“The Man of the Future”: Truths, Rumors, and the Perils of China-Watching

| July 7th, 2011

"Decisively Throw Out the Wang-Zhang-Jiang-Yao Anti-Party Clique!"

The current flurry of rumors concerning the demise of former president Jiang Zemin are a clear reminder that while today’s China is light years away from the rigid isolation of the Cultural Revolution, the world of elite politics remains nearly as opaque and mysterious as it was in the 1970s. As the current generation of China-watchers attempt to peer over the walls of Zhongnanhai as it prepares for next year’s leadership transition, they employ many of the same methods and sources used in the era of Mao Zedong, himself perennially reported to be dead or dying since the mid-1950s.

Working with as little information as they had, it is perhaps not surprising that much of the China reporting of Mao’s time has proven sometimes wildly inaccurate in retrospect. But many of the worst blunders were due not simply to a lack of accurate sources, but flawed and simplistic thinking which remains just as seductive almost forty years later. As speculation mounts over the lineup of China’s imminent “fifth generation” of leaders, observers today would do well to remember the lessons of the PRC’s first major leadership transition in 1976.

As the west’s “Pekinologists” conjectured who would take the reins after the current ageing leaders passed away, opinion tended to converge on one man in particular. Reporting on the death of Zhou Enlai in January 1976, The New York Times noted the advanced age of his second-in-command Deng Xiaoping, and declared that “If Mr. Teng [Deng] is the most likely man to succeed Mr. Chou, the man most likely to succeed Mr. Teng is Chang Ch’un-ch’iao.”

Zhang Chunqiao, as his name is now spelled, had risen to national prominence as a radical activist in Shanghai at the start of the Cultural Revolution, and over the following decade rose to become the fourth-ranking leader in the Party hierarchy. The Times had previously dubbed Zhang “the man of the future”, “a smooth, capable man, somewhat in the Chou En-lai mould.” After Mao’s death, Newsweek devoted an entire article to profiling Zhang’s rise to prominence and predicting that in the months to come, he would be “the man to watch.”

On paper, Zhang seemed to be the perfect candidate for China’s next leader. The profile in Newsweek reported that he had “established power bases in the party, the government, and even the army.” It was often claimed that Zhang not only enjoyed wide support within the Communist Party, but indeed controlled its entire bureaucracy, serving as de facto secretary-general (the formal position had remained vacant since the start of the Cultural Revolution).

In addition to his solid power base, Zhang’s other main selling point was his seeming ability to bridge the acrimonious divide between the Maoist radicals and the moderate pragmatists. In 1966, he had first stepped onto China’s political stage as a staunch ally of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, and in the following year he stage-managed a coup which overthrew the municipal government in Shanghai, establishing a “people’s commune” in its place. But by 1975, his political stance appeared to have shifted considerably, and to many he seemed to have moved into the moderate camp.

In January of that year, Zhang gave a speech to the National People’s Congress in which he called for the restoration of material incentives for workers and small-scale private agriculture, both of which had been abolished at the outset of the Cultural Revolution that Zhang had helped lead. Several months later, an article penned by Zhang appeared in the Party’s theoretical journal Red Flag, further calling for a moderation of Maoist economic policy.

Zhang’s literary foray seemed clear evidence of his new political stance. The Los Angeles Times titled its report on the article “Peking Denounces Leftist Faction,” and informed readers that Zhang had “strongly denounced the ‘extreme leftist’ faction headed by Chiang Ch’ing [Jiang Qing],” flinging further barbs at Madame Mao’s young protégé Wang Hongwen and even impugning the infallibility of Chairman Mao himself. While other observers refrained from deducing such personal attacks from the subtext of Zhang’s writing, they nonetheless grew wary of classifying him as a “radical” alongside Jiang and Wang. The safest position was to simply note, as The New York Times did in January 1976, that “it is not clear where his present loyalties lie.”

