committees-in the central government, provinces, special districts, counties, districts and villages. Since 1957 in China, however, it had been the party machinery itself which directly governed the country in all respects, though the government committees were still in existence. Important decisions were always issued in the name of the party committee and the party secretaries were always in the forefront of all operations. One was well aware that this was an emergency situation, but one that lasted for ten years, until 1967, when the army stepped in to throw the Communist Party out of power. A communist country without a communist party is certainly something new-not a state of affairs that would make the Chinese example look attractive to communist parties in other countries.
Once the army had entered, the whole situation changed. There was no longer need for rampaging Red Guards. They were told to unite and observe discipline, but they were so accustomed to their free-for-all ways that months of effort failed to bring them under control, even in the provinces where the army was in full operation. The former Red Guards and other revolutionary groups who last year thought that they would be the new men in power must have been disappointed when they were ordered to undergo cheng jeng, the traditional procedure of scrutinizing one another. The movement of Red Guards has not been disowned, since it was founded by the new rulers, but the existence of serious excesses has been admitted. They have been ascribed to the class enemy, to Liu Shao-ch'i, thus washing clean the bloodied hands of Lin Piao and his comrades.
So that the military take-over should not be recognized for what it was, former provincial and local party leaders were called on to join the ruling body, not as members of a party committee, which no longer existed, but as individuals. Their titles were carefully given as "ex-party secretary," "former vice-mayor" and so on. One condition for their being invited was their readiness to reveal everything about their former colleagues. One man, who said that he was only a lower official in the party committee and did not know anything, was accused of duplicity and rejected. A classical example was that of Liu Ko-p'ing, who had a prominent career in Peking during the first eight years of the régime and was in charge of national minorities. After the Hundred Flowers period he was sent to be the governor of a poor province, then disappeared for years and reappeared as a miserable vice-governor of Shansi. It was here in Shansi that he joined the military, which had taken over the government of the province; he was accepted and made head of the provincial Revolutionary Committee.
But the prospect of joining was not promising and few did so. The background of each person was examined and those who were accepted had to confess their past mistakes in public and work, even in the highest positions, under the military. The question is: How could people afford not to join in a country where food ration tickets are, or used to be, at the disposal of a centralized government, as were all jobs and salaries? The fact is that even in places which have been successfully taken over by the military, the opposition has not lost all influence. In the middle of March, two months after Shanghai was taken over, much of the transport in the counties under the jurisdiction of the city was still in the hands of the enemy; in more rural areas, the confusion was even greater. But in some of the major cities, new regional authorities called Revolutionary Committees were finally established. When a Revolutionary Committee was established in Peking city itself on April 20, it was said to be the sixth in the country (Heilung-kiang, Shantung, Shansi, Kweichow Provinces and the cities of Shanghai and Peking).
In China there are 26 provinces, four of them called autonomous areas; after two and a half months of military operations, four provinces had been taken over by Revolutionary Committees but control was not yet established. For example in Heilungkiang, in Manchuria on the Russian border, the provincial Revolutionary Committee was established in January, but a county of major importance only about two hundred miles from the capital of the province was not taken over until the middle of March, and even then obstruction did not end.
The confusion created is beyond imagination. When in early January the Mao- Lin followers were asked to unite their forces, those who did not acknowledge their authority issued the same order. When Peking gave orders to seize power, the same order was given by the opposition and a number of provinces announced on the local radio that take-overs had occurred. But Peking kept silent, for it was the opposition that took over. The army leadership issued several warnings to take care in distinguishing who was who. The trouble was that nobody knew who was who. The hidden battle between the men of Mao-Lin and their adversaries is somewhat like Viet Nam, where the war is everywhere and nowhere and the enemy is there and not there. There is no front line in Viet Nam and there are no front lines between the supporters and the opponents of Lin Piao in China.
In addition to the four provinces in which Revolutionary Committees are established, the military is actively operating in four or five other provinces, and all orders, even concerning the economy, education and public health, are issued in the name of the provincial military area command. Then there are vast territories from which little information emerges. Their broadcasting stations faithfully relay programs from Peking, but local authorities are not mentioned, nor anything about the military or which side they have taken. As these lines are written, however, the Mao- Lin group with all its military might is in full control of only a fraction of China. This does not mean that the other parts are sealed off completely. Communications, postal service, railways, transport of goods no doubt still exist, but of this we have little, if any, information.
The situation of Communist Party members in the provinces taken over by the army men of Lin Piao is not unlike that of the Nationalist Party members in 1949-50. They also were asked to join the communists and were promised amnesty if they behaved; many of them did get important posts. But that this should happen to C.P. members in their own People's Republic was hardly expected. Or again looking for parallels, the relation of the Mao- Lin government to those who rule provinces not yet taken over by the military is not unlike the relation of the government to the warlords at the beginning of this century; then, too, distinctions were never wholly clear and there were no sharp demarcation lines.
