Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Death of Mao by Frank Dikotter


Natural catastrophes, according to the imperial tradition, are harbingers of dynastic change. On the early morning of 28 July 1976, a giant earthquake struck Tangshan, a coal city on the Bohai Sea just over 150 kilometers east of Beijing. The scale of the devastation was enormous. At least half a million people died, although some estimates have placed the death toll at 700,000.

In the summer of 1974, seismographic experts had predicted the likelihood of a very large earthquake in the region within the next two years, but owing to the Cultural Revolution, they were hopelessly short of modern equipment and trained personnel.

Few preparations were made. Tangshan itself was a shoddily built city, with pithead structures, hoist towers and conveyor belts looming over ramshackle, one-story houses. Below ground there was a vast network of tunnels and deep shafts. In one terrible instant, a 150 kilometer-long fault line ruptured beneath the earth, inflicting more damage than the atomic bombs dropped on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Asphalt streets were torn asunder and rails twisted into knots. The earth moved with such lightning speed that the ides of the trees in the heart of the earthquake zone were singed. Some houses folded inwards, others were swallowed up. Roughly 95 percent of the 11 million square  meters of living space in the city collapsed.

As soon as the tremor subsided, a freezing rain drenched the survivors, blanketing the city in a thick mist mingled with dust of crumbled buildings. For an hour Tangshan remained shrouded in darkness, lit only by flashes of fire in the rubble of the crushed houses. Some survivors burned to death, but many more were asphyxiated. ‘I was breathing the ashes of the dead,’ one victim, then a boy age twelve, remembered.

Death was everywhere. ‘Bodies dangled out the windows, caught as they tried to escape. An old woman lay in the street, her head pulped by flying debris. In the train station, a concrete pillar had impaled a young girl, pinning her to a wall. At the bus depot, a cook had been scalded to death by a cauldron of boiling water.’

The earthquake could not have struck at a worse moment. Beijing was paralyzed by the slow death of the Chairman, surrounded by doctors and nurses in Zhongnanhai. Mao felt the quake, which rattled his bed, and must have understood the message. Many buildings in the capital were shaken violently, overturning pots and vases, rattling pictures on the wall, shattering some glass windows. Many residents refused to return to their homes, sleeping on the pavements under makeshift plastic sheets until the aftershocks subsided. Instead of broadcasting the news, some neighborhood committees turned on the loudspeakers to exhort the population to ‘criticize Deng Xiaoping and carry the Cultural Revolution through to the end.’ The insensitivity of the authorities to the plight of ordinary people caused widespread anger.

It was weeks before the military authorities, hampered by lack of planning, poor communication and the need to receive approval for every decision from their leaders in Beijing, responded effectively. The rescue was strategic. Tangshen was  a mining powerhouse that could not be abandoned, but villagers in the surrounding countryside were left to cope alone. Offers of aid from foreign nations – search teams, helicopters, rescue equipment, blankets and food – were rejected flatly by Hua Guofeng, who used the opportunity to assert his own leadership and suggest national self-confidence. Lacking professional expertise and adequate equipment, the young soldiers relied on muscle power to pull some 16,000 people from the ruins, a fraction of those recovered earlier by the victims themselves. The People’s Liberation Army covered tens of thousands of bodies with bleaching powder and buried them in improvised graveyards outside the city. No national day of mourning was announced. The dead were hardly acknowledged.

A few minutes past midnight on 9 September 1976, the line on the monitor went flat. It was  one day after the full moon, when families traditionally gathered to could their blessings at the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Jan Wong, a foreign student who had arrived at Peking University in 18972, was cycling to class when she heard the familiar chords of the state funeral dirge [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLb-bVTfkEI] on the state broadcasting system. The usually strong voice of Central Broadcasting was now full of sorrow. Other cyclists looked shocked, but not sad. In the classroom, her fellow students were dry-eyed, busy making paper chrysanthemums, black armbands and paper wreaths. ‘There were no gasps or  tears, just a sense of relief.’ It was a stark contrast with the outpouring of grief at the premier’s death nine months earlier.(Zhou Enlai was considered a ‘moderate’, a restraining influence on the worse excesses of the Cultural Revolution though he always obeyed  Mao).

