Nigel Harris


The Mandate of Heaven


Part II
The People’s Republic


6. After the Cultural Revolution

The history of the Chinese State after the Cultural Revolution falls into three phases, each punctuated by yet another upheaval in the central leadership. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao did not transform the basic institutional apparatus of State, party and PLA, but he did graft on a group of newcomers. The first phase consisted of an assault on the newcomers, leading to the downfall of their leader, Minister of Defence Lin Piao; the second ended in a minor victory for the newcomers by the removal of Teng Hsaio-p’ing; and the third, following the death of Mao, saw the removal of those newcomers remaining in the leadership. Each of the changes took place without any “popular participation”. The fall of Lin Piao was not publicly admitted until eighteen months afterwards; Teng’s removal was made by the party centre; and finally, the removal of the remainder of the newcomers, the “gang of four”, took place in cabal, and only after the event were the crowds mobilized to offer praise.

The changes in leadership did not reflect major differences in policy. Both sides agreed on the basic orientation, although they disagreed over certain symbolic, and sometimes obscure, issues – over works of literature like the novel The Water Margin and the writings of Confucius, or over the role of private plots in agriculture and overtime pay in factories. But the emphases the national government placed on each element did not vary with the leadership changes – broadly, policy was to the “Right” between 1969 and 1973, then moved to the “Left” between 1973 and 1975 (during Teng Hsaio-p’ing’s rise to office). The newcomers, the supposed “Left”, were more strongly in power during the “Right” phases, and the “Right” in the ascendant during the “Left” phases of policy.

The paradox only arises because the labels are misleading. The symbols of debate were of marginal significance for policy in comparison to the basic strategic agreement; and when in power, objective necessities guided policy in much the same direction, regardless of the personnel. Whether or not people read The Water Margin or farmed private plots was not a decisive question for the difference between “socialism” and “capitalism”, except in a demonological universe.

The newcomers and the apparat differed more in terms of an aspirant and an established leadership. The outsiders tried to secure a stronghold, utilizing originally forces outside the party, the youth of the Cultural Revolution; they won the mass media (press, radio, opera etc.) as opposed to the established mechanisms of power in party, government and armed forces. The apparat never lost control of China, and it was vital for Mao’s position that they did not do so; the newcomers never penetrated the real centres of authority except in Shanghai, and depended entirely for their influence on Mao’s continuing goodwill. The only alternative for the newcomers was to step outside the bureaucracy, and to appeal to the mass. But that demanded both a popular programme and a popular revolution, against just that power order the newcomers aspired to command.

The inheritance of the Cultural Revolution is as ambiguous as its meaning. Take for example, the “May 7th Schools”. They were created to provide party cadres working in government with the opportunity to “participate” in manual labour, but on an exclusive basis (that is, the schools were a retreat from the idea of participation in manual labour with the peasants). However, quite quickly the schools became simply cadre schools for political training, with an option for participants to do a little weekend gardening if they so chose. [105]

The period of education was for a time reduced from ten to seven years. Schools and universities continued, as urged by Mao in 1957-8, to run their own factories and farms, to supply students as contract labour to enterprises. The supervision of these activities by factory work teams continued, although the “working class” – as opposed to the party – no longer seemed to supervise educational institutions. Students were required to do three years’ manual labour before receiving higher education, a procedure which had the incidental advantage of reducing the numbers applying. The experience in manual labour earned potential students the title of “worker” or “peasant”, rather than that of their original family background. An English student who spent two years between 1973 and 1975 at two institutions of higher education in China reported that about a third of the student’s time was spent on labour projects outside the university. This work also involved participation in political education or “criticism” sessions: “The word criticism in China covers anything from the bitter struggles of the Cultural Revolution to the reading of a stereotyped article on Confucius; and I carry an indelible memory of one factory meeting I attended which resembled nothing so much as a non-conformist weekly religious meeting, not in content, but in the fact that it began and ended with a song in which all present more or less participated and the middle consisted of the reading of prepared texts on the theme, through which the majority of those present gently dozed. At the end, the Chairman said: ‘We have criticized very well – let’s wind up today’s criticism here’.” [106]