Planted firmly in the center of power and the middle of the political spectrum, Zhang Chunqiao appeared to be all but guaranteed a role as the major powerbroker in any post-Mao order. But less than a month after Mao’s death, Zhang was dismissed from all his posts and placed under arrest. Following a nationwide campaign of denunciation as a member of Madame Mao’s “Gang of Four,” in 1980 he was put on trial for treason, duly convicted, and sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment). His overthrow had been bloodless and had met with barely a whisper of opposition. For someone widely believed to hold such far-reaching power, it was a shocking development.

As the full story of the post-Mao power struggle was revealed, however, Zhang’s downfall appeared almost inevitable. In spite of his impressive array of titles, he had little support or influence among either his fellow leaders or the rank and file. In fact, Zhang was widely loathed as vindictive and deceitful. In the army, where professional soldiers resented his Maoist sloganeering, his orders were routinely disobeyed or simply ignored. Any real power Zhang wielded was a result of his enjoying Mao’s personal support. When Mao died, he was left alone to the mercy of his enemies.

Western observers’ claim that Zhang ruled over the Party bureaucracy as de facto secretary-general was likewise based on flimsy evidence. This assertion dated back to 1973, when he was listed as the secretary-general of the Tenth Party Congress. It was a purely ceremonial position in a four day long rubber-stamp assembly, but the title stuck in the minds of the China-watchers, leading them to further miscalculate Zhang’s power up until his sudden downfall.

While overestimating the extent of Zhang’s influence was the result of overlooking personal factors in favor of official formalities, the frequent claim that Zhang’s sympathies lay with the moderate reformers came about through the opposite mistake. His purported Maoist heresies were not expressions of personal opinion, but statements of official policy required of whomever held the positions that Zhang occupied at the time.

The policies outlined in his speech to the National People’s Congress had been hammered out by a committee, one that included veteran Party cadres that Zhang had persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. His Red Flag article had likewise been written at the command of Mao himself. Incidentally, a thorough reading of the text reveals that the much-vaunted “moderate” passages are only a small part of an ominous warning of the capitalist restoration which would inevitably follow any relaxation of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The interlaced webs of the personal and the official have always been difficult to untangle, and while the “bamboo curtain” of Zhang’s time has been lifted, China’s elite politics are fraught with peril for any aspiring interpreter lacking the obvious advantages of hindsight. Nevertheless, those aiming to divine the Chinese future should exercise caution when reading the proverbial tea leaves, and today’s China-watchers might do well to remember the fate of the country’s former “man of the future.”

17 Comments | Leave a comment | Comment feed

  1. lolski says:

    Jiang did nothing good for China. All he tried to do was purse economic growth at all costs, the repercussions of which will be reflected in the next 50 years. He also put his fatass, corrupt cronies in the Standing Committee

    • jc.yin says:

      And what may I ask should’ve been the “good” policy? Should he have pursued political reform at all costs and make China the next Sudan? You’re either an ignorant foreigner watching from the sidelines or an ingrate Chinese scum complaining about all the improvements that have been made.

      Either way, your remark is just ridiculous. Hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty is considered “nothing good”? I’d like to see you try and run a nation of over a billion people instead of sitting on your fatass posting brainless crap.

      • lolski says:

        I meant he didn’t nothing good as in did nothing to improve existing policies. China did have good policies from when Deng was in charge.

        Not necessarily pursuing progressive political reform, but he should have anticipated the social and environmental consequences of allowing so much freedom in the market. Capitalism needs checks and balances from the government.

        Although people have been lifted out of poverty, inequality has also grown exponentially. The powerful have gotten richer on the backs of the poor, while destroying their homes and environments. The ethical guidelines of many Chinese have downgraded as well. Can you imagine having 小三 in the 1980’s?

        Also bro, don’t attack someone’s character if you don’t know who they are. I’m as proud to be Chinese as anyone. I’m critical because I care about China’s progress in the next 50 years. The worst thing a country can have is for its citizens to be apathetic.