China today can be understood much better in the light of Chinese history than in terms of Marxism-Leninism. Has Marxism ever had a deep influence in the People's Republic? Serious discussions on Marxism, like those that took place in Soviet Russia even under Stalin, have been practically unknown. Theories changed with the changing wind and those who at one time were interpreters of official doctrine were condemned a few years later, and even their young readers had to confess in public that they had been misled. Today this goes to the extreme when the little book written in 1939 by Liu Shao-ch'i, "How To Be A Good Communist," a worldwide classic on communist heroism, is attacked as anti-Marxist, revisionist, capitalist. The book that trained party members for almost thirty years is represented as if it had been written and published, studied and venerated, against the will of Mao. Who can believe that? Marxism handled like this is empty of meaning. Marxism to the peasants meant losing their land and being incorporated in the collective or the commune. The great uprising of last January was against this, and the men in Peking now have the ungrateful task of taking away money and grain and forcing the peasants back to collective discipline.
China in 1967-its social structure, social behavior and political situation- is entirely different from what it was as recently as the end of 1966. Students of China have to adjust their minds. They cannot speak and think of the People's Republic in the same terms as they did yesterday, when the framework was rigidly set. Then one knew where one was; today one does not know, nor do people on the China Mainland know-not even those in Peking. The situation is uncertain, fluid and prone to further change. One gets the impression that anything may happen, in spite of the fact that foreign travelers find everything in order and foreign businessmen are received with the usual courtesy.
In this sketchy summary of events, we have tried to assemble only those facts that can be substantiated. In such uncertain times there is a wide range for rumor, and there are some important points to which no certain answers are available. Above all there are two: What caused the explosive character of the Cultural Revolution? What is the actual role of Mao? One can only speculate. There were indications in the Peking press and in Red Guard leaflets of a February 1966 plot in which P'eng Chen, Lo Jui-ch'ing, Lu Ting-yi, the head of propaganda, and others were involved. Whether the February event was violent or was a silent conspiracy in the planning stage cannot be proved. But it is likely that the root of open opposition goes back to the summer and autumn of 1965.
Many believe that the whole operation of the Cultural Revolution is directed by Mao, that he is a rejuvenated enfant terrible who is in his element, fomenting revolution as he did in his young days. Actually there has hardly ever been such a basic question about China so unanswerable, so open to speculation. Opinion ranges from the supposition that Mao is in full possession of power to the conviction that he is dead and a double is acting his part. Some believe that Lin Piao is a loyal follower of his master, that the photograph showing him together with Mao, letting Mao read his speech, waiting for the approval of the Divinity, expresses their true relation. This is possible. However, it is also possible that Mao is virtually Lin's captive. The man who all his life could handle his men and handle his party by carefully organizing checks and counterchecks, at this moment has to rely on one man and one single organization, Lin Piao and the group of young army men dedicated to him. Even if Lin believes in Mao and Mao believes in Lin, Mao is no longer in a position to change his mind. If Lin does not listen to him, to whom can he turn?
And why has the daily paper of the Liberation Army said repeatedly that the army founded by Mao is under the direct control of Lin Piao? Lin may be a second-rate failure in many respects, but he has achieved one thing: He has eliminated all his rivals around Mao, first in the military, from P'eng Teh- huai to Lo Jui-ch'ing and Chu Teh, and then in the party, beginning with the propaganda department, the Central Committee secretariat, a number of the Politbureau, and the main rival, Liu Shao-ch'i, who for thirty years had been the Number Two man in the party. At present only Chou En-lai is left, but he has never shown the will to become Number One. And there are Mme. Mao and Ch'en Po-ta, who for many years was considered a kind of secretary to Mao. Whether these two are there as Mao's last check on Lin, or whether the two are being used by Lin to humor the old man, one can only guess.
The presence of a woman in such an ill-defined but very important post, giving orders to the army as she did in her speech on April 20, makes a curious impression. People may ask: How is it that, when for thirty years Mao did not consider his wife fit for public life, she now suddenly appears in so central a position? If it is the will of Mao, it is a desperate measure, and if it is not, then who put her there?
All the symptoms of the end of a dynasty are visible: a central power that has been too cruel; the intriguing court-only the eunuchs are missing; the wives of emperors and ministers becoming prominent in public life; disloyalty of many ministers; division in the army; loss of border areas; vague, undefined boundaries between loyalty and disloyalty; appointment of a strong general to instill order; unrest among the peasants; and-an infallible sign-the appearance of secret societies mushrooming in many provinces and considered by the Peking press as the main enemy, which must be annihilated. The confusion, as in similar periods of Chinese history, may last for years, and probably will In some respects the country will appear united, in others totally dismembered. One may speculate about all the possibilities of the future, but when a dynasty is in decline it is hard to say who and what will emerge.