The work pace in Chinese factories is intense enough to explain the tendency to sleep. It was the same at harvest time on a commune – “many fell asleep, others chatted among themselves and others played with the ever-present babies. Chinese audiences in any case frequently give disconcerting evidence of inattention.” It seems that “politics” for much of the time is what the cadres choose to do, and patriotic citizens – or, at least, those without strong objections – tolerate their rituals. Another visitor makes a more general point: “People whose sole contact with China has been through articles in the press beginning ‘the Chinese people are advancing inexorably towards the conquest of Nature’, are surprised, when they get there, by the stability and tranquillity of the social climate.”

There was a sharp increase in hsia-fang (the sending down of urban dwellers to the countryside) in the years immediately after the Cultural Revolution, perhaps in order to break up what was left of the Red Guards, and expel those who had returned during the upheavals, and to reduce the urban population proper. Between 1968 and 1973, eight million school-leavers were sent out of the cities, and a further two million in the following two years. Shanghai sent fully one million (1968-73), and Wuhan 300,000 (1970-73). There was another sort of “sending down” in 1972, the highest year since 1962 for legal and illegal immigration to Hong Kong (an estimated 80,000 arrived, 20,000 by the dangerous method of swimming). Half of the immigrants were former Red Guards who had been “sent down” to rural Kwantung province.

As in earlier waves of hsia-fang, the press urged the young to embrace the task eagerly, to reject “Confucian” expectations of a white-collar job in the city. The press also urged peasants not to resent the arrival of these extra mouths with untrained hands: “People should not seize opportunities to laugh at them or mock them or to take an uncouth attitude to them.” [107] The government offered a public subsidy of RMB 200-240 (46-55) per head per year to soften the impact.



(i) The Lin Piao affair

The Ninth Party Congress in April 1969 offered only modest rewards for most of the newcomers. Nonetheless, their main leader, a man originally of the old order, Defence Minister Lin Piao, formally secured the position of Mao’s heir. But for the rest, it was part of the old apparat, the PLA, which inherited the post-revolutionary order.

It took only a few months for a leading Cultural Revolutionary, Chen Po-ta, who had been Mao’s private secretary for thirty years and was nominated as fourth in the party hierarchy at the Ninth Congress, to become a “sham Marxist and political swindler”. And two and a half years after the Ninth Congress, Mao’s “close comrade in arms”, Lin Piao, a leading military figure in the party for forty years, became “that bourgeois careerist, conspirator, counter-revolutionary double dealer, renegade and traitor”; and his resolute defence of Mao’s proletarian line now became “trash [representing] the wishes not only of the toppled landlord and bourgeois classes for restoration but also of the new bourgeois elements in socialist society”. [108] Either this was libel, or Mao was guilty of criminal negligence in tolerating such a scoundrel for forty years and permitting him to be promoted to such a high position.

The party documents to some extent recognized the anomaly. Party history was rewritten – the triumph of Lin Piao’s civil war career, the victory against the Kuomintang on the Liaohsi-Shenyang front, was now abruptly attributed to Mao. It was also now claimed that Mao had secret suspicions of Lin, and a most opaque letter to Mao’s wife used in evidence. [109] Clearly politics was not of the kind for mass involvement, but the secret opinions of a cabal; had it been otherwise, Mao could scarcely have refrained from publicizing his doubts, rather than supporting Lin for promotion to the position of his heir. The credibility gap was not closed by the official account of the conspiracy to murder Mao [110], except to reveal something of the internal relationships of the leadership, and the fact that, despite all the claims for the Cultural Revolution, Lin Piao’s twenty-four-year-old son, Lin Li-kuo, was deputy director of the Chinese Air Force logistics department, a surprising piece of nepotism under the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The affair took place on the 11-12 September, and on the 30th, Moscow announced recovery of a bullet-riddled Trident aircraft from a site in Outer Mongolia. The corpses, it was suggested, were those of Lin Piao, his wife and Politburo member, Yeh Chün, and seven others, including those apparently involved in the plot, Air Force Chief of Staff Huang Yung-shang, PLA general (Chief of Logistics) Ch’iu Hui-tso, Chief Naval Political Commissar Li Tsu-p’eng, Air Force Chief General Wu Fa-hsien. Subsequently however, the Russians denied Lin was on the Trident.

