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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Significant Figures: China 1966-1989

Mao's cult in full force
To Western eyes, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (and China itself) is not as clearly defined as the heads of state in our own countries. When teaching Change in the Modern World, Option B: Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square 1966-1989 to Modern History students we need to be mindful that they may make certain assumptions based on their own inherent sociocultural biases. Yes, Mao Zedong was Chairman of China from 1945 to 1976, but his most famous successor, Deng Xiaoping, did not occupy this position at all. It would be easy, as a citizen of a country with a Western-styled government, to assume that Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong occupied the same positions as overall leaders of China. This is not, however, the case.

The informal term for political leader of the Chinese government is 'Paramount Leader'. It is accurate to say that Communist China had 4 clear paramount leaders between 1966 and 1989, the time period of the study.

They are:

Mao Zedong: Chairman of various posts until 1976.

Hua Guofeng: Chairman of the Central Military Committee until 1981, but only considered leader of the nation until 1978 (when he lost his position as Chairman of the Central Committee).

Deng Xiaoping: Although Deng did not take over directly from any of Hua Guofeng's positions, he did start leading the Consultative Conference National Committee from 1978, signalling his movement into a higher point of influence at that time. He took over from Hua as Chairman of the Central Military Committee in 1981.

Jiang Zemin: Jiang ascended to the role of General Secretary of the Central Committee in 1989, which placed him as the new paramount leader after the Tiananmen Square incident on June 4th.

You'll notice what seem like a few discrepancies in the above information. We all know Mao Zedong as the 'Chairman' of China, however, this is actually a simplification of his full role within the Communist Party of China. At various points, Mao occupied up to 6 positions as Chairman of different branches within the Party and the government. Most of these he rescinded by the end of the 1950s, keeping only the positions of Chairman of the Central Committee and Chairman of the Central Military Committee, which were almost honorary titles by the time of his death (he kept these titles whilst day-to-day power transferred to other roles within the party, which goes some way towards explaining how the most powerful person in the Party could occupy completely different political positions to their predecessors).

"Follow Hua!"
Hua Guofeng was Premier of the State Council, but it was his succession of Mao as the Chairman of the Military Committee (meaning he had control of the People's Liberation Army) that saw him elevated to paramount leader above his peers. This is where things get tricky though, as Deng Xiaoping was undoubtedly the leader of China from 1978 to 1989, despite not occupying any of the key positions of power in the Party of government during that time. Deng was not General Secretary, Premier, or even President of the Party/government. Nor did he become Chairman of the Central Military Committee or Chairman of the Central Committee at any point. Instead, Deng consolidated power through his command of the Central Military Commission, the Consultative Conference Committee, Central Advisor Committee, and as Vice Premier of the State Council.

Deng's successor, Jiang Zemin, held a more traditional bastion of power as General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Committee, and this is how the following paramount leaders have established their power since this time.

Pretty dry stuff.

The point for our students to take away from this is that, in the context of a single party political system, the lineage of power does not transfer through a voting system or structured hierarchy. Power is accumulated through the prior paramount leader unofficially 'handing the reigns over' to the new leader through increased association and endorsement, and also by brokering the support of large factions within the Party who hope that the new leader will support their agendas.

Something else to consider is the unofficial designation of 'Party Elders', retired members of the Communist Party who retain a significant degree of influence through largely tokenistic positions (an example is Deng Xiaoping, who still exerted a lot of power well into his 90s despite only occupying a position as Honorary Chairman of the China Bridge Association ['Bridge', as in the card game Bridge]). After Deng's exit, the occupation of leadership became more structured with all three subsequent leaders concurrently occupying the three positions of General Secretary, President, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Other Factors in Understanding Significant Figures
The side story to these four leaders is the narrative of those who also attempted to broker power between 1966 and 1989. The ones that are relevant to the syllabus dot points are:
  • Liu Shaoqi
  • Lin Biao
  • Jiang Qing (AKA 'Madame Mao') and her supporters (together known as the 'Gang of Four').
Liu Shaoqi was designated by Mao as his successor as early as 1960, however, ideological tensions arose between the two figures after the Great Leap Forward, leading Mao to denounce his political protege. A large part of the Cultural Revolution consisted of the resulting power struggle between Mao and Liu, with Liu removed from all political positions and placed under house arrest by 1967. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1969, from alleged pneumonia.

