Deng Xiaoping’s reform proposals went well beyond Hua Guofeng’s limited ideas. While Hua’s loyalists did their best to block them, or at least slow them down, support for Deng’s reforms snowballed. Control of the media was wrested away from Hua Guofeng’s loyalists, who now found it much harder to generate favorable publicity for their policy preferences.
Deng’s Political Machine Gathers Momentum
Throughout the late summer and fall of 1978, Deng’s political machine gathered momentum. Around the country, remnant leftists and their collaborators were being dislodged from their local strongholds, while one after another, China’s provincial party and military leaders lined up in support of Deng’s reforms. It was a classic bandwagon effect.
Sensing Deng’s imminent victory, officials up and down the line cut their losses and signed on to the new regime. Slowly but surely, Hua Guofeng was being politically marginalized.
As autumn deepened, the mass media published a number of outspoken articles on some very sensitive subjects, including a critique of the cult of Mao-worship.
Central Committee Working Conference in 1978
The month of November 1978 represented a historic watershed in the annals of post-Mao China. In Beijing, the winds of change were blowing with gale force as a Central Committee working conference was convened on November 10.
At this important meeting, which continued intermittently for more than a month, a number of senior PLA military commanders, veteran political leaders and economic planners issued a strong appeal to reverse the verdict on a group of 61 high-level victims of Cultural Revolution purges, all of whom had been wrongly persecuted by leftists.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Attack on the Architects of the Cultural Revolution
One by one, Deng’s friends and supporters attacked both the architects and the architecture of the Cultural Revolution. Leading the charge was Chen Yun, Deng’s close friend and the party’s senior economic theorist.
In his scathing review of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Chen aimed the brunt of his criticism at Mao’s recently deceased security chief, Kang Sheng, whom he accused of creating a brutal reign of terror within the party.
It was Kang Sheng who had compiled and maintained detailed personal dossiers on party leaders for more than 30 years. During the Cultural Revolution, he had deliberately leaked confidential personal information about Liu Shaoqi, Peng Dehaui, Peng Zhenn and others to radical Red Guards and revolutionary rebels, who then used this information to persecute Mao’s designated enemies.
Chen Yun concluded his long rant against the purveyors of Cultural Revolution chaos by insisting that it was not enough simply to absolve Deng Xiaoping of responsibility for the counterrevolutionary incident of April 1976. Arguing that the masses had been perfectly justified in displaying grief for the passing of Zhou Enlai, and in venting their anger at Jiang Qing for persecuting him, Chen insisted that the Tiananmen incident must be resoundingly affirmed as a fully revolutionary event.
Learn more about the Cultural Revolution.
Apology by Hua
Listening to Chen Yun’s speech, Hua Guofeng must have felt like all the air was being sucked out of the room. Aware that the tide had turned decisively against him, he tried valiantly to salvage what little prestige and authority he had left.
Goaded by Chen Yun and others, who had been chipping away obliquely at Mao’s reputation for infallibility, Hua issued an open apology to the Central Committee, in which he humbly acknowledged that the placing of wreaths at the foot of the Heroes Monument in Tiananmen Square had been a fully revolutionary act. In the event, however, Hua’s self-criticism was too little and too late.
Central Committee’s Decisions after the Conference
In his closing address to the November Central Committee working conference, Deng Xiaoping did not gloat over his stunning triumph over Hua, nor did he call for his rival’s ouster. Instead, he took the high road, calling for the Communist Party to unite to meet the profound challenges of the new era.
When the media announced the Central Committee’s decision to reverse the Tiananmen verdict in mid-November, it created an immediate surge of popular enthusiasm. Equally electrifying were the effects of two other announcements that appeared in the party press on the same day.
One of these conveyed the Central Committee’s decision to rehabilitate the remaining victims of Mao’s 1957 anti-rightist rectification campaign. The other contained a scathing rebuke of Yao Wenyuan’s toxic 1965 essay denouncing Wu Han’s opera, “The Dismissal of Hai Rui”.
At one stroke, three of Chairman Mao’s most controversial initiatives—his 1957 crackdown on intellectuals; his 1966 decision to launch the Cultural Revolution; and his 1976 verdict on the wreath-laying incident at Tiananmen—were decisively reversed.
Learn more about Deng’s anticorruption campaign.
Gone, too, was Mao’s carefully nurtured reputation for wisdom and perspicacity. And along with it went any chance that Hua Guofeng might be able to salvage some semblance of political authority. By December 1978, Hua Guofeng was finished.
But unlike Mao before him, Deng did not go for the jugular. He did not purge Hua or humiliate him or even force him to step down—at least not yet. Deng could afford to be magnanimous: He had won.
With Deng’s decisive victory in the late fall of 1978, the most critical stage of China’s post-Mao political transition had come to an end. Mao’s wife and her Shanghai cronies were now safely in prison, deflated and powerless; Mao’s designated heir was now politically isolated and marginalized, his credentials essentially worthless; and Mao’s judgment was now widely acknowledged to be fallible, and for the first time his policies were subjected to critical public scrutiny.
Common Questions about Deng Xiaoping and China’s Post-Mao Political Transition
Chen Yun was Deng Xiaoping’s close friend and the party’s senior economic theorist. Like Deng himself, Chen Yun had been a longtime critic of the Great Leap Forward.
During the Cultural Revolution, Kang Sheng had leaked confidential personal information about Liu Shaoqi, Peng Dehaui, Peng Zhenn and others to radical Red Guards and revolutionary rebels, who then used this information to persecute Mao’s designated enemies.
Three of Chairman Mao’s most controversial initiatives that were decisively reversed were his 1957 crackdown on intellectuals; his 1966 decision to launch the Cultural Revolution; and his 1976 verdict on the wreath-laying incident at Tiananmen.