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China in the 1970s - From Cultural Revolution to Emerging World Economy

Wissenschaftlicher Aufsatz 2009 25 Seiten

Orientalistik / Sinologie - Chinesisch / China


China in the 1970s.

From Cultural Revolution to Emerging World Economy

The decade of the 1970s reflects two grand themes of Chinese History. The first theme is the continuity of China as a multinational and multiethnic empire. For millennia China had been ruled by emperors; in the 20th Century it came under the rule of communist dictator Mao Zedong. This centralistic and dictatorial rule emanated from Beijing. Another theme is China’s alternation between two different ways to relate to the outside world. A period of opening up to the world beyond China would be followed by a withdrawal from the world, and after some time an opening up again. This swing from an isolationist self-absorbed Chinese period to the renewed connection to the outside world characterizes the Seventies in an exemplary way.

In our talk today we will learn how this tumultuous decade develops from a suppressive phase determined by the Cultural Revolution and the principles of communist dictatorship to its first unexpected opening to the West with Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. We will follow China’s history from the death of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in 1976, through the turmoil following the arrest of the Gang of Four in October 1976, the reform course of Deng Xiaoping beginning in 1978, the democracy movement, to the deep structural economic reforms with the “open door” policy in 1980.

I. Paranoia and Isolation: The Cultural Revolution 1966 - 1976

The Seventies began in China in the dark era of the Cultural Revolution. Mao, despite his position of being the godlike Supreme Leader of China, became aware in the mid Sixties that the pragmatists in the Communist Party were actually running the country. Under the pragmatists, China finally showed improvement in living standards, a more relaxed lifestyle, and greater literary and artistic freedom. But Mao saw exactly this as a threat to his own person and resented the successful party officials up to the leaders in his immediate vicinity. He regarded himself as a Stalin figure. In 1956 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Stalin. Mao decided to make a preemptive strike and destroy the man he regarded as “China’s Khrushchev”, Liu Shaoqi, as well as Liu’s colleague Deng Xiaoping, as well as their followers in the party.[1] Because they were numerous, he came up with a diabolical plan of turning the Chinese against each other in an unprecedented mass campaign of denunciation. Mao appealed to lower officials o criticize and denounce their superiors for betraying the revolution, students tocriticize their teachers and professors, workers their supervisors, neighbors their neighbors and young people their elders. One billion people were turned upside down, looking for “counterrevolutionary” tendencies in each other. This he deceptively termed the “Cultural Revolution”. For the “culture” part, Mao involved his wife Jiang Qing. Mao accepted his wife’s former career as an actress in Shanghai as a as sufficient base for overseeing China’s intellectual and artistic life. Many of her former colleagues were victimized in the so-called denunciation meetings. They were publicly exposed to the wrath of a mob who verbally and physically abused them as “class enemies” or “capitalist roaders”. Schools and universities were closed completely from 1966 to 1968, books were burned, nearly everything was forbidden to read except communist classics and Mao’s Little Red Book, which everybody had to possess and hold up in mass meetings.

Liu Shaoqi, the 2nd Chairman of the PRC was labeled a traitor and the biggest “capitalist roader” in the Party. In July 1966 he was displaced by Mao’s ally Lin Biao. Liu and his wife Wang were arrested and tormented. Liu became ill with pneumonia and was refused treatment. On the order of Mme Mao he was kept alive so that the Ninth Party Congress in 1969 had a “living target”. There he was denounced and humiliated, afterwards he was allowed to die in agony. His last wish to see the sunlight was denied.

An enormously ugly wave of settling old scores, vengeance, and satisfying jealousy and envy swept to the country. Mao mobilized China’s youth to form “Red Guards” to smash the old and form the new, which led to violence, senseless brutality and destruction of cultural heritage.

Jung Chang who wrote about her parents’ ordeal during this period in her book “Wild Swans,” recognized at this time of her own adolescence that the Chinese people were divided in two: the ones who let themselves be drawn into cruelty and meanness and became willing executors of Mao’s will, and the ones who stayed humane even under the worst circumstances. This humanity was sometimes no more than a little smile or warmhearted look and the recognition of the humanity in the victim. A little more help led very often to one’s own persecution. Jung Chang’s mother, a director in the educational sector, was so popular that it was hard in the beginning to find someone to denounce her. But with pressure from above she finally had to endure the public humiliations and ended up in prison and finally in a labor camp where she got very ill. Her father, a high Party official from the early days on, a painstakingly honest and idealistic communist, at first believed that there was an error and Chairman Mao would soon stop the campaign. He even wrote a letter to Mao directly, a desperate attempt, which worsened the charges against him. In innumerable denunciation meetings he became atrociously mistreated, paraded around town with posters around his neck. Behind his torment was a woman, another party official who made her way up through intrigue and brutality. Jung’s father once turned down her advances in his youth when his wife was in the hospital giving birth. This woman, Madame Ting, used the Cultural Revolution to avenge herself for this rejection more than a decade earlier. Many times family members brought the father into the hospital, which in most cases still treated the ousted victims. After years of abuse he became mentally ill and turned his anger against his own wife. The children brought him into a mental hospital where he was treated for several months and restored to health. And then he was denounced again. He ended up as “capitalist roader” in a rural labor camp. Released in 1972 as a broken man, he died two years later.