      • kailing says:

        You mean “hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty” by foreign capital? We needed to have Mao well dead before we can dare to really stand up… and we did, we just open the door for the foreign money to enter, create a lot of inequality through the policies and a few millions of richer people (they were already the elite before… they just needed more capital).

        True, we are the second world economy, but with a very low GDP per capita and a cronyism, corruption and inequality that exacerbate the gap between have and have-nots.

        And better you think twice before starting spitting your inferiority-insecurity complex all over. Boy, I am liberated, you?

        • jc.yin says:

          The Internet has given rise to a group of people who’ve never mastered the basic skill of “reading”. At the same time a person with the username “kailing” happens to be in that sad and unfortunate group of people.

          “We needed to have Mao well dead before we can dare to really stand up”
          I don’t have the faintest clue as to why you’re mentioning Mao when I was talking about Jiang Zemin. Either you’re just plain ignorant of Chinese politics as to even mix up Mao Zedong and Jiang Zemin or just dumb enough to lump the two together, I can’t tell.

          What I CAN tell is that you’re one of those ungrateful good for nothing Chinese scum who whine bitterly about corruption, inequality and low GDP per capita compared to developed countries whilst at the same time benefitting from it’s development.

          If you’re so indignant that China is developing from the pedestal of foreign investment then I suggest you get off this forum, for that matter the Internet, and actually try to come up with a useful solution instead of whining like some ignorant kid. Let the real boys run the country, you can just suck on the leftovers.

          • Peter says:

            jc.yin, you are way arrogant. you seem someone who really studied a lot and thinks he is so much more enlightened than everyone else. that’s just conjecture however as this is the internet and assumptions, like the general ones you make about everyone you encounter, are unfounded and foolish. Calling people scum and ignorant because they don’t share your viewpoint? Talk about narrow minded and petty.

            Unfounded nationalism is surely a problem many Chinese, both uneducated and not. You can point to statistics about millions being lifted out of poverty. But I contend that there are better forms of government whose policies would have yielded the the same kind if not better results, faster and without totally demoralizing and raping 1.3 billion people. Maybe you think air conditioning and cars and ipads makes up for the fact that there is no legitimate judiciary. Or you can ask the people who set themselves on fire to protest illegal land grabs if they think China is doing fine!

            If you’ve had the privilege of traveling and studying overseas, you should have learned that results don’t always justify the means. My suggestion is that you be less defensive and open your. Arrogant and close minded is a deadly combination.

            P.S. You can be serious about asking people to get off their ass and “do something”? Do what? Petition? Protest?

            • Voice of China says:

              Better forms of government?

              Like democracy right? How’s India going? 😀

              • Peter says:

                VoC

                You are assuming that I’m suggesting democracy is better than “socialism with chinese characteristics”.
                So proud and self-righteous.

                I just got back from a quick biz trip to Taipei. People seem pretty happy there. Hong Kong too from what I remember, Singapore as well.

                i know, they don’t have 600 Million farmers to deal with..scale population…blah blah blah.

                • vic2u says:

                  Asian slaves on welfare from the west (USA and UK)

                  You like that?

                  Don’t you, Peter?

                  China is free from any western master.

            • vic2u says:

              Read these kinds of western BS many times before, UK and western text books readen by whites to brainwash Chinese and Asians of lower classes.

    • Huzhang says:

      Sure is buttrage in here
      Jiang was a caretaker at best, but that’s good enough
      China has historically been the largest economy, therefore the progress seen lately is really more a return to normal borne on the shoulders of the average Chinese person rather than miraculous government policy
      As long as there’s a free market and no communist shenanigans, this is what China has always been like regardless of who’s in power

    • vic2u says:

      Hope you are living in the US when Obamarama pull the country down the toilet after him.

      Jiang didn’t do as much but he didn’t do the USSR reform and split China apart.

  2. vonskippy says:

    So with the country with the largest population in the world, nothing blog worthy happened since July 7th (8 days and counting)?

  3. Welcome says:

    I feel satisfied after rdeinag that one.

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