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Robert M. Liu

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A Bit of History to Illustrate the Role of China's Military
by Robert M. Liu   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Thursday, October 13, 2005
Posted: Sunday, October 09, 2005

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There were signs that Mao controlled only part of the military, not the entire military, and that it was years before his death that he lost control of the military altogether, which made it possible for changes for the better to occur afterwards. I will try to establish the time of Mao losing control later in this article.

A Bit of History to Illustrate the Role of China's Military

-- by Robert M. Liu

In the late 1940s, shortly before Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Government in Nanking collapsed, the official figure on China's population was 450 million. Then came the victorious Communists led by Mao Zedong who founded The People's Republic of China in the Chinese mainland in 1949, as the Nationalists (also known as the Kuomintang or KMT) fled to Taiwan and continued to rule the island in the name of The Republic of China.

By the late 1950s, the population in the Chinese mainland had grown to 600 million. Today, China boasts a population of 1.3 billion, not including the 23 million residents in Taiwan.

These alarming population growth data suggest that whoever is in charge in Beijing has an enormous responsibility to ensure sustained economic growth so as to feed the country's huge population and that should anything go wrong with the economy, it is likely to trigger serious controversy between the Marxist ideologues and the pragmatic moderates in the ruling Communist Party of China (the CPC).

The thing is that politicians in any country have different opinions on how to maintain sustained economic growth. Take America as an example. The supply-side economists of the Republican Party hold that lower tax rates plus deregulation (i.e. less unfriendly regulation) for businesses (i.e. the suppliers of goods and services) will help maintain sustained economic growth.

Whereas the left-leaning Democrats believe that higher taxes on "the rich", punitive regulations for business, higher minimum wages, generous welfare programs and labor protections will bring prosperity -- despite the fact that years of experiment in Germany with exactly such measures have led to high unemployment and economic stagnation. Apparently, there are people who confuse ideological wishful thinking with sound economic theory.

[By the way, in case you don't know, to raise the minimum wage is actually an effective way to create artificial inflation, since the costs of minimum wage increases will have to be passed on to consumers. Besides, an increase in the minimum wage from US$5 and change to US$7 and change as the Democrats demand would artificially drive up the relative value of a minimum-wage earner's services, as opposed to, say, the services of a nurse or a doctor or a politician, thereby distorting the relative value of the latter's services. Before long, the latter would come to demand wage increases too, and the costs would have to be passed on to consumers.]

In 1950s China, Mao's Socialist economic policies were strictly based on Marxist ideology: agricultural collectivization and industrial nationalization. In 1958, Mao, who was chairman of the CPC's Central Committee, state president, and chairman of the CPC's Central Military Commission, launched a drive to establish People's Communes in rural areas, forcing peasants to form into Production Teams. In consequence, peasant households lost accountability and incentive. Soon a countrywide famine set in, causing the unnatural death of an estimated 30 million people.

In the meantime, Mao called for a Great Leap Forward (i.e. a big increase) in industrial production. In response to his call, state-run enterprises built new industrial production capacities, boosting output at an incredible pace. Unfortunately, they turned out large quantities of substandard products for which there was no market demand. The Great Leap Forward thus led to a great waste of resources.

One of the CPC's high-ranking officials took it upon himself to investigate the status of China's economy though he was not an economist. It was Peng Dehuan, one of the ten field marshals of the People's Liberation Army (the PLA) and the minister of national defense. In summer of 1959, Marshal Peng Dehuan submitted the result of his investigation to the Central Committee of the CPC, criticizing the dire consequences of Mao's People's-Commune-and-Great-Leap-Forward drive.

For this, Peng Dehuan was fired as minister of national defense. Mao would not tolerate anyone of questionable loyalty staying in that important position. The man replacing Peng Dehuan as minister of national defense was Lin Biao, also one of the ten field marshals of the PLA. As Mao's close ally, the new minister of national defense soon started a campaign to study Mao's writings in the military, which later would lead to a nationwide cult of "Great Leader Chairman Mao".

Unable to clear up the mess created by himself, Mao now had no choice but to resign his position as state president and let the moderates assume the responsibility to fix the economy, while remaining as party chairman and chairman of the CPC's Central Military Commission. This way, he managed to stay in control of the military through his close ally, Marshal Lin Biao.

At the time, the moderates included Premier Zhou Enlai, the new state president Liu Shaoqi, and general secretary Deng Xiaoping, who would later become China's paramount leader and launch his world-famous market-oriented economic reforms.

In those days, the top job in the CPC was party chairman, not general secretary. The general secretary was supposed to take orders from the party chairman. But by the mid-1960s, Mao was aware that control of the party machine had slipped out of his hand. In other words, provincial CPC committee officials were taking orders from the moderates, not from Chairman Mao.

In order to regain control, the Great Leader launched his infamous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in spring of 1966 with the help of his close ally Marshal Lin Biao, who had been Mao's point man to see to the military.

The Cultural Revolution caused millions of people to be persecuted, including state president Liu Shaoqi who was tortured to death, general secretary Deng Xiaoping who was paraded and humiliated in public, and a number of PLA generals. In addition, a large number of provincial CPC committee officials were ousted because of their ties to the moderates in the central government and the Central Committee of the CPC.

Now, the question is: Was Great Leader Chairman Mao really in control of the military?

On the surface, yes, he was until he died in September 1976. Without the support of at least part of the military, Mao could not have started his Cultural Revolution to purge the Communist Party machine.