Was this the first attempt by the old apparat to dislodge the newcomers? If so, it was only partly successful, because the main section of the newcomers, led by the “group of four” were able, with Mao’s protection, to dissociate themselves from their leadership. Mao apparently made no effort to defend Lin. He permitted – or at least made no public protest against – the dropping of a third of the politburo so recently elected at the Ninth Congress. Subsequently, efforts were made to reduce the PLA role in the party – in late 1973, eight of the eleven area military chiefs were posted and, in the process, disentangled from their party responsibilities; at the Tenth Party Congress in August 1973, the PLA share of party posts was radically reduced. The cadres of the party were not informed about the events of mid-September until November, and the Chinese masses not for eighteen months.



(ii) Domestic policy

The armed clash with Russia in 1969 had exposed the risks of domestic disunity. Perhaps that is the reason for the conciliatory policies pursued between 1969 and the Tenth Party Congress in August 1973. A minor wage increase for low-paid workers was allowed in 1971, and prices were cut for some consumer goods – television sets, transistor radios, silk, watches and bicycles. State purchasing prices for some agricultural commodities were increased – by fifteen per cent for sugar and seventeen per cent for oil seeds. In both cases, the main effects were on the better-off: workers able to buy consumer durables, and production teams with high marketable surpluses.

For the peasants, private plots became respectable again; in 1971 they were praised and cadres assured that their existence was nothing to do with any “capitalist road”; on the contrary, they damped down the black market that State procurements with scarcities inevitably tended to create. [111] The People’s Daily went so far as to deplore “time-wasting” meetings in rural areas. [112]

In 1969 the government radically cut central expenditure, making communes responsible for spending on social services, administration and education (expenditure on these items amounted to a quarter of government spending in the 1950s). This change obliged communes to finance their own expenditure and allowed the government to make a sharp increase in defence spending. It would also have increased the differences between rich and poor areas. In July 1971 the government resumed more central control, perhaps to offset this effect.

In the factories, much of the capacity constructed in the 1960s was now brought into production, and industrial output expanded rapidly, assisted by an unprecedented expansion in China’s imports of technically advanced goods.

Despite the hold of the newcomers on the mass media, there was a cultural relaxation which persisted until 1974 – the London Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and Philadelphia orchestras made visits to Peking to play the works of “capitalist composers”.

Simultaneously, the party was being restored. By March 1971, twelve of the twenty-nine provincial party committees had been re-established. The party slogan had shifted from “Bombard the headquarters” to “It is the party that exercises leadership in everything”. [113] Thousands of cadres now secured rehabilitation, including the most prominent “capitalist roaders” (Liu Shao-ch’i had already died). Teng Hsiaop’ing, second in command of the “bourgeois dictatorship”, appeared at a reception for Cambodia’s Sihanouk on 12 April 1973; in May he appeared in the position of honour with Mao at a reception for Bhutto of Pakistan. Lo Jui-ching appeared on the saluting stand at the Army Day celebrations in 1975. Chao Tzu-yang was appointed First Secretary of the Canton party. General Hsiao Hua reappeared in October 1974, and many more.

The former Cultural Revolutionaries suffered accordingly. Some of those accused of being “ultra-Left” were put on trial in a number of provinces in the spring of 1970 (Kwantung, Peking, Honan, Chekiang, Fukien), and there was a press campaign against those who “negate everything ... see only trivial facts of behaviour and not a person’s integrity, and see only the past and not the present”. [114] The “May 16th Group” came in for particularly harsh criticism, being accused of sacking the office of the British chargé d’affaires in 1967 (in June 1970, a foreign ministry official was gaoled for the same offence). No doubt, restored cadres settled other scores with their former tormentors with less publicity – consigning them to rural areas or factory labour instead of party office.



