“The Man of the Future”: Truths, Rumors, and the Perils of China-Watching

“The Man of the Future”: Truths, Rumors, and the Perils of
China-Watching

July 7th, 2011 by Michael Evans <!–Tags: , , , –>|
Posted in Opinion
| 7
Comments »

"Decisively Throw Out the Wang-Zhang-Jiang-Yao Anti-Party Clique!"

The current flurry of rumors concerning the demise of former president Jiang
Zemin are a clear reminder that while today’s China is light years away from the
rigid isolation of the Cultural
Revolution
, the world of elite politics remains nearly as opaque and
mysterious as it was in the 1970s. As the current generation of China-watchers
attempt to peer over the walls of Zhongnanhai as it prepares for next year’s
leadership transition, they employ many of the same methods and sources used in
the era of Mao Zedong, himself perennially reported to be dead or dying since
the mid-1950s.

Working with as little information as they had, it is perhaps not surprising
that much of the China reporting of Mao’s time has proven sometimes wildly
inaccurate in retrospect. But many of the worst blunders were due not simply to
a lack of accurate sources, but flawed and simplistic thinking which remains
just as seductive almost forty years later. As speculation mounts over the
lineup of China’s imminent “fifth generation” of leaders, observers today would
do well to remember the lessons of the PRC’s first major leadership transition
in 1976.

 

As the west’s “Pekinologists” conjectured who would take the reins after the
current ageing leaders passed away, opinion tended to converge on one man in
particular. Reporting on the death of Zhou Enlai in January 1976, The
New York Times noted the advanced age of his second-in-command Deng
Xiaoping, and declared that “If Mr. Teng [Deng] is the most likely man to
succeed Mr. Chou, the man most likely to succeed Mr. Teng is Chang
Ch’un-ch’iao.”

Zhang
Chunqiao
, as his name is now spelled, had risen to national prominence as a
radical activist in Shanghai at the start of the Cultural Revolution, and over
the following decade rose to become the fourth-ranking leader in the Party
hierarchy. The Times had previously dubbed Zhang “the man of the future”,
“a smooth, capable man, somewhat in the Chou En-lai
mould.” After Mao’s death, Newsweek devoted an entire article to
profiling Zhang’s rise to prominence and predicting that in the months to come,
he would be “the man to watch.”

On paper, Zhang seemed to be the perfect candidate for China’s next leader.
The profile in Newsweek reported that he had “established power bases in
the party, the government, and even the army.” It was often claimed that Zhang
not only enjoyed wide support within the Communist Party, but indeed controlled
its entire bureaucracy, serving as de facto secretary-general (the formal
position had remained vacant since the start of the Cultural Revolution).

In addition to his solid power base, Zhang’s other main selling point was his
seeming ability to bridge the acrimonious divide between the Maoist radicals and
the moderate pragmatists. In 1966, he had first stepped onto China’s political
stage as a staunch ally of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, and in the following year he
stage-managed a coup which overthrew the municipal government in Shanghai,
establishing a “people’s commune” in its place. But by 1975, his political
stance appeared to have shifted considerably, and to many he seemed to have
moved into the moderate camp.

In January of that year, Zhang gave a speech to the National People’s
Congress in which he called for the restoration of material incentives for
workers and small-scale private agriculture, both of which had been abolished at
the outset of the Cultural Revolution that Zhang had helped lead. Several months
later, an article penned by Zhang appeared in the Party’s theoretical journal
Red Flag, further calling for a moderation of Maoist economic policy.

Zhang’s literary foray seemed clear evidence of his new political stance. The
Los Angeles Times titled its report on the article “Peking
Denounces Leftist Faction,” and informed readers that Zhang had “strongly
denounced the ‘extreme leftist’ faction headed by Chiang Ch’ing [Jiang Qing],”
flinging further barbs at Madame Mao’s young protégé Wang Hongwen and even
impugning the infallibility of Chairman Mao himself. While other observers
refrained from deducing such personal attacks from the subtext of Zhang’s
writing, they nonetheless grew wary of classifying him as a “radical” alongside
Jiang and Wang. The safest position was to simply note, as The New York
Times
did in January 1976, that “it is not clear where his present loyalties
lie.”

Planted firmly in the center of power and the middle of the political
spectrum, Zhang Chunqiao appeared to be all but guaranteed a role as the major
powerbroker in any post-Mao order. But less than a month after Mao’s death,
Zhang was dismissed from all his posts and placed under arrest. Following a
nationwide campaign of denunciation as a member of Madame Mao’s “Gang of Four,”
in 1980 he was put on trial for treason, duly convicted, and sentenced to death
(later commuted to life imprisonment). His overthrow had been bloodless and had
met with barely a whisper of opposition. For someone widely believed to hold
such far-reaching power, it was a shocking development.

As the full story of the post-Mao power struggle was revealed, however,
Zhang’s downfall appeared almost inevitable. In spite of his impressive array of
titles, he had little support or influence among either his fellow leaders or
the rank and file. In fact, Zhang was widely loathed as vindictive and
deceitful. In the army, where professional soldiers resented his Maoist
sloganeering, his orders were routinely disobeyed or simply ignored. Any real
power Zhang wielded was a result of his enjoying Mao’s personal support. When
Mao died, he was left alone to the mercy of his enemies.

Western observers’ claim that Zhang ruled over the Party bureaucracy as de
facto secretary-general was likewise based on flimsy evidence. This assertion
dated back to 1973, when he was listed as the secretary-general of the Tenth
Party Congress. It was a purely ceremonial position in a four day long
rubber-stamp assembly, but the title stuck in the minds of the China-watchers,
leading them to further miscalculate Zhang’s power up until his sudden
downfall.

While overestimating the extent of Zhang’s influence was the result of
overlooking personal factors in favor of official formalities, the frequent
claim that Zhang’s sympathies lay with the moderate reformers came about through
the opposite mistake. His purported Maoist heresies were not expressions of
personal opinion, but statements of official policy required of whomever held
the positions that Zhang occupied at the time.

The policies outlined in his speech to the National People’s Congress had
been hammered out by a committee, one that included veteran Party cadres that
Zhang had persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. His Red Flag article had
likewise been written at the command of Mao himself. Incidentally, a thorough
reading of the text reveals that the much-vaunted “moderate” passages are only a
small part of an ominous warning of the capitalist restoration which would
inevitably follow any relaxation of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The interlaced webs of the personal and the official have always been
difficult to untangle, and while the “bamboo curtain” of Zhang’s time has been
lifted, China’s elite politics are fraught with peril for any aspiring
interpreter lacking the obvious advantages of hindsight. Nevertheless, those
aiming to divine the Chinese future should exercise caution when reading the
proverbial tea leaves, and today’s China-watchers might do well to remember the
fate of the country’s former “man of the future.”

http://www.chinahush.com/2011/07/07/the-man-of-the-future-truths-rumors-and-the-perils-of-china-watching/

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