21 April 2019
Over the years, there has been a heated debate over the role of Premier Zhou Enlai (right) during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Some say Zhou was an accomplice while others say he was a victim of the movement, too. Photo:
Over the years, there has been a heated debate over the role of Premier Zhou Enlai (right) during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Some say Zhou was an accomplice while others say he was a victim of the movement, too. Photo:

Who were the other key players in the Cultural Revolution?

Mainland officialdom has issued orders to ban all forms of public discussion and commemorative activities concerning the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution.

Meanwhile, both the academic sector and the general public in Taiwan have remained indifferent to the topic.

As a result, Hong Kong has become probably the only city in the world that has held special events to look back on that political catastrophe.

On Jan. 8, the Chinese University Cultural Research Institute held a public seminar on the Cultural Revolution.

As the Voice of America put it, it was “the first and only public event in memory of the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution held on Chinese soil”.

Just two days before that seminar, dozens of professional academics and historians specializing in the study of the Cultural Revolution from the mainland, Hong Kong and the US, including myself, gathered at a round-table discussion on the subject at the institute.

Apart from prominent history and political science professors from Beijing University, Qinghua University and Nanjing University, also present at the discussion were Prof. Andrew G. Walder from Stanford University and Prof. Frank Dikotter from the University of Hong Kong, both of whom speak fluent Mandarin.

Among the topics for discussion at the round-table was Prof. Walder’s thesis titled Mao Zedong And The Gang Of Four, in which he thoroughly looked into the historical background against which Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, his motives, and the various forces that he relied on to achieve his goals throughout the movement.

According to Prof. Walder, the Central Cultural Revolution Group (CCRG) run by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and her Gang of Four, as well as Kang Sheng, Mao’s ideology and propaganda chief, played a pivotal role in executing Mao’s orders and purging the party of “pro-capitalist traitors”.

Even though the CCRG was in theory subordinate to the politburo, in reality it superseded both the politburo and the central committee to emerge as the de facto top decision-making organ in the country throughout the Cultural Revolution.

In the meantime, Minister of Defense Lin Biao and, to some extent, Premier Zhou Enlai, are also regarded by Prof. Walder as accessories to Mao’s sinister plot.

Prof. Walder’s thesis has undoubtedly provided an in-depth and comprehensive analysis of the roles played by the chief personalities mentioned above during the Cultural Revolution.

However, in my opinion, he might have overlooked three other categories of major players who had also played a significant role in helping Mao launch the movement and plot against the party moderates. They were:

1. Mao’s next of kin such as his nephew Mao Yuanxin and his daughters Li Min and Li Na;Editor’s note: between 1947 and 1948, Mao adopted a fake name known as Li Desheng in order to hide his true identity amid the nationwide manhunt against him mounted by the Kuomintang authorities. It was during that period that his two daughters were born. They adopted the fake family name “Li”. However, for some unknown reasons, the two didn’t re-adopt their true family name “Mao” after the communist victory.)

2. Mao’s female personal assistants who were also his de facto mistresses such as Zhang Yufeng;

3. Those who were steadfastly loyal to Mao but who were also dismayed at the ultra-left party line promoted by the Gang of Four, such as General Li Desheng and Mao’s personal security chief Wang Dongxing. These people were often referred to as the “third force”.

In fact, without the cooperation of the “third force”, the immediate arrest of the Gang of Four after Mao’s death in September 1976 would never have been possible.

On the other hand, the round-table discussion also touched on the controversial role of Premier Zhou Enlai during the Cultural Revolution.

Over the years there has been a heated debate over Zhou’s role in the movement.

While some insisted that his blind loyalty to Mao had made him an accomplice, others argued that he was actually a saviour in disguise, staying loyal to Mao on the surface but at the same time using his political influence whenever possible to spare tens of thousands of his comrades from political persecution and to minimize the damage upon society inflicted by the Red Guards.

It appears the academic sector is yet to reach a consensus on this highly polarizing issue.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 12

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ columnist

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