By late 1977, the Gang of Four had become a symbol of evil, a universal scapegoat for everything that had gone wrong in China during the Cultural Revolution. The sudden downfall and repudiation of the Gang of Four necessitated a major behavioral adjustment on the part of all Chinese people.
Because Hua Guofeng’s authority derived exclusively from Mao having personally anointed him as his successor, Hua needed badly to preserve Mao’s reputation for wisdom and good judgment at all costs. In effect, he needed to build a firewall around Mao to protect him from being implicated in the evil machinations of the Gang of Four.
Cognitive Dissonance Reduction
At the height of the Cultural Revolution, tens of millions of Chinese had loudly screamed and echoed and endorsed the radical ideas and slogans of the leftists.
But later these very same ideas and slogans were being denounced as poison, as heresy, as counterrevolution. Required not merely to criticize the Gang of Four, but also to rectify their own misguided thinking, cadres and commoners alike had to undergo a profound attitude adjustment.
Social psychologists refer to this adjustment process, which can be very stressful, as cognitive dissonance reduction. In post-Mao China, it was everywhere in evidence, and its effects at times were really bizarre.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Shanghai Turbine Plant: 1978 Visit
In the summer of 1978, a delegation of American computer scientists was on a visit to the Shanghai Turbine Plant. The plant’s public relations officer gave the standard, obligatory brief introduction to the facility and its history.
He told how, during the Cultural Revolution, local agents of the Gang of Four had sabotaged production in the plant. Revolutionary rebels had disrupted the plant’s normal operations, overthrowing the management committee, and spreading anarchy on the factory floor.
In consequence of such radical disruptions, the public relations officer said both the quantity and the quality of turbine production had suffered terribly in the decade of the Cultural Revolution.
But then, he said, things began to change. In the past year or two, under the “wise leadership of Chairman Hua Guofeng,” the workers had come to understand that their thoughts had been seriously poisoned by the Gang of Four.
Consequently, he concluded, production had rebounded, and the factory was well on its way to breaking previous records for production, for innovation, and for product quality.
Shanghai Turbine Plant: 1975 Visit
It just so happened that in 1975, a different delegation had visited the same turbine plant. At that time, Mao was still alive and the radicals were still running the economy and running that factory. By chance, the very same public relations officer who briefed the delegation in 1978 had given the brief introduction on the previous visit as well. But the content of his earlier briefing had been very different indeed.
Before the Cultural Revolution, he had said, revisionists among the plant’s managers and engineers had routinely oppressed the workers, forcing them to comply with hundreds of needlessly detailed work rules.
But with the launching of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, he said, things changed for the better. Under the new revolutionary regime, worker morale reportedly rose greatly, and the plant registered major improvements in both the quantity and quality of turbine production.
So, what it came down to was this: the same factory, the same PR director, but with very different and very contradictory narratives, three years apart.
Learn more about China’s class struggle and capitalist thinking.
“My thinking was poisoned by the Gang of Four”
When the PR officer was asked about the contrasting elements in his past and present narratives, he stammered and sputtered for a few moments, obviously embarrassed, before blurting out his answer—which was the only possible explanation he could offer under the circumstances: “My thinking was poisoned by the Gang of Four”.
By 1978, that simple phrase, “my thought was poisoned by the Gang of Four”, had become a ubiquitous national mantra in China. Some 800 million people were now struggling to reconcile their own recent revolutionary platitudes and slogans with the new political and ideological requirements of the post-Mao era.
To achieve the necessary reduction in cognitive dissonance, there was an urgent need for a simple, exculpatory formula to explain away previous bad behavior.
Learn more about the rise of Hua Guofeng.
Hua Guofeng and the Chinese People
In Hua Guofeng’s eagerness to shift the blame away from Mao, and thereby to deflect questions about his own tenuous grip on legitimacy and power, he had clearly underestimated the ability of the Chinese people to comprehend what had happened to them and who had caused it.
By 1978 it had become commonplace for ordinary Chinese, when discussing the crimes of the Gang of Four, to raise up not four fingers, but five.
Often accompanied by a sly wink, this knowing, five-fingered gesture was a powerful reminder that while the laobaixing did not dare to speak openly of Mao’s failings, Hua Guofeng was nonetheless living on borrowed time.
Common Questions about Hua Guofeng and the Gang of Four
At the height of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese people had endorsed the radical ideas and slogans of the leftists. However, later these very same ideas and slogans were being denounced as poison, as heresy, as counterrevolution. Required not merely to criticize the Gang of Four, but also to rectify their own misguided thinking, everyone had to undergo a profound attitude adjustment.
In 1975, the public relations officer in the Shanghai Turbine Plant had said that with the launching of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the plant had registered major improvements in both the quantity and quality of turbine production. However, in 1978, the same person said that because of radical disruptions, both the quantity and the quality of turbine production had suffered terribly in the decade of the Cultural Revolution.
The PR officer explained the contrasting elements in his past and present narratives by saying that his thinking had been poisoned by the Gang of Four.