In schools, factories and offices, people assembled to listen to the official announcement. Those who felt relief had to hide their feelings This was the case with Jung Chang, who for a moment was numbed with sheer euphoria.
 All the people around her wept. She had to display the correct emotion or risk being singled out. She buried her head in the shoulder of the woman in front of her, heaving and snivelling.

She was hardly alone in putting on a performance. Traditionally, in China, weeping for dead relatives and even throwing oneself on the ground in front of the coffin was a required demonstration of filial piety. Absence of tears was a disgrace to the family. Sometimes actors were hired to wail loudly at the funeral of an important dignitary, this encouraging other mourners to join in without feeling embarrassed. And much as people had mastered the effort of effortlessly producing proletarian anger at denunciation meetings, some knew how to cry on demand.


People showed less contrition in private. In Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, liquor sold out overnight. One young woman remembered how her father invited his best friend to their homer, locked the door and opened the only bottle of wine they had. The next day, they went to a public memorial service where people cried as if they were heartbroken. ‘As a little girl, I was confused  by the adults’’ expressions – everybody looked so sad in public, while my father was so happy the night before.’

Still, some people felt genuine grief, in particular those who had benefited from the Cultural Revolution. And plenty of true believers remained, especially among young people. Ali Xiaoming, a twenty-two-year-old girl eager to enter the party and contribute to socialism, was so heartbroken that she wept almost to the point of fainting.

But in the countryside, it seems, few people sobbed. As one poor villager in Anhui recalled, ‘not a single person wept at the time.’

The state funeral in Tiananmen Square on 18 September was the last public display of unity among the leaders before the big showdown. Even as the Chairman’s body was being injected with formaldehyde for preservation in a cold chamber beneath the capital, different factions were jockeying for power. The Gang of Four controlled the propaganda machine, and cranked up the campaign against ‘capitalist roaders.’ But they had little clout within the party, an no influence over the army. Their only source of authority was now dead, and public opinion was hardly on their side. With the exception of Jing Qing, their power bas was in Shanghai, a long way from the capital where all the jousting for control took place.

Most of all, they underestimated Hua Guofeng  [pictured above with Mao],. A were two days after Mao’s death, the premier quietly reached out to Marshal Ye Jianying, by now in charge of the Ministry of Defense. He also contacted Wang Dongxing, Mao’s former bodyguard who commanded the troops in charge of the leadership’s  security. On 6 October, less than a month after the Chairman’s death, a Politburo was called to discuss the fifth volume of Mao’s Selected Works. Members of the Gang of Four were arrested one by one as they arrived at the meeting hall;. Madam Mao, sensing a trap, stayed away, but was arrested at her residence.

After the official announcement on 14 October, firecrackers exploded all night. Stores sold out not only of liquor, but  of all kinds of items, including ordinary tinned food, as people splurged to celebrate the downfall of the Gang of Four. ‘Everywhere, I saw people wandering around with broad smiles and big hangovers,’ one resident recalled.

There were official celebrations too, ‘exactly the same kind of rallies as during the Cultural Revolution.’ In beijing, columns of hundreds of thousands of people waved huge banners denouncing the Gang of Four Anti-Party Clique.’ A mass rally was held on Tiananmen on 24 October, as the leaders made their first appearance since the couop. Huas Gufeng, now anointed as chairman of the party, moved back and forth along the rostrum, clapping lightly to acknowledge the cheers and smiling beatifically, very much like his predecessor.

In shanghai, posters were plastered on buildings along the Bund up to a height of several storeys. The streets were choked with people exulting over the fall of the radicals. Nien Cheng was forced to join a parade, carrying a slogan saying ‘Down with Jiang Qing.’ She abhorred it, but many demonstrators relished the opportunity, marching four abreast with banners, drums and gongs.

The political campaigns did not cease. ‘Instead of attacking Deng, we now denounced the Gang of Four. Madame Mao and her three fanatical followers became scapegoats, blamed for all the misfortunes of the past ten years. Some people found it difficulty to separate Mao from his wife, but the strategy had its advantages. As one
erstwhile believer put it, ‘It is more comfortable that way, as it is difficult to part with one’s beliefs and illusions.’


Deng Xiaoping returned to power in the summer of 1977.

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