The great hurrahs of the Cultural Revolution, the slogans, the messianic fervor, the public humiliation of the heretics are all gone. A visitor to Peking is impressed by nothing so much as by the return to normalcy, by pragmatism and-if one could imagine it in a Spartan land-a feeling of relaxation. Indeed, one might easily think that there had never been the awesome upheaval of 1966-69 "to change men's souls." Human frailty is once again understood, and there is at least an implied recognition that man does not live by faith alone.

One need only open the pages of the People's Daily or listen to the provincial radio stations to discover that the stress is on production rather than revolution. The worker who only yesterday was urged to be Red rather than Expert is now told to improve his technical skills. The managers, subjected to public "struggle" in 1966-68, once again manage. When some workers in the Northeast complain that their manager, ousted during the Cultural Revolution but now back on the job, is demanding tighter labor discipline, a Peking newspaper tells them sternly that firm discipline and experienced management are essential. And only six years after Peking coined the terrible word, "Economism"-man's unforgivable desire for material rewards-the workers are again being offered material incentives for harder work.

In the communes, the leading cadres are told that the members of the smallest unit, the production team, must be heard out and, once they meet the state grain quota, be allowed to earn some more money. In Shansi, a local radio station notes that "during the Cultural Revolution certain commune and brigade cadres failed to consult production team cadres and masses. When arranging sowing areas, they blindly demanded uniformity. As a result of such blind commands . . . losses were increased in production." The commune leaders would be foolhardy now if they disregarded the complaints or the acquisitive desires of the villagers.

Even more striking have been the changes on the campuses. Closed in 1966 to enable the young to "make revolution" under a Maoist banner, the universities were reopened in 1969 and 1970 with new curricula, changed rules of admission and a new style of education. Today, this reform is being hurriedly modified, largely as a result of the discovery that impeccable social origins do not necessarily qualify a youth for higher education. On two visits to the Tsinghua University campus in Peking I heard cadres and professors complain that the whole level of education was being dragged down by the ill-schooled newcomers. The children of workers and peasants, the young soldiers, the deserving graduates of junior high schools who had spent two or three years at a factory lathe or behind a plough have all had to be given "supplementary" education to equip them for even vastly simplified university lectures. Now the problem has been made harsher by the greater emphasis on physics and mathematics, on chemistry and foreign languages, and by the reintroduction of examinations. Could it have been only a few years ago that the People's Daily approvingly ran letters from students who insisted that examinations were a sinister device designed to keep the workers' children out of the universities?

II

But it would be wrong to think that the Cultural Revolution is gone without a trace. It provided a searing experience for tens of millions, especially in the urban areas. It has broken countless lives, divided families and may have produced lasting discontents. But it has also chastened the arrogant and given the young a life-style based on self-denial, modesty, discipline and hard work. It has sent millions into the countryside in tides of unusual political migration. It has changed the ways of governing and the behavior of the governors.

Though Chairman Mao Tse-tung himself had brought the state bureaucracy into being, he has always regarded it as self-seeking, arrogant and tending to expand. Early in the Cultural Revolution, the decision was apparently made to cut it by about a third. To absorb the displaced functionaries, Mao created the rural "May 7th Schools," where the middle class of the new Communist society is being reformed through manual labor and Mao-study. At the "school" I visited, a tea plantation north of Canton, some 2,700 men and women were well into their fourth year of this unusual internment, separated from their families and unsure of when they might be allowed to return to normal lives. At a different type of "May 7th Schools," the cadres (or intellectuals) come for six to 24 months of psychological and political remolding. For all that one is told by the cheerful "school" leaders, these are thoroughly unhappy places. But the policy has helped to streamline the overgrown bureaucracy and, more important, it has changed the relationship between the bureaucrat and the public. The official arrogance that startled me on a visit in 1965 is now rare. The new administration, beyond doubt, is simpler, closer to the administered, and far more sensitive to public criticism.

But perhaps the most significant change has been in the balance of power. To a wider degree than is realized abroad, the Cultural Revolution altered the political alignments. Up to the summer of 1966, the military, the industrial managers, the scientists and party intellectuals formed important pressure groups. But it was the immense party apparatus that dominated all life, and the Party's inner circle that shaped policies, often through compromise among its factions.

Partly by design, the Party was shattered during the Cultural Revolution, and though efforts have been made to reconstitute it since 1968, it is not at present the dominant force. I was told in China that a man seeking assistance is far more likely to come to the Revolutionary Committee than to the Party offices where he would have called half a dozen years earlier. (It should be noted that most Revolutionary Committees are still headed by military men who may concurrently serve as Party Secretaries.)