(iii) The Tenth Congress (August 1973)

Having effectively separated the newcomers who achieved prominence in the Cultural Revolution from their base (the Red Guards and Red Rebels), the Tenth Party Congress both recognized the rehabilitation of the old disgraced cadres – Teng became deputy Prime Minister and effectively Chou En-lai’s heir – and made room for a larger number of the newcomers. The military component in the central committee was reduced to thirty-two per cent of the total; the newcomers’ share rose to ten per cent, and forty per cent on the Politburo (where eight new members were added). Shanghai worker Wang Hung-wen, the most authentic of the “newcomers”, became officially third in the party hierarchy. The Congress also ended the “conciliatory” phase – there needed to be, once more, a “revolution in the superstructure ... Some unhealthy tendencies in State organs and defects in some links of the State system stand in contradiction to the economic base of socialism”; and some cadres still failed to perceive “the hindering effect of bourgeois ideology, idealism and metaphysics on the socialist revolution and construction”. [115] Whereas Lin Piao had hitherto been accused of being “ultra-Left”, he was now transformed into opposition from the Right.

The “four clean-ups” campaign – against embezzlement, speculation, profiteering and luxury consumption by the cadres – had been resumed early in 1970. Class enemies who sought “to corrupt and win over cadres ... now frequently employ such tactics as giving banquets, handing over gifts, enticing with money or women, or engineering nuptial relations or sworn friendships”. [116] Despite the Cultural Revolution, such people, “although they have lost their political power, still have money and vast social connections, and these have become the material foundation supplying them with commodities and money for corroding the proletariat”. [117] Particularly at risk were cadres and leading members of the party, some of whom “do everything to oppose the socialist revolution and protect their own interests. They have good houses, they have cars, their salaries are high and they have servants – they are worse than capitalists.” [118]

What sort of cases did the press present? Cadre Hsieh Ho-hsun was murdered in December 1974 for trying to stop the use of quarry vehicles to steal rocks for private house building. [119] A Peking hotel reported how its staff regularly refused invitations to dinner, the offer of tickets to the theatre or sporting events, special privileges in buying bicycles and other goods; at one point, some 300 catties of Tientsin pears arrived from a procurement clerk “for the obvious purpose of securing privileges should he stay at the hotel another time”. [120] A school in Anwhei province found “a small number of students who were influenced by bourgeois ideology, indulged in reading bad novels, telling bad stories and singing bad songs”. In Hopei, “there sprang up in society a gust of wind which claimed that when cadres give up their posts or retired, they could be succeeded by their own children.” [121] Finally, there were numerous cases of cadres openly expressing their superior power – “Instead of regarding themselves as part of the masses of the people, they put on pompous airs, follow a bureaucratic routine, reprimand the rank and file whenever they feel like it and are reluctant to treat people on equal terms ... Instances like these are too numerous to be cited.” [122]

Big character posters spluttered into life through 1974 and 1975, but were usually under close supervision by the authorities. However, some posters attacked unofficial targets – Generals Yang Cheng-wu, Yu Li-chih, Chen Hsi-lian (Shenyang), Hsi Chen-hua (Taiyuan First Secretary), and even General Li Teh-sheng (Politburo Standing Committee member and Vice-chairman of the party) and Hua Kuo-feng. Posters attacking leading party members were promptly torn down. Other posters criticized managers in Kunming (Yunnan); party cadres for black market trading in eggs and oil, for kidnapping, fraud in timber dealing; the police in Nanch’ang (Kiangsi) for arbitrary arrests and brutality; one even claimed that 2,000 had been killed in gang warfare in Juichin. In Peking, the “Golden Monkey” with his or her complaints that the city had been for eighteen years under revisionist control achieved international fame. [123]

There were posters which went well beyond these individual complaints. Li Yi-che – the pseudonym of three authors, Li Cheng-t’ien, Ch’en Yi-yang and Huang Hsi-che – indicted the régime in On socialist democracy and legality under socialism, a set of seventy-seven sheets posted on the Peking road, Canton, in early 1974.

