By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
Mao Zedong’s track record of anointing a series of successors—and then cruelly discarding them—was a source of deep concern to many party leaders in China. The chairman’s erratic personal behavior, along with widespread dismay over the chaos and cruelty of his Cultural Revolution, had spawned a deep crisis of faith in the country that affected both the political class and the laobaixing alike.
A Generational Shift
Mao Zedong’s death followed just eight months after that of Premier Zhou Enlai, and together those twin passings left China politically adrift and rudderless. But there were other mortal passings as well. Within the span of less than a year, both the co-founders of the Red Army, Zhu De, and Mao’s long-time security chief, Kang Sheng, also passed away.
With Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao and Peng Dehuai already deceased, the original, close-knit group of Communist Party guerrilla heroes of the late 1920s and early 1930s was being decimated. The founding fathers were dying off, and a generational shift was in the offing.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Bitter Economic Truth
In 1977, the official media openly revealed, for the first time, the bitter economic truth about the last two decades of Mao’s rule. Since 1957, it was acknowledged, China’s national economy had been essentially stagnant. There had been no overall increase in the per-capita production or consumption of food. Crop yields had barely kept pace with the surging population growth, while the quality and reliability of industrial products had plunged.
Reacting to twenty years of economic turmoil and political repression, ordinary Chinese were starting to openly question the benefits conferred onto them by a rigid and insensitive Communist Party.
Superimposed upon this growing crisis of faith were a series of intense political rivalries and personal antagonisms that served to split the Chinese Communist leadership into a number of contending factions.
At one level, these intra-party cleavages concerned such issues as the extent of Mao Zedong’s personal responsibility for the Cultural Revolution and the deteriorating quality of Mao’s leadership during his declining years. But at another level, they concerned more primitive, rudimentary question of political power: Who would triumph in the struggle to succeed Mao?
Learn more about the complex and contradictory figure of Mao.
Anointing the Successor
The question of who would succeed Mao had been anticipated—and presumptively resolved—by the chairman himself.
A few months before his death, Mao anointed his latest—and, as it turned out, his last—heir apparent by scribbling a simple, six-word phrase: “Ni ban shi, wo fang xin” (With you in charge, my heart rests easy.)
The middle-aged cadre whom Mao Zedong ultimately chose to succeed him was named Hua Guofeng. Hua had been the party secretary from Mao’s native Hunan Province during the Cultural Revolution. He had a reputation for intelligence, integrity, and hard work.
He had gained Mao’s confidence during the final years of Mao’s life by remaining personally loyal to the chairman, refusing to align himself with any of Beijing’s notoriously fractious political cliques and factions.
Mao Breaks the Deadlock
Hua’s unexpected ascent was the indirect result of an intense factional struggle that broke out at the time of Zhou Enlai’s death in January of 1976. On that occasion, a bitter dispute broke out between members of the Gang of Four on one hand and supporters of Deng Xiaoping on the other over just who would succeed the late Premier Zhou.
After three weeks of bitter infighting, neither side could muster the necessary majority. Although Mao had personally designated Deng, he could not break the deadlock.
With the Politburo hopelessly tied, Mao’s personal intervention was important, and he nominated a complete outsider—Hua Guofeng—to be China’s interim acting premier. With that, the two warring factions, both dissatisfied to be sure, fell into line.
Learn more about the power mongering of radical leftists led by Jiang Qing.
An Unexpected Elevation
Hua Guofeng tried fill the vacuum left by the chairman’s death. However, it was no easy feat, for standing squarely in his path, unwilling to step aside, were Jiang Qing and her leftist collaborators. They felt cheated by the chairman’s unexpected elevation of an unknown outsider to succeed him.
And in a final, desperate effort to block Hua’s succession, they contrived to alter Mao’s last will and testament in an attempt to prove that Mao had really intended to have his wife, Jiang Qing, succeed him as party chairman.
An Audacious Move
Jiang Qing managed to get access to the archives of the Party Central Committee, where Mao’s personal papers were kept under lock and key. Retrieving some notes that the chairman had scribbled in the last few months of his life, she added some marginal notations of her own in a scrawl that was meant to resemble Mao’s own very shaky calligraphy.
Unfortunately for her, however, one of Mao’s most highly trusted lieutenants, a PLA general named Wang Dongxing, was in charge of the Central Committee archives. He blew the whistle on Jiang Qing’s attempted forgery.
Downfall of the Siren
Shortly thereafter, Hua Guofeng and a coalition of senior Chinese military and political leaders arrested her and her three co-conspirators, the Shanghai Clique.
Although these events were initially kept secret within the walls of Zhongnanhai, it didn’t take long for word of Mme. Mao’s arrest to leak out. And in the streets and alleyways of Beijing, a profusion of hastily-written posters suddenly appeared, all excitedly celebrating the downfall of the siren bang, the Gang of Four.
Common Questions about Succeeding Mao in Crisis-ridden China
In 1977, the official media openly revealed, for the first time, the bitter economic truth about the last two decades of Mao’s rule. It was acknowledged that since 1957 China’s national economy had been essentially stagnant.
The middle-aged cadre whom Mao Zedong ultimately chose to succeed him was named Hua Guofeng. Hua had been the party secretary from Mao’s native Hunan Province during the Cultural Revolution.
One of Mao’s most highly trusted lieutenants, a PLA general named Wang Dongxing, blew the whistle on Jiang Qing’s attempted forgery.