China after Mao. When Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of China, died on September 9, 1976, China was in a political and economic quagmire. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and subsequent factional fighting had left the country much poorer, weaker, and isolated than it had been in 1965. Scores of capable party officials, bureaucrats, intellectuals, and professionals were languishing in prison or laboring in factories, mines, and fields. Many schools had been closed, and an entire generation of young people were unable to obtain an education.
Regardless of official propaganda, most Chinese people took Mao’s death very calmly. They mourned him, but not in the more emotional way they had mourned the late Premier Zhou Enlai. Meanwhile, Mao’s designated successor Hua Guofeng had assumed the post of party chairman. Hua was unaware that the Gang of Four were plotting his downfall until Defense Minister Ye Jianying and several generals warned him about this, saying that he’d better do something before it was too late. Hua was a bit surprised, but he agreed, and in October the Gang were arrested. None of them put up any resistance, although one of Jiang Qing’s housekeepers reportedly spat at her as she was being taken away.
The demise and arrest of the Gang of Four prompted nationwide celebrations, including parades in the streets of Beijing and other major cities. The Gang of Four symbolized everything that went wrong during the ten years of chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and their demise, the general populace had expected, would mark the beginning of a new era.
In late 1976 and early 1977, the state propaganda machine was working overtime to promote Hua Guofeng. He was billed as being Mao’s personally appointed successor and as having saved China from the Gang of Four. Hua tried to fill his mentor’s shoes by, among other things, sporting an identical haircut. He stated that “in order to honor Chairman Mao, we should govern in accordance with his wishes.” and proclaimed the “Two Whatevers”, meaning that “Whatever Chairman Mao said, we will say, and whatever Chairman Mao did, we will do.” Throughout 1977–78, policy efforts centered around economic recovery. Schools began to reopen, and the more extreme aspects of Mao’s personality cult were toned down. It was now being said that he was a great leader and thinker, but not an infallible god and that the revolution had been the work of many people and not just him. The Cultural Revolution was said to have been a well-meaning idea that got out of control, and Hua declared that a second CR might be necessary in a few years. Beginning in April 1978, newspapers stopped printing Mao’s quotations in bold text. Nuclear weapons testing, missile, and space launches continued apace.
Hua’s reliance on Maoist orthodoxy led him to continue a cult of personality surrounding his own image alongside Mao’s, equating his presence to that of Mao, but pinpointing the focus at a nominally separate era. To provide for distinct identity, Hua attempted his own change of the Chinese written language by further simplifying characters. A small number of these Hua-era simplifications continue to be in use informally, as there was no formal sanction of their legitimacy after Hua left office. In early 1977, the National Anthem was changed to reflect pure communist ideology rather than revolutionary drive, inserting lyrics exclusively dealing with Mao Zedong Thought and building an ideal socialist nation, as opposed to the wartime patriotism reflected by the original lyrics.
Hua’s unimaginative policies received relatively little support, and he was regarded as an unremarkable leader, lacking political support within the Politburo. At the time Deng Xiaoping was still living in seclusion because of “political mistakes,” and the issue of his return to politics was yet again put on the table. Deng had insisted on supporting all of Hua’s policies in one of the letters the two men exchanged, to which Hua responded that Deng had “made mistakes, and rightfully must continue to receive criticism.” The arrest of the Gang of Four, Hua said, did not justify that Deng’s “revisionist” ideas should resurface. During a Politburo meeting in March 1977, many members voiced support for Deng’s return, to no avail. In a letter to Hua dated April 10, Deng Xiaoping wrote, “I am fully behind Chairman Hua’s policies and agenda for the country.” This letter would be openly discussed in the Politburo, and in July 1977, Deng Xiaoping was restored in his former posts. In August, the 11th Party Congress was held, which again rehabilitated Deng and confirmed his election as the new Committee Vice-Chairman, and the Central Military Commission’s Vice-Chairman, Deng guaranteed the elevation of his supporters, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang and Wan Li.
This discussion, part of National Public Radio’s Options series, features a panel of China Watchers: A. Doak Barnett, senior fellow, foreign policy studies at The Brookings Institue, Professor Kenneth Liebenthal, department of Social Science, Swathmore College and Dr. James R. Anderson, associate professor of Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Along with Moderator Steven Rosenfelt of The Washington Post, they attempt to offer observations and possible outcomes this dramatic change in leadership would bring.
Interesting listening, comparing the political/economic atmosphere of 1978 with the political/economic atmosphere of 2019 – how we couldn’t envision the changes that would take shape in China, how China would eventually become a powerful economic force in the world – we simply didn’t know that at the time.
For a reminder, here is that discussion, as it took place on December 23, 1977 from National Public Radio.