The purger's axe during the Cultural Revolution had fallen with deliberate severity on Mao's own circle of associates, on the Politbureau and the Party's Central Committee, and on the Party Secretaries in the regions and provinces. The Party leaders who govern in Peking are still the Old Revolutionaries, the originals who started with Mao in the mountains nearly half a century ago. But their number has been greatly depleted by death and purge, and they share the power with army professionals to a far greater degree than ever in the history of the People's Republic. Morever, the reconstituted Party seems to be affected by divisions and crosscurrents. New groupings appear to have emerged-the Centrist Group of Premier Chou; the old marshals, back on the job and allied with Chou; the radical leaders based in Shanghai; and the powerful military men at such regional commands as Nanking and Shenyang.

The continuity of policy is still provided by the Old Revolutionaries, led by Premier Chou. But there is no mistaking the fact that the balance of power has shifted as a result of the Cultural Revolution, and that there is vast fluidity in the ruling circle. It is only the sight of Chou and of Mao's towering figure that makes it seem that little has changed.

III

The growing normality at home has permitted the leaders in Peking to begin putting China's foreign relations in order. They had long realized that China could not influence the Third World by urging all to mount the barricades, and that the principal enemy, the Soviet Union, had exploited the years of China's self-isolation to win influence. But, in part, the decision may have also been influenced by the feeling that Mao's formula of self-reliance served as a brake on industrial progress, and that sooner or later China must turn abroad for sophisticated equipment and perhaps credits.

By historic happenstance, Peking's decision, probably made in 1969, coincided with the decision in Washington to seek a worldwide détente. This coincidence of interest made possible President Nixon's visit to Peking, served to reduce U.S.-Chinese tensions and eventually led to the opening of Peking's diplomatic relations with Japan, West Germany and a score of other nations. China was now back in the community of nations, seeking to project the image less of a militantly revolutionary state than of a big brother, eager to unite and help all friendly countries.

The conversion from militancy to moderation has not been easy. Beyond doubt, it alarmed the young radicals created in the crucible of the Cultural Revolution. Though now dispersed through the countryside, they still present a large and volatile element. Eventually, it became necessary to reassure them that this was merely a tactical move, and that just as Mao joined hands with Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists in the 1930s to fight the greater foe, Japan, so today he was reopening contacts with the lesser enemy, the United States, to confront the bigger one, the Soviet Union. The decision to seek a détente with Washington also sent a powerful shock through the friendly states and movements. Nowhere was the shock felt more acutely than in Hanoi, which reacted with unconcealed anger. The Chinese had anticipated the bitter response, but they had reëxamined their interests and obviously decided that their own strategic, political and economic needs outweighed Hanoi's victory. This has led to the spectacle of Peking rolling out its reddest carpets for the worst capitalist of them all, even while his troops and planes were killing Vietnamese revolutionaries.

IV

By the end of 1972, thus, Peking had gained considerable ground, at home as abroad. But the problems remain, many and harsh. China's economy is backward, her population is too big, and the gap between the slowly rising production and the slowly declining birth-rate is still dangerously narrow. By and large, China today is where the Soviet Union was in the late 1930s and the United States a generation or two earlier. Mao has given his people a sense of dedication, discipline, an egalitarian society in which social injustice is not the explosive element it is elsewhere in Asia. He has made collective human effort displace the mechanical devices the country does not have. Remarkable ingenuity has been shown in employing limited resources to cope with complex problems. But, still, as Premier Chou admitted to a group of visitors including this writer, the country is backward and the problems are beyond count.

At the moment, though, none of these problems is as crucial as that of political succession. When one looks at the circle of men who now rule China, one is struck by their heroic background, by the toughness and courage they displayed on their long march to power-and by their age. The great Chinese Revolution is led by a tiny circle of men ready to meet their Maker.

It is difficult to determine the exact pecking order in Peking now, but the decision-makers clearly include Mao, who is in his 80th year; Premier Chou, who is 73; Yeh Chien-ying, who apparently heads the military establishment and who is 76; and 68-year-old Vice Premier Li Hsien-nien. The charmed circle, it is true, also includes three younger persons-Madame Mao (Chiang Ching), now in her late fifties, and the two Shanghai leaders, Chang Chun- chiao, now in his late fifties, and Yao Wen-yuan, in his mid-forties. But this trio holds a curious position, with no power base, with few allies of consequence and with the main reliance apparently on Mao's favor.