We see in this story a certain schizophrenic approach to the treatment of the denounced party officials. Even during the time of their denunciation they still received their salaries and were treated in hospitals. It may be that Zhou Enlai was trying to prevent a complete collapse of Chinese society by Mao’s madness without openly opposing. Opposition would have meant his own destruction. Everything what was still functioning may have been due to some reason left in the administration directed by Zhou and his supporters. Jung Chang writes about Zhou: “Zhou had represented a comparative sane and liberal government that believed in making the country work. In the dark years of the Cultural Revolution, Zhou was our meager hope.”[2]

In September 1971 Lin Biao, second to Mao, died in a plane crash over Mongolia. The circumstances of his death are still unclear. His disappearance was declared a failed coup to oust Mao. Lin, a former brilliant military strategist, stays a controversial figure in Chinese history. He was a devout Mao supporter and instrumental in several purges against high officials, incuding an alliance with Madame Mao’s wrath during the Cultural Revolution. But apparently at the end Lin lost Mao’s favor. After his death Madame Mao launched the campaign “Criticize Lin. Criticize Confucius”, a new wave of denunciation attempts. This campaign was above all directed against the last stronghold of reason in the Party, Zhou Enlai.

II. The Death of the Two Communist Leaders Mao and Zhou Enlai in 1976

“The Last Perfect Revolutionary” Zhou Enlai[3]

There is no doubt that Zhou Enlai has earned in the eyes of history much higher regard than Mao himself. Born in 1898 into a highly educated family in Huai’an, Jiangsu, he was raised as a privileged youth with access to superior schools. He studied in Japan and Europe. Early on the suffering of his war-torn and exploited country awakened his political awareness and he excelled as a student organizer. To struggle against the warlords and against imperialism, and save China from extinction, became the objective of his early adult life. In the Twenties he spent years of study and organization work in France, Belgium, Britain and Germany. He opposed corruption and the exploitation of Chinese students as cheap labor in these countries. He studied Marxism and formed his mind in the communist ideology, well knowing that he broke with his own class and upbringing.

When he returned in 1924, he was a seasoned party organizer and took on the position of party secretary in Guangdong province. He received military training and led the crucial East Expedition against the warlords. The Kuomintang under General Chiang Kai-Shek cooperated with the Communists in the struggle against the warlords and later against the Japanese invasion. But they also fought each other brutally. Zhou developed enormous diplomatic and pragmatic skill to pursue China’s liberation and unification. He survived Chiang Kai-Shek’s communist purges and tried to cooperate whenever it was possible. “Chinese should not fight Chinese but a common enemy: the invader” was his directive. His pragmatic personality was also capable of dealing with the charismatic, but ruthlessly power oriented Mao in their common fight against the Kuomintang.

After half a century of war in China, the communists established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Right from the start through his death in January 1976, Zhou held the position of first Premier of the PRC. He was instrumental in building and administering the huge country and at the same time holding against Mao’s excesses.

The cosmopolitan Zhou Enlai also operated as China’s foreign minister from 1949 to 1958 and proved also in this area a diplomatic and moderate approach. Zhou still complied with too many of Mao’s whims, but he believed that his own survival guaranteed some reason and stability for the country. Mao was aware that he could not hold the country together without Zhou’s competence and administrative efficiency.

The Cultural Revolution, however, was a big blow to Zhou and again he was entangled into a struggle of life and death to survive. The group around Mao’s wife targeted Zhou as a hindrance for their vision of continuous revolution. The campaign “Against Lin and Confucius” was directed against Zhou Enlai who was considered the image of the noble administrator in the tradition of Confucius. Still, there was nobody to replace the efficient Zhou who prevented China from falling into chaos and famine.

It has to be said, however, that in times of turmoil like in China in the 20th century no leading figure is without blood on his hands. Zhou was not only complicit in Mao’s purges; he helped organize them. In 1934, at the start of the Long March, it was Zhou who decided who should be weeded out and left to the mercies of the enemy. In 1955 he gave the order to blow up a plane to flush out the Kuomintang agents on board. Zhou did not intervene when his adopted daughter was dragged off by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. She died of her beatings in prison.[4] As mentioned above, Zhou saw China’s survival dependant upon his own survival to prevent an even worse spiraling into violence and chaos.

In 1975 Zhou pushed for the “Four Modernizations” to undo some of the damages caused by unreason and destruction during the Cultural Revolution. He was farsighted enough to groom in time a capable and likeminded successor in Deng Xiaoping who himself had to survive the party purges, but finally succeeded in taking over power in 1978 and continuing Zhou’s pragmatic path for China.

Also in his private life, Zhou showed much more decency and nobility than Mao himself. His wife for life was Deng Yingchao whom he met when she was just 15 years old. The couple remained childless, but adopted a number of orphaned children of “revolutionary martyrs”. One of them was the future premier Li Deng.


[1] Chang Jung. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991, Page 275.

[2] Jung Chang, Wild Swans, Page 400.

[3] Term from his biography: Wengian Gao, Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, The facts from life and death of Zhou Enlai mostly from Wikipedia

[4] MacMillan, Margaret. Nixon and Mao. The Week That Changed the World. New York: Random House, 2007, Page 42.


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China From Cultural Revolution Emerging World Economy Thema China



Titel: China in the 1970s - From Cultural Revolution to Emerging World Economy