The Struggle Between Peng Dehuai and Mao Zedong


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

The serious struggle between Peng Dehuai and Mao Zedong started right after Peng’s letter of opinion was received by Mao. Alert to the potential danger posed by Peng’s ‘sugar-coated’ challenge, Mao devised a two-pronged strategy to isolate his defense minister. This strategy led to many conflicts between the two.

A statue of Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong tried to remove his Defense Minister Peng Dehuai via various strategies. (Image: Krzysztof Stepien/Shutterstock)

Mao’s Strategy to Isolate Peng

To start with, Mao set out to test the loyalty of each person in attendance at the Lushan Conference.

And, to accomplish this, he personally circulated Peng’s letter of opinion to everyone present. By gauging their reactions, he could see who was steadfastly in support of Mao’s leadership, and who was not. Sensing what Mao was up to, Peng urgently requested to have all copies of his letter retrieved, claiming that it was a private missive intended for Mao’s eyes only. The request was denied.

Next, to prevent potential defectors from conspiring behind his back in small group meetings, Mao convened a full plenary session of the Lushan Conference. Speaking to the assembled party leaders on July 23, he addressed head-on the question of rising dissatisfaction with the Great Leap.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Mao Confronts Peng

By turns humble, rambling, introspective, egotistical, sarcastic, and downright intimidating, Mao confronted his chief critic, Peng Dehuai:

Now that you’ve said so much, [the chairman began,] let me say something … People say we’ve become isolated from the masses, but the masses still support us … [Some comrades] are wavering. They [pay lip service], affirming that the Great Leap and the people’s communes are good and correct. But we must see on whose side they [really] stand. I would advise them not to waver at this crucial point in time. [Their] brinkmanship is rather dangerous. If you don’t believe me, [just] wait and see what happens.

Having said this, Mao paused for effect. Casting his gaze in the general direction of a group of top PLA generals seated in the conference hall, he laid down the gauntlet: “If the People’s Liberation Army won’t follow me,” he said, “then I will go down to the countryside, reorganize the Red Army guerrillas, and organize other People’s Liberation Army.”

Pausing yet again for effect, he continued: “But I think the Army will follow me.” At that point, several Chinese generals stood up and shouted their pledges of allegiance to Mao.

Learn more about bureaucratic errors during the Great Leap Forward.

An image of Peng Dehuai.
Peng Dehuai accused Mao Zedong of despotism. (Image: People’s Republic of China Ministry of Culture/Public domain)

Peng Dehuai Takes the Bait

When Mao finished speaking, Peng Dehuai’s famously short temper erupted. He accused Mao of despotism, comparing him to Stalin in his later years; and he warned that “if the Chinese peasants were not so patient, we’d have another Hungary [on our hands].”

The gloves were off, and Mao now responded in kind, accusing Peng of being a rightist, of sabotaging the people’s democratic dictatorship, and of attempting to organize an opposition faction within the Communist Party.

Things turned even uglier when Mao attempted to cut short the defense minister’s retort, at which point Peng angrily reminded the chairman of a quarrel they had had two decades earlier, during the anti-Japanese War. The defense minister had overplayed his hand. Several key leaders who had initially been inclined to endorse his criticism of the Great Leap, including such senior figures as Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, and Marshal Zhu De, now backed off, intimidated by the chairman’s display of full-bore combativeness. Mao had won.

Peng Faces Consequences

In the days that followed, no one ventured to speak out in Peng Dehuai’s defense. At Mao’s initiative, Peng and his small inner circle of supporters, including the PLA chief of staff, a deputy foreign minister, and Mao’s own longtime political secretary, were officially charged with having formed an ‘anti-party clique’, and they were subjected to varying degrees of punishment. Peng himself was stripped of his post as defense minister and placed under house arrest in Beijing.

The lessons of Peng Dehuai’s abject defeat at the hands of Mao were not lost on anyone in the party’s leadership circle: First, it was clearly safer to err on the side of leftism than on the side of rightism. And second, despite Mao’s open invitation to his colleagues to ‘speak out’ freely and openly, challenging the chairman could be extremely hazardous to one’s political health. As a senior Chinese diplomat put it, “After Lushan, the whole party shut up. We were all afraid to speak out.”

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Kang Sheng, Mao’s Loyal Aide

An image of Mao and Kang next to each other.
Kang Sheng (right) was Mao’s chief enabler in intimidating critics. (Image: Unknown artist/Public domain)

One big reason that Mao was able to intimidate his critics so consistently and so effectively—aside from his famous mercurial temper and iron will—was his chief of internal security, Kang Sheng. Ever since the mid-1930s, Kang Sheng had been entrusted by Mao with the task of compiling secret dossiers on all party leaders at or above the provincial level.

Knowing that such career-damaging ‘black materials’ existed and that Mao would not hesitate to use them to destroy his colleagues was a huge deterrent to would-be critics. In this respect, Kang Sheng was Mao’s chief enabler, in much the same way that Lavrentiy Beria had been Joseph Stalin’s principal enabler. Without such loyal and utterly ruthless security chiefs, both Stalin and Mao might not have enjoyed such apparent invincibility.

Common Questions about the Struggle Between Peng Dehuai and Mao Zedong

Q: What was Mao’s strategy to isolate Peng Dehuai?

Mao‘s strategy for isolating Peng Dehuai was to first examine the loyalty of all those present at the Lushan Conference. He then convened a full summit to discuss satisfaction with the Great Leap.

Q: What was the outcome of the confrontation between Mao Zedong and Peng Dehuai?

The result of the confrontation between Mao Zedong and Peng Dehuai was that a fierce fight broke out between the two men since each tried to accuse the other in some way. But in the end, Mao was able to win the battle and intimidate leaders who disagreed with him.

Q: What happened after the Lushan Conference and the confrontation between Mao and Peng? 

After the showdown between Mao Zedong and Peng Dehuai, no one dared to speak in defense of Peng. Peng’s few supporters were accused of forming anti-party groups and therefore became subject to punishment. Peng was isolated and placed under house arrest.

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