The decision-making, of course, involves a far wider circle. This includes key Party functionaries and a number of generals. But none of these, at the moment, looks like a potential successor to Mao or Chou En-lai. More important, there are no younger heirs visible on the stage.

The present succession crisis is a by-product of the Lin Piao Affair which remains, despite the numerous statements by Mao and Chou, mystifying. If it is true that Lin Piao, Defense Minister, Vice Chairman of the Party and Mao's heir-designate really wanted to assassinate Mao, it is not clear why he would want to do so-unless he had become convinced his opponents would block his rise to the top. But if this was so, what motivated the opposition?

The foreign ambassadors I saw in Peking in the summer of 1972 believed there had been sharp disagreements within the inner circle on many key policies-on economic priorities, on the strategy to be used against the Soviet Union in the event of war and on defense appropriations, on the treatment of peasantry, on the uses of militia, and even on the détente with the United States. Various intra-Party documents available in Hong Kong suggest that Mao and Lin Piao clashed at Lushan in August 1970 over the unlikely issue of whether it is a great man ("genius") or the masses who account for human progress. The documents, though of uncertain authenticity, support the belief of diplomats that the conflict had first become apparent in the fall of 1970. But the picture has now been confused by Premier Chou, who has been telling his visitors that the differences really began when Lin Piao and his military claque persuaded a reluctant Mao to name Lin as his heir at the Party Congress in April 1969.

At thousands of meetings across China in the past year, the people have been told that Lin Piao-or, to use the Peking idiom, "swindlers of Liu Shao- chi's ilk"-had differed with Mao on military strategy and tactics for tomorrow, that he wanted to abolish the militia, and that he sought to restore capitalism to the countryside. True or not, this would at least suggest that the clashing viewpoints covered the broad field of national policy. And since a moderate and pragmatic policy is now in effect, it might also be deduced that Lin Piao had argued for a more extreme course.

We may never know. But it is clear that Lin's disappearance has revived the problem of succession, and this at a point when Mao and Chou have little time left to find an enduring solution.

V

Whatever the reasons that led him to break with Mao and Chou, Lin Piao found his supporters primarily in one of the factions into which the military establishment is divided. This group was powerful enough. It included the chief of staff, air force commander, naval commissar, and director of army logistics. All were in the top dozen or so of the Politbureau; all were members of the inner circle in Peking. But it now appears that they had few adherents in the provinces, and certainly none among the regional commanders.

Ranged against them was an improbable coalition. It has been suggested that the "September [1971] Crisis" represented a struggle between Lin Piao and Chou En-lai. This may be true, but it is also clear that Chou did not fight the battle single-handed. The anti-Lin coalition that came into being had for its mainstay Chou's own powerful State-Party organization, cemented in part by old personal loyalties. Allied to it by a community of interests were the "radicals" (including the Shanghai leaders), the regional army chiefs, the old marshals, led by Yeh Chien-ying, and the obscure but influential men from the Party apparatus in Peking. Mao's own role was crucial. The only question is whether he had named Lin Piao as his successor in 1969 only with the deepest reservations, or whether he had fully trusted Lin at the time but had his suspicions awakened by Lin Piao's enemies a year or so later. Whatever the answer, the destruction of Lin Piao would have been very difficult without Mao's personal assent and involvement.

Today, the nation is governed by Chou En-lai. His stamp is unmistakable on both domestic and foreign policy. But it is plain that to remain in power he needs the continued support of the coalition which ousted Lin Piao. It is equally apparent that the members of the ruling circle are deeply, and with a mounting urgency, preoccupied with the question of succession. Chou has told some of his foreign callers that, thanks to the Lin Piao Affair, the Party leaders now know better than to replace Mao with one man. Instead, he has insisted, the China of tomorrow would be governed by a group which would include such men as Yao Wen-yuan, the youthful literary polemicist from Shanghai. If this is so, it will be a rare experience for Mao's China, which has had collective leadership only in the early 1960s, when Mao had briefly retired from the scene. This collective leadership was in 1966 destroyed by an unforgiving Mao, who felt he had been pushed out of power by his then heir-apparent, Liu Shao-chi. Will the next collective leadership fare better, or will it break up in a power struggle? Some diplomats in Peking also wonder if the Old Revolutionaries would, or could, reverse their almost pathological refusal to transfer power to younger men.