The authors argued that the removal of Lin Piao had not changed the system which had created and sustained Lin Piao – a “social-fascist dictatorship of a feudal type”. As in the Soviet Union, a new bourgeoisie controlled the State, robbing the community and sustaining a quasi- hereditary rule of privilege based upon the arbitrary and brutal use of power. The brief first phase of the Cultural Revolution was the only time when the masses had secured certain minimum rights and liberties – of press, opinion, association and movement. Lin Piao’s usurpation of power in 1968 had ended this and restored the old clique to power. The writers appealed to the forthcoming National People’s Congress to establish popular control of the State, the right of popular recall of all party and government officers, and elementary civil liberties (to prevent arbitrary arrest, rigged trials, use of torture on prisoners, political arrests).

It was an echo of the old “ultra-Left” of 1968. Indeed, it is said that Li Cheng-t’ien spent a year in prison in that year for his beliefs. In 1976 and ’77, Hong Kong sources claimed the group behind the posters had been publicly attacked as proponents of “social feudalistic fascism”. Li Cheng-t’ien was said to have been sentenced to “indefinite imprisonment”, the others to long periods in labour reform camps.



(iv) Fourth National People’s Congress

In January 1975 some 2,864 representatives met at the Fourth National People’s Congress to ratify a new constitution for the State and endorse the government. Under the constitution, private farming plots were guaranteed, and the practice followed since the mid- 1 95’Os of permitting strikes was recognized. Chou En-lai, reviving a perspective outlined by Mao in 1965, proposed the building of an independent and relatively comprehensive industrial and economic system before 1980’, the doubling of national income between 1970 and 1980, and the mechanization of agriculture. Teng’s position was recognized as next in line of succession after Chou – he was now deputy premier, Vice-chairman of the party, member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and Chief of Staff of the PLA. One of the newcomers, Chang Chun-chiao, advanced parallel with Teng – a deputy premier and head of the PLA Political Department.

However, when Chou En-lai died a year later, the press began a campaign against “China’s Second Khrushchev”. One month after Chou’s death, Hua Kuo-feng, himself a relative newcomer (from district party secretary in Hunan he had risen on the occasion of the Lin Piao affair to become Public Security Minister), became Acting Prime Minister. It seemed that, in the inner party centre, the newcomers (supported possibly by Mao) had had sufficient power to block Teng’s automatic inheritance, but insufficient to promote any of the “group of four”. The press dutifully harried Teng, but insisted that there be no movement of activists between cities, no special groups formed, and the cadres remain fully in control, lest the “Rightists ... use the sabotage of production to sabotage the revolution”. As in the past, the accused was given no opportunity to present his views, so the mass of the population could not judge the rights and wrongs of the case.

Teng had been blocked but not politically destroyed; he remained a candidate of the apparat. In the spring of 1976, his political destruction was achieved in the last coup of the newcomers. At the Ching Ming festival on 4 April, some 100,000 people gathered in Tienamin Square to mourn the death of Chou En-lai, far too many to represent a spontaneous demonstration (wreaths were said to have been sent by the headquarters of the second artillery section of the PLA and cadres in sections of the State Council), but there was no evidence of overt support for Teng. Nonetheless, some force removed the wreaths and posters overnight, as a result of which the largest riots seen in Peking since 1949 broke out. Vehicles were burned and a public security office sacked. On the 6th troops occupied the area, facing sullen crowds, when it was announced that Teng had been officially dismissed from all posts (but not expelled from the party). [124]

It was a Pyrrhic victory. We can presume that the entire apparat was outraged at the public display of arbitrariness, yet obliged to accept it while Mao insisted on protecting the newcomers. But in September, the Chairman died. Within one month, the central leadership had eliminated its tormentors, the “gang of four” (Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing, and Chang Chun-chiao, Yao Wen-yuan, Wang Hung-wen). The Cultural Revolution had finally come to an end.

The purge of the opponents of the old leadership (whether they were supporters of the “gang of four” or not) continued through the following year. A larger number of people than normal seems to have been executed in this campaign; no doubt old scores were settled. Now all the standard accusations levelled at Liu, Teng and Lin were directed at the four, including charges of attempted murder, organizing civil war and high treason. Chairman Hua, like many before him, enthused: “genuine Marxism has triumphed over sham Marxism.”