But there were signs that the Great Leader controlled only part of the military, not the entire military, and that it was years before his death that he lost control of the military altogether, which made it possible for favorable major events (and changes for the better) to occur afterwards. I will try to establish the time of Mao losing control later in this article.

Three years into the Cultural Revolution, it became clear that the Chinese economy was about to collapse because many of those capable of running the economy had been ousted. In the meantime, if Mao had been successful in purging the party machine, he and his close ally Lin Biao had apparently met with tough resistance in purging the military.

In those days, there were eight major Military Regions in China. In each Military Region, there was a Military Region Command. In theory, the Commander of a Military Region was supposed to take orders from the CPC's Central Military Commission, of which Mao and his close ally Lin Biao were chairman and vice-chairman respectively.

But apart from Mao and Lin Biao, there were other powerful and very much respected figures on the Central Military Commission, such as Premier Zhou Enlai and Marshal Ye Jianying, another well-known moderate. From whom the Commanders of the Military Regions were taking orders during the Cultural Revolution was anybody's guess. They might have taken orders from Premier Zhou Enlai and Marshal Ye Jianying, rather than from Mao's close ally Lin Biao.

In early autumn of 1969, the CPC held its 9th Congress, which "elected" Mao's close ally Lin Biao vice-chairman of the CPC's Central Committee -- heir apparent to Great Leader Chairman Mao. In this manner, Mao and his radical left-wing followers declared victory. In fact, it was a Pyrrhic victory for them, and soon they would have to pay dearly.

In my judgment, sometime between the close of the CPC's 9th Congress in September of 1969 and the 2nd Plenary Session of the 9th Central Committee of the CPC in summer of 1970, both Mao and his close ally Lin Biao became aware that they had lost control of the military as the Commanders of the Military Regions were ignoring their orders.

According to a book published in China in the 1990s, entitled "The Romance of The People's Republic of China", during the run-up to the 2nd Plenary Session of the 9th Central Committee of the CPC, Mao repeatedly hinted that he would not assume the post of state president. And yet, at the 2nd Plenary Session of the 9th Central Committee of the CPC, his close ally Lin Biao insisted that the Great Leader should be state president.

Thus, there were signs of differences of opinion between the Great Leader and Lin Biao. Then, in early October of 1970 during the celebration of the 21st anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, Mao told his guest, American writer Edgar Snow, that he found the title "Great Leader" and individual cult disgusting.

Since it was Lin Biao who had created the cult of Great Leader Chairman Mao in the military (no doubt with Mao's consent), for Mao to call the Mao cult disgusting was a clear indication that the Great Leader was trying to distance himself from Lin Biao. The question is: why?

In my opinion, it was because Mao knew very well that his close ally Lin Biao had lost control of the military, that by extension he himself had also lost control of the military, and that if he did not distance himself from Lin Biao, he would fall into disgrace as well. To save his own skin, the Great Leader had to create signs of differences of opinion between himself and Lin Biao.

One year later in October 1971, the Chinese public was told that Lin Biao had died in a plane crash in the People's Republic of Mongolia as he and his family were fleeing from China in September 1971 after his unsuccessful attempt on the life of Chairman Mao. Sounds like a tale from Arabian Nights to me.

What really happened to Lin Biao in September 1971 was a mystery. What became clear to the public was that after the September 1971 incident, Mao's physical condition quickly deteriorated - - an indication that the Great Leader was not optimistic about his own political future.

Soon, good news for the country began to emerge. First, in late 1971, the Chinese government announced that U.S. president Richard Nixon would visit China the following year. It was a signal that China was ready to open its door to the outside world. But who had made that decision? Great Leader Chairman Mao or the moderates led by Premier Zhou Enlai?

At the time, the Chinese public was made to believe that it was Mao who had decided to normalize China's relations with the United States because China was under pressure from the Soviet Union.

In retrospect, I believe that it was the moderates led by Premier Zhou Enlai who were calling the shots. Mao was only a sick old man with no choice but to agree to the moderates' decisions.

At heart, the Great Leader was unhappy, complaining to his wife, Jiang Qing, that the moderates were guilty of "capitulationism". Therefore, three years after Nixon's 1972 China visit, even as Premier Zhou Enlai's health began to suddenly deteriorate, Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, staged a left- wing comeback in the Chinese media, severely criticizing "capitulationism".

Now that the left-wing radicals no longer had the support of the military, they didn't dare categorically accuse Premier Zhou Enlai of capitulating to U.S. imperialism. Instead, they told the public that Chairman Mao recently had been critical of Song Jiang, the leading character in a popular ancient Chinese historical novel "Waterside" who eventually capitulated to the Song Dynasty (960--1279).

While Jiang Qing's media campaign did create the impression that the left-wing radicals still wielded enormous influences, it could not change the reality on the ground -- the Commanders of the Military Regions were now taking orders from the moderates. So, although the leader of the moderates, Premier Zhou Enlai, died at the beginning of 1976, the moderates were able to have Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and her left-wing colleagues arrested, as soon as Mao died in September 1976.

Today, as the pragmatic moderates of the ruling CPC try to improve U.S.-China relations and trade ties, they are apparently under pressure from the hardline ideologues in the CPC and the military who suggest that the moderates are too soft on "U.S. hegemonism".

Times have changed, and certain political terminologies may have changed too, though the meaning of "being soft on U.S. hegemonism" is not very far from that of "capitulationism". The determinant factor in Chinese politics, however, remains the same -- the military. Whoever controls the military calls the shots in Beijing.

October 8, 2005 

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