China: Mao Sends the Cadres to the Country

Following the tenth plenum of the Eighth CCP Central Committee, Mao launched a nationwide socialist education movement and large-scale class struggle to “combat revisionism” and prevent “peaceful evolution.” The movement in the countryside was devoted to cleaning up accounts, inventory, financial affairs, and work points, and was therefore referred to as the “four clean-ups.”

The Central Committee issued a series of documents providing increasingly dire assessments of class struggle. One in early 1965 broadened and elevated the scope of the campaign to political, economic, organizational, and ideological cleansing. University students and military cadres were recruited into an immense workforce to push aside and “clean up” grassroots cadres.

I myself served as a member of a work group that carried out an eight-month “clean-up” of a production brigade at Dabailao Commune. We intended to ferret out a “counter-revolutionary clique,” and assumed that the village’s branch Party secretary was a “capitalist roader.”

In mid-1960, Liu Shaoqi had shared Mao’s concern about problems in some villages, and the need for class struggle in the countryside to reclaim “power that is not in our hands,” but a disagreement developed between Mao and Liu on the Four Clean-Ups,” resulting in a personal rupture. This rupture came to a head through the participation of Liu’s wife, Wang Guangmei, in a “clean-up” of the Taoyuan production brigade of Hebei’s Luwangzhuang Commune.

Wang’s description of her experience at a meeting of the Hebei provincial Party committee received encouraging comments, and put Liu Shaoqi on the ascendance just when Mao was suffering a setback in the Great Leap Forward. On August 1, 1964, Liu gave a major report on the “Taoyuan experience” to the heads of the central Party, political and military organs at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. This report was to sow the seeds of endless trouble for him.

A participant at the meeting, Li Xin, recalls:

Liu spoke of the necessity for all cadres to be seconded to units for work experience, and called on everyone to emulate Wang Guangmei. He said, ‘Wang Guangmei went down to the countryside, and isn’t that how she discovered so many new problems? And she wrote up everything and summarized many new experiences very meaningfully. I suggest you all go to the countryside — hurry and go!’ At this point, Liu looked at Premier Zhou for a moment, and then addressed the group again: Anyone who didn’t want to go should be made to go!

Li Xin writes that upon walking out of the meeting, he heard others discussing what had transpired. “‘What was that all about? Were we being lectured?’… Walking down the steps from the Great Hall of the People, up ahead of me two or three military cadres were cursing up a storm, in particular berating Liu Shaoqi for stepping forward personally to flatter his ‘old bag.’ As I drew closer, they turned around and looked at me, and it turned out that we knew one another, so we shared a laugh.”

During his speech, Liu not only pumped up Wang Guangmei but also criticized Mao, although without naming names. Mao vacillated on whether to distribute Wang Guangmei’s report, especially after his wife Jiang Qing’s teary comments on Liu’s speech: “After Stalin died, Khrushchev made a secret report, and now you aren’t even dead and someone is making an open report.” Pushed by Liu, however, the Central Committee disseminated “The Taoyuan Experience” throughout the country, along with an editorial comment emphasizing the report’s “universal significance.”

Sharing Mao’s grave assessment of the class struggle situation in the countryside, Liu followed “The Taoyuan Experience” with several documents that pushed the Four Clean-Ups further into Left-deviating error and led to even more cases of injustice throughout the country. Although these methods were clearly a Maoist legacy of the Great Famine years, Mao nevertheless denounced Liu at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, and referred to his massive purge as “Left in form but Right in essence.”

The split between Mao and Liu came to the surface during a month-long Central Committee work conference starting on December 15, 1964. Wang Guangmei and Liu Yuan describe the previously docile Liu engaging in an open wrangle with Mao:

Mao Zedong said that the landlords and rich peasants were the backstage operators and the “unclean” cadres their frontmen. The unclean cadres were the persons holding authority, and merely attacking the landlords and rich peasants would not allow the poor and lower-middle peasants to rise. It was essential to target the cadres, and to mobilize the masses to rectify the Party.

Liu Shaoqi said that all kinds of contradictions had come together during the “Four Clean-Ups” campaign, and the situation was complicated. It was better to use facts as a starting point and to resolve contradictions as they were discovered rather than to elevate all of them to contradictions between the enemy and us.

December 26, 1964, just a few days after this confrontation, was Mao’s 71st birthday, and he hosted a dinner at the Great Hall of the People. Mao shared a table with several model workers and scientists, with the other central government leaders at another table. Mao was normally ebullient at such events, but this time his demeanor was solemn. He started off by saying he had not invited his own children to the dinner because they had contributed nothing to the revolution. He went on to criticize some phrases used in the socialist education movement, saying they were not Marxist. He also censured some central organs as “independent kingdoms,” and spoke of the danger of revisionism within the Party. No one else dared utter a word.

The Four Clean-Ups campaign was still under discussion on January 28, 1965, when Deng Xiaoping was to preside over a meeting of the Central Committee secretariat. Thinking it was a routine briefing, Deng told Mao, “Chairman, you’re not feeling well. You don’t have to attend the meeting.” Mao marched into the meeting with a copy of the PRC Constitution and the Party Constitution in each hand.

He said, “One person told me not to come to the meeting (alluding to Deng Xiaoping), and one didn’t want me to speak (alluding to Liu Shaoqi). Why am I being stripped of the rights to which I’m entitled under the Party Constitution and the Constitution?” In his later years, Chen Boda recounted:

At a Central Committee meeting discussing the ‘23 Provisions,’ Chairman Mao spoke first, but he had spoken only a few sentences when Liu Shaoqi interrupted him. It’s fine to interpose a few comments, as long as you then let the other person finish. But Liu Shaoqi just kept going on and on, and Chairman Mao had no opportunity to pick up where he’d left off.

This showed how deep the rift had grown between Mao and Liu. As Wang Guangmei and Liu Yuan put it, “Mao Zedong could not tolerate even the slightest challenge to his authority. A discussion between equals implied a scorning of his authority, and even the smallest contradiction could send him into a rage. He told Liu Shaoqi, ‘Who do you think you are? All I have to do is lift a finger and you’re finished!’”

In a conversation with the American journalist Edgar Snow in 1970, Mao confirmed that he had decided to strike down Liu Shaoqi in January 1965.

Mao did strike down Liu Shaoqi during the Cultural Revolution. Of course, this involved not just lifting a finger but launching a large-scale political movement. It would be overly simplistic to attribute the Cultural Revolution to nothing more than the power struggle between Mao and Liu or to Mao’s idiosyncrasies; all the same, Mao’s suspicion and dissatisfaction toward Liu were a factor.

Democratic systems provide a normal mechanism for changing leaders, but in an autocratic system, the supreme leader is surrounded by toadies and conspirators, and any change in leadership is accompanied by brutality and violence. The person occupying the position of supreme power finds himself in the hot seat (the Three Kingdoms warlord Cao Cao said crowning him emperor would be like putting him on the stove). Mao’s deep familiarity with Chinese history made him naturally suspicious and wary of all those around him.

Excerpts from Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962. By Yang Jisheng, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, soft cover. Translated from the Chinese by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian

*Tomorrow: Part III, from Revision to Fundamentalism


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