Lin Biao rose in the wake of Liu through his loyal support of Mao's ideology during the Cultural Revolution. In 1969 he was acknowledged as Mao's new successor as the next paramount leader but this favouring was short-lived. Lin's control of the People's Liberation Army grew during the Cultural Revolution to a point that threatened Mao's sense of security. Tensions arrived at a point that saw Lin actively avoid coming to Beijing for Party meetings, and Mao removed him from the Party altogether by 1971. Lin attempted to flee China with his family by plane and died when it crashed in Mongolia. The official line is that Lin attempted to orchestrate an assassination attempt on Mao, had failed, and was now fleeing to the Soviet Union for safety. Another perspective is that the alleged assassination attempt was invented by Mao and his cronies to support the disposal of Lin.

Jiang Qing became the scapegoat of the Cultural Revolution as the de facto head of the 'Gang of Four'. As the most radical faction within the Party, and vehement opponents of China's westernisation and/or modernisation, the Gang of Four were blamed by Hua, Deng, and other Party members for all the ills and crimes of Mao's reign after his death, conveniently allowing for Mao's legacy to remain largely untarnished while Jiang (his wife) became the scapegoat. 

Propaganda depicting children "smashing" the Gang of Four
Two other Chinese political figures of importance to the Option B syllabus are:
  • Zhou Enlai (mentioned in the dot points)
  • Zhao Ziyang (not mentioned in the dot points but instrumental to our understanding of the protests that led into the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989).
Zhou is best understood as the loyal Party member responsible for launching the 'Four Modernisations' that characterised Deng's reign, and for building peaceful ties between China and the rest of the world during a very turbulent time for the nation. He was very popular with the Chinese people, and his struggles against the Gang of Four helped turn public opinion against Jiang Qing, especially after his death at the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Zhao was also a later Party member who was also popular with the Chinese people. In the 1980s, he supported the increased privatisation and westernisation of the Chinese economy, which culminated in his public support of the Tiananmen Square protestors in 1989. Zhao opposed the Party's decision to declare martial law in order to quell the protests in Beijing, on the grounds that making such a decision without an internal vote was constitutionally illegal. Zhao found himself expelled from the Party by Deng and placed under house arrest for the next 15 years.

Students will need to also have tertiary / passing understanding of Soviet leadership as the historical narratives of the USSR and China intersect at several points in relation to the syllabus dot points for Option B. These leaders are:
  • Joseph Stalin
  • Nikita Krushchev
  • Mikhail Gorbachev
Without getting too much into irrelevant information, these three figures relate to China's story in the following ways:

Joseph Stalin: Stalin's Cult of Personality has some clear and relevant parallels to Mao's own cultivation of a godlike status in China, and helps establish some context for the tensions that arose in the 1950s and '60s both between China and Russia, and within the Chinese Communist Party itself. The CCP's amendments to the Chinese constitution took out all references to Mao, mirroring Russia's own process of de-Stalinisation during the mid-1950s, which only served to antagonise This political decision (in both countries) was designed to deconstruct the phenomenon of the 'cult of personality' that had arisen in China and the USSR respectively.

The split in Sino-Soviet relations also has some origins in Stalin's lack of support for China following Mao's establishment of CCP leadership in 1950.

Nikita Krushchev: Krushchev's relaxation of Russia's more Stalinist elements of communism in the 1950s was interpreted by Mao as a threat to the Marxist concept of permanent revolution. This led, in some part, to the increased adherence of the CCP to Maoism as a clear alternative to what Mao interpreted as dangerous revisionism on the Soviet Union's part.

Krushchev's actions during the Cold War were also interpreted as 'soft' and revisionist by the Chinese. 

Mikhail Gorbachev: Gorbachev's part in our story comes much later when he visited China in 1989, prompting, in some part, the Tiananmen Square incident. It will be necessary for students to understand what Gorbachev came to symbolise for those in the Chinese pro-democracy movement. As the Russian leader of the Communist world, Gorbachev was making moves towards the dismantling of socialism (and the Soviet Union) through his introduction of glasnost and perestroika, policies of 'openness' that would lead to the increasing westernisation of the USSR. His visit to China in 1989 was to involve a tour of Tiananmen Square, hence the choice of this location as ground zero for the Chinese protestors.

Resource - Key Figures Timeline

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