Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar
Mao launched his ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ on 16 May 1966. It unleashed furious and complex internal armed struggles driven essentially by a struggle for power between Mao’s status quoists and Liu Shaoqi’s impulse to reform. Recognising the catastrophic failures of Mao’s economic policies, his deep seated paranoia towards change and his very brittle interpretation of what conformed to Marxism and more dangerously what did not; Liu set about staging a coup d’état through manipulation of the internal mechanism of State power. Mao used more direct methods. He urged “bombard the headquarters and overthrow those in authority taking the capitalist road” and charged, in a mass of contradictions that “things can be Left in form but Right in essence”. Government and the State machinery, Liu’s instruments were thrown into paralysis and a bloody inner cleansing of opposing leadership began. The revolution combined “elements of a witch hunt, a crusade, an inquisition and cutthroat palace politics” (William A Joseph, Politics in China: An Introduction. 2014). A destructive decade on unprecedented scale was the outcome.
In January 1967, a year after the Cultural Revolution had taken root another seismic event occurred. Mao’s estranged wife Jiang Qing along with three cronies who included Wang Hongwen a second vice chairman of the Party, Zhang Chunqiao head of the Shanghai revolutionary Committee and Yao Wenyuan a party mass media manipulator formed what infamously came to be known as the “Gang of Four”. It was under Wang’s leadership as the head of the Maoist faction that he seized power from the ‘capitalists’ in Shanghai; to Mao, this was his ‘January Storm’. It became the archetypal model for the Cultural Revolution in the other provinces.
More critically to the Gang of Four, Mao’s favours at a time of his failing health gave them access to the levers of power over the remains of the purged Liu. In the event the power struggle ended with a dying Mao, supreme after a heap of Liu’s cadres had been overthrown. While the Gang consolidated their sway through their slogan “suspect all, overthrow all” (Chi Hsin, The Case of the Gang of Four, Cosmos Books, Hong Kong 1978, Pgs 1-50). They mobilized over half a million Red Guards to besiege state organs, usurped control of Government and stifled all opposition. In the mean time large scale poverty, external security anxieties and growing disenchantment of the long suffering people forced the Party to opt for a government of stability that could end the anarchy let loose by the power struggle. The key was, support and unconditional backing of the Peoples Liberation Army, which was denied the Gang.
Marshal Ye Jianying (Marshal of the PLA), Deng Xiaoping, Hua Guofeng and reform economists Chen Yun and Li Xianian formed the core of the next party leadership which in the interest of stability included four serving Marshals and seven Generals, they animated the party and challenged the Gang. Within a month of Mao’s death on 09 September 1976 this latter group led a successful coup d’état. The Cultural Revolution came to formal closure in October 1976 with the downfall of the Gang. Four features of the unsettled decade are significant to our study. Firstly, power politics that pervaded Mao’s brittle authoritarian rule. Second, the continuing distress and disenchantment of the people who had suffered famine, displacement and death on the scale of millions during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” now being subjected to a thinly veiled power tussle in the garb of a Cultural Revolution. Third, mass hysteria that the revolution generated aroused sentiments akin to religious worship of Mao; while creating power centres such as the Red Guard that surpassed law and even challenged the PLA. Lastly, violence that sought destruction of “Old Thought”.
More than half a century after the ‘January Storm’ China has seen two decades of dazzling economic growth. This too during a period of general global economic slowdown, strife in West Asia, the rise of radical Islam, an inward looking EU and a frenetic Russia intent upon rising from the debris of empire. China’s growth story has been accompanied by ambitions of global leadership. This has in turn has spurred an unparalleled military growth. But the real alarm is, China seeks to dominate international institutions and rewrite the rule books without bringing about a change of her own morphology. China’s claims on the South and East China Sea; handling of internal dissent; proliferatory carousing with North Korea and Pakistan are cases in point.
When Xi Jinping took over reigns of general secretaryship of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in November 2012 he also took over the top offices of the Party and the Military when he had the Central Committee of the CPC anoint him as the President of the PRC as well as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) making him, informally, the ‘Paramount Leader’. Announcing deepening reforms his declared opening move was to crackdown on state corruption at all levels. His first target was the political grouping (coincidentally also called the Gang of Four!) of Zhou Yongkang (former security chief), Xu Caihou (former Vice Chairman CMC), Bo Xilai a “princeling” and former Chongqing party chief seen as a threat to Xi’s power base, and Ling Jihua former advisor and confidant of the erstwhile Premier Hu Jintao. Whether the blitz was on account of political anxieties or indeed corruption-related offenses is not entirely clear, but they were rising stars in the CPC firmament and were deposed. Their followers, however, remain on edge. In the meantime economic growth has slowed down (<7%) while sustained illegal capital flight out off China has strained China’s financial system; globalisation and the arrival of the middle class (petty bourgeoisie) have raised unreal material expectations; there is restiveness amongst minorities particularly in the South West where radical Islamic influence is strong and mass incidents of social unrest caused by large scale migrations from the rural to urban regions is on a steep upward slope. All the while a brooding military finds itself shorn of its traditional CMC Chair and without a seat in the Standing Committee of the Politburo. The aggregate of these seemingly unrelated episodes leaves a question mark on whether the State apparatus can reconcile the nation’s aspirations with growing internal stresses peaceably or will reconciliation take the form of another “January Storm?”
Tocqueville, in 1858 suggested the most critical moment for authoritarian governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform. Mao lived the axiom; the question is how will Xi receive this truism?