The fact is that when the Old Revolutionaries leave the stage, they will leave behind no known or tested national leaders. At that point, the men behind the floodlights could be army commissars or leading apparatchiki from Peking, provincial Party Secretaries or chairmen of Revolutionary Committees. It may be assumed that they will be in their mid-fifties or early sixties ; that they will belong to the generation of guerrilla leaders whose political philosophy, biases and style were shaped in the civil and anti-Japanese wars; and that few of them will have had any experience in governing the nation. Many of them were students in Peking and Shanghai when Japan attacked in 1937; they walked out into the countryside, and became quickly swallowed by the Communist organization. From those days, they bring with them a strong anti-Japanese and anti- American bias. They have an equally strong anti-Soviet bias dating back to 1960 and earlier. All are fierce nationalists, proud of what China has achieved since 1949. With a varying degree of conviction, they are also Maoists.

Up to this point, the deductions are reasonably easy. It is only when one begins to consider how the Old Revolutionaries might transfer power to the younger men that difficulties begin. It may be assumed that it will be younger men who will take over from Mao and Chou. But one might wonder if the differences of policy and personality among the inheritors would lead to the emergence of factions, each seeking adherents. And, almost inevitably, the contenders would seek the support of the military, for in the foreseeable future it is the army rather than the Party that will provide genuine power. Just as Mao sought Lin Piao's assistance in 1966, so will his successor, Comrade X, turn to the generals for help.

It is easier to predict the emergence of factions than to anticipate the policies they might espouse. My own feeling is that the moderate faction of tomorrow would be likely to win the required wide support. But some specialists in Moscow argue that tomorrow's leaders, like Mao in 1966-69, will launch new Cultural Revolutions as a means of ensuring national discipline and social justice. In other words, the Russians suggest that turmoil is likely to recur, with no Mao or Chou En-lai on the scene to put an end to it.

VI

There has been no lack of decision-making in Peking in the past two years. Whether in foreign or domestic policy, there have been bold and dramatic changes. But still, one cannot escape the feeling that what one sees in Peking now is an interregnum, a time of transition, a season of many crucial decisions put off. China is the only state in the world today that has no chief of state, no defense minister, no chief of a general staff, no chief of the air force. The choice of new men would have to be confirmed by a people's congress, but, in defiance of the Constitution, none has been held in eight years. And, of course, with the Politbureau now reduced to half its size in 1969, a Party congress is needed to fill in the holes : in the Politbureau, in the Central Committee, and in the Party secretariat. But, as of November 1972, no one has mentioned it. According to Chou En- lai, the people's congress was scheduled to be held in 1971, but had to be sidetracked because of the Lin Piao crisis. Are the two congresses being put off now because of new strains-perhaps between Peking and the powerful provincial leaders, who want to remain in full control of their delegations? Are they being delayed because of disagreement on who is to run the Party and the state? Is the center, its influence eroded by the Cultural Revolution, unwilling to clash openly with the provinces? And is the question of who is to rule China after Mao the real stumbling block?

The crisis of succession thus makes the present stability seem less enduring. What men or groups will take over in Peking? Will they be moderates or radicals? At what pace, and how, will they want to lead China into the dangerous tomorrows? Will they turn to isolationism, in which they can settle their domestic problems (as Mao did in 1966-69), or will they fling wider the gates to the outside world, which can provide the means for China's dramatic leap into the twentieth century? And if they finally choose the latter course, will they turn to Japan, the United States or the Soviet Union as their principal partner?

Any forecasts of national fragmentation or chaos are unsup-portable. One of Mao's great achievements has been to give the people a sense of pride in their unity, strength and achievements; in effect, to join the country together with the cement of national pride. In critical ways, China's future will depend on who will ensure cohesion in the tests ahead. If the Party is fully reorganized, it might be able to do the job. If not, the task will be performed by the army which, for all its own fissions, is nationally minded. Some Japanese experts argue that if and when a crisis boils up in Peking, the military "strong men" in the provinces will simply wait it out until there is a clear winner. It is more likely that the military will use all their influence to avert a crisis that, like the Cultural Revolution, would divide and weaken the nation. This, in fact, was one of the by-products of the Cultural Revolution : it taught many of the leaders some useful lessons.

But the crisis of succession cannot help but create uncertainty-for China's own élite as for the major foreign nations seeking rapprochement with China. Remarkable progress has been made in establishing contacts since the "Spring of Ping-Pong" in 1971. But can the United States, Japan or West Germany be certain that the arrangements now being made will be observed by the younger policy-makers who will replace the old guard? Will these men view the Soviet Union with the relentless hatred of the present leaders? And, finally, how much of the present policies, and of Maoism itself, will survive the passing of the magnificent Old Revolutionaries?

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now