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.”