The death of Lin Biao in plane crash caused a crisis of leadership in China, especially with the declining health of Mao. Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping began to emerge as the next strong personalities in the party. This, however, was not to the liking of Jiang Qing and her radical Shanghai Clique.
Deng Xiaoping Returns
In 1973, the chairman instructed Zhou Enlai to bring Deng Xiaoping back from involuntary exile. Deng was a talented and experienced administrator, with strong personal ties to China’s senior civilian and military leaders. In the aftermath of the Lin Biao affair, the country was politically adrift; its leaders were dangerously divided. Mao needed the steadying organizational skills of Deng Xiaoping to help restore political discipline in his troubled kingdom.
The irony in this was exquisite. Having purged Deng in 1966 for being too elitist, too bureaucratic, and too intolerant of the revolutionary masses, the chairman now did a virtual 180: He brought Deng back to power precisely in order to make use of these very same qualities.
But Deng’s rehabilitation did not sit well with Madame Mao and her radical colleagues. With Mao in bad health, they harbored succession ambitions of their own, and they now saw Deng as a serious rival.
Learn more about the mystery behind Lin Biao’s death.
Undermining Deng Xiaoping-Zhou Enlai Axis
Having had his Politburo membership restored by Mao, Deng was also appointed chief deputy to Premier Zhou Enlai and chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army. He now had the capacity to block the leftists’ ascent to supreme power. Presumably, he had Zhou Enlai’s support in this endeavor.
Jiang Qing and her leftist allies first went after Zhou. In 1973, they published a series of oblique historical allegories in leftist-controlled newspapers and magazines. The leftists claimed that a popular folk hero of ancient China, the Duke of Zhou, a telling name—or Zhou Gong—had opportunistically betrayed his king and sold out his country to a foreign power just in order to advance his own career.
Veteran China watchers quickly concluded that the allegations of opportunism and treason were really aimed at Zhou Enlai, the modern Duke of Zhou.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
But, even more bizarre than the literary attack on Zhou was the revelation that it was Mao himself who had initially authorized it.
In most of the world’s press, it was the dapper diplomatic Zhou, rather than the ailing, drooling, slow-talking Mao, who was credited with being the chief architect of China’s opening to the United States. In Mao’s opinion, Zhou had become way too enamored of the favorable publicity, the flattery, and far too cozy with Henry Kissinger.
At the end of 1973, Mao ordered Zhou to endure a series of humiliating criticism sessions organized by his Politburo colleagues. Not surprisingly, Jiang Qing took the lead in this inquisition. Among other things, she accused Zhou of “getting down on your hands and knees to the Americans”.
Zhou Is Humbled
Zhou tried valiantly to defend himself. But, finally, Mao intervened to rescue his embattled premier. Having reminded Zhou just who was boss, the chairman ordered an end to the ordeal, sparing Zhou any further indignities. It had never been the chairman’s intention to purge Zhou, but merely to humble him. The country was still reeling from the Lin Biao affair, and Mao badly needed Zhou, along with Deng Xiaoping, to pilot China’s lurching ship of state.
The Attack on Deng
With Zhou now effectively shielded from further criticism, Jiang Qing and her allies next shifted the brunt of their attack onto Deng Xiaoping. Launching blistering media campaigns in 1974 and 1975, they directed a series of sharp attacks against a certain “unrepentant capitalist roader” in the party who had allegedly sought to dismantle China’s socialist economy, weaken the Communist Party’s class dictatorship, and suppress the revolutionary masses. While no names were named, it was clearly understood that Deng was the target.
The use of veiled, oblique criticism was necessary in this and other instances because party rules strictly prohibited direct attacks on named officials without prior Central Committee authorization, and no such authorization had been given in this case. Furthermore, Mao had personally rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping. To now openly label Deng as an “unrepentant capitalist roader” would inevitably cast some doubt on Mao’s own judgment.
The Black Box
But if the rationale for using obscure historical parables and Aesopian language was clear, such opaqueness made the job of China watchers in other countries more difficult and at times quite perplexing. With the internal dynamics of Beijing’s factional conflicts carefully concealed from public view, Chinese politics remained enigmatic.
An apt analogy of the situation may be the one that Churchill had used to talk about politics in the Kremlin; that it was like “bulldogs fighting under a rug. An outsider hears only the growling, and [only] when he sees the bones fly out from underneath is it obvious who won.”
Obviously, outsiders could hear plenty of growling under the Chinese rug in the mid-1970s; lots of noise was being made. But in the absence of flying bones, there was no way to tell for sure who was winning, who was losing, or even who was doing what to whom.
Common Questions about Deng Xiaoping’s Rehabilitation and Humbling of Zhou Enlai
After the death of Lin Biao, the leaders were deeply divided. Mao needed the steadying organizational skills of Deng Xiaoping to help restore political discipline in his troubled kingdom.
Mao had become resentful of all the favorable media attention that had been heaped on Zhou Enlai ever since the premier signed the Shanghai communiqué. In Mao’s opinion, Zhou had become way too enamored of the favorable publicity, the flattery, and far too cozy with Henry Kissinger.
The use of veiled, oblique criticism was necessary in the attack on Deng Xiaoping, as it was not authorized by the Central Committee. Also, Mao had personally rehabilitated Deng. To now openly name Deng would cast doubt on Mao’s own judgment.