Ten months later, the party sanctioned these changes at its Eleventh Congress. Teng became once more Vice-chairman of the party, as well as Vice-premier, chief of staff of the PLA and Vice-chairman of the Military Affairs Commission. Most of the newcomers who had achieved prominence at the 1973 Congress were removed from the new Politburo and Central Committee, and replaced by representatives of the old guard’, particularly those from the military high command. Shortly afterwards, the Fifth National People’s Congress was announced for 1978 to sanction the new hierarchy of the State.

Politically, the fitful swing to the “Right” of 1970-74 was resumed, but now with much greater determination. In industry, for example, the leadership made it explicit that profits were to be the key measure of performance, output should determine pay, and that foreign imports were a vital means of modernizing the economy. In higher education, examinations were restored as the primary method of entry, and entry from school, not from manual occupations in farm or factory. For the PLA, the improvement of weaponry became an important element in future planning. None of this was new in the history of China, and there were numerous speeches by Mao to support such policies from the years before the Great Leap Forward (now edited by Hua and published as the long-delayed fifth volume of Mao’s Selected Works) as well as from the period 1961-5. But mere restoration showed how shallow the commotion of the Cultural Revolution had been, how utopian the hopes of the youthful rebels of 1966.


The events following the death of Mao illustrated yet again the consistency of the history of the Chinese State since 1949. There were many detours, but the central authority never diverged for long from its purpose of building a powerful national State, weaving between the obstacles set by a hostile world order and the obdurate backwardness of China’s rural majority. The performance was remarkable, given the scale of obstacles and pitfalls on the way, and the fact that the party itself was not an unchanging entity.

The party claimed that the tasks it set itself were laid down and directed by the workers and peasants of China. It was said that, for this reason, although there were many diversions, the basic direction remained true to the original aim. What was the role of these two classes in the new society of the People’s Republic? We need now to examine in more detail the position of workers and peasants in order to appraise the legitimacy of the party’s claim.




105. Visitor’s observation – Gilbert Padoul, China 1974: Problems not Models, New Left Review 89, January-February 1975, p.73

106. Isabel Hilton, Sunday Times, London, 25 January 1976

107. Hung-ch’i, November 1973

108. JMJP, 22 April 1975, SCMP 5846, 6 May 1975

109. Published outside China, from spy sources in Taiwan; French translation in Le Monde, 2 December 1972; validity confirmed in Peking by Wilfred Burchett, cf. The Daily Yomiuri, Tokyo, 17 August 1973, and Far Eastern Economic Review, 81/33, 20 August 1973, pp.22-4

110. Burchett, ibid., claims his account was written in consultation with authoritative sources in Peking and in the light of the dossier prepared by the Central Committee for the Tenth Party Congress

111. JMJP, 22 October 1971

112. JMJP, 23 October 1971

113. JMJP, 1 July 1974

114. Hung-ch’i, 12 July 1970

115. Hung-ch’i, August 1973; cf. also Su Hsi, JMJP, 11 January 1974, SCMP 5547, 6 February 1974

116. Harbin radio, in SWB FE/4856, 3, BII/5, 18 Mar. 1975; cf. also Peking radio, 12 Mar. ibid., BII/II

117. Kuang-ming JP, 17 April 1975, SCMP 5834

118. Kuang-ming JP, 28 June 1975; see also JMJP, 21 March 1975, in SWB 4862/i, 24 March 1975; Hung-ch’i, August 1975, and Peking radio, 7 August 1975, ibid.

119. Hupeh provincial service, Wuhan radio, 30 June 1975, SWB 4947/BII/12

120. Advance in the struggle against corruption, Chingwenmen No.2 Hotel, Hung-ch’i 4, 1 April 1975, in SCMM (SPRCM) 819-20, 28 April-5 May 1975

121. JMJP, cited Far Eastern EconomicReview, 1 August 1975

122. Study and Criticism, Shanghai, ibid.

123. Peking correspondent, The Times, London, 26 June and 6 July 1974

124. NCNA Peking, 6 April 1976; cf. also Far Eastern Economic Review, report from Peking, 16 April 1976, and Hua Lin, Minus 8, Hong Kong, June-July 1976


Last updated on 9.7.2001