Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Nigel Harris

[Purge in China]

(Autumn 1966)

From The Notebook, International Socialism (1st series), No.26, Autumn 1966, p.7-8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Nigel Harris writes: The Spring purge of the Chinese Communist Party has left few clues as to its meaning, beyond being a further phase in the ‘socialist education campaign.’ After the disasters of 1960-61, the Party followed a policy of domestic conservatism and rehabilitation. The inevitable results of such conservatism were an increase in social stratification, and a tendency for privileged groups, Party cadres and army officers, to begin to express their privileges, to make their positions safe from central Party interference. To combat this, Pekin inaugurated in September 1962 the ‘socialist education campaign’ to attack deviations towards elitism it! the army, the Party and the intelligentsia. The best known features of this campaign included abolition of rank insignia in the army, despatch of urban intelligentsia, students and factory managers to rural districts to help with the harvest (a time of labour shortage in China’s otherwise labour surplus economy), and a purge of all works of literature, opera and the film. In July 1964, the campaign was intensified with the beginning of something called a ‘cultural revolution,’ and in September a Central Committee meeting decided to begin the attack on the Party’s most loyal intellectuals and most disciplined section, the Pekin Party. The public attack began in mid-November on Wu Han, historian and deputy mayor of Pekin. In January, a Pekin conference on Party work in the army reiterated many criticisms of senior officers for resisting Party control. The anti-Wu campaign lapsed, but was resumed on 3 April with renewed vigour; Wu was now accused of supporting Peng Te-huai, the former Minister of Defence purged in 1959 for criticising the Great Leap Forward. At this stage, many heads began to roll: Kuo Mo-jo, President of the Academy of Sciences; Ten T’o, editor up to 1960 of the People’s Daily, thereafter responsible for the Pekin Party’s Pekin Daily News and fortnightly Front Line; Hsia Yen, for nine years vice-Minister of Culture; Mao Tun, former Minister of Culture; Lu Ping, former deputy Minister of Railways and, since 1960, President of Pekin University; Chou Yang, deputy director CCP propaganda. The two highest people dismissed are P’eng Chen, Secretary of the Pekin Party since 1949, deputy secretary of the entire CCP, and formally ninth but effectively sixth within the CCP Politbureau; and Lu Ting-yi, Minister of Culture and CCP propaganda chief. However, the charge of ‘Rightism’ could not seriously be levelled at P’eng, a notoriously hard Maoist who was one of the leaders of CCP delegations to argue with the Russians when talking was still possible. The purge spread outwards. The Pekin Party was reorganised, its youth leaders replaced and three publications purged. Further purges followed in other major cities, concentrating on the Universities, education and propaganda departments, and press. Finally, the Party postponed the new University term for six months while it reformed admission procedures to raise the ‘proletariat’ content, even though in 1962, the Party claimed to have raised worker-peasant intake from 36 per cent in 1957 to 67 per cent.

Apart from P’eng, the target of the purge is clear, but there have been very diverse interpretations offered. One argues that Lin Piao, Defence Minister, has been purging the army for the past two years (his latest victim is said to be General Lo Jui-ching, Chief of Staff), preparatory to taking the Party over as Mao approaches death. The current purge in which the army paper, Liberation Army Daily, played a key role is seen as a prelude to this takeover – three army commanders have been appointed to key posts in the Politbureau regional offices, and two made vice-Ministers of Culture. Since Lin is very sick however, if the theory is to hold, there must be someone else doing the pushing. Others have seen the purge as evidence of grave disaffection in the Pekin Party or the universities, as a power bid by P’eng, or as Mao settling old scores before he dies. But in all cases, the theories have little more evidence than inspired guesswork.

More to the point is the evident need for the purge. Since 1961, the economy has been operated at relatively low capacity with only short-term conservative targets; Party control over the peasantry has been more relaxed, and financial incentives used to stimulate production. Neither the Third Five-Year Plan, originally scheduled for early 1963 but delayed till late 1965, nor any supporting information has yet been published, which suggests that conditions, undoubtedly better than 1961, have not improved so dramatically that figures would be anything but discreditable. Western and Russian estimates suggest total industrial output has not surpassed the 1958 claims; agricultural production may have kept pace with the 100 million population increase, but cannot have produced much surplus to invest in industry, especially given the diversion of resources and manpower to nuclear-weapon production. The social result of this relative standstill in development is that the privileged begin to act like a new ruling class, begin to resist Party demands to make the sort of social changes that increase production and stimulate mobility: the economy as a whole tends to relapse into its old inertia. Given that the limits of the economy prohibit for the moment real and dramatic changes (a second leap forward), the Politbureau can try to escape this tendency by campaigns specifically against the privileged strata, intelligentsia, Party cadres and army officers, and by focussing attention on the victories being won abroad.

However, the victories abroad are currently very thin. In Asia, the China axis has disappeared – Indonesia’s counter-revolution has destroyed the largest pro-China party in a non-Communist country; both North Korea and North Vietnam were tactfully absent in Moscow for the 23rd CPSU Congress, pulled by the sheer weight of Soviet economic resources, when China called its first world conference in Auckland, attended by Albania and fragments from Belgium, Australia and New Zealand. The flirtation with Pakistan has brought few concrete results – Pakistan remains centrally dependent on US aid, a member of SEATO and CENTO. In Vietnam, Pekin is trapped by its own military impotence, restricted to frustrated and purely verbal bellicosity while the US increases its military commitment with impunity and Russia extends concrete, if small, help to Hanoi. In the Middle East, Syria can likewise get more from Moscow (a new Aswan Dam in fact) than China; Egypt in December tried publicly 11 Communists accused of being paid by Pekin (the Chinese ambassador was tactfully absent). In Africa, despite China’s hasty recognition of Boumedienne (Albania attacked Ben Bella by name), Algeria remains out of China’s orbit; Ghana’s coup directly discredited China’s support for Nkrumah. Chinese diplomats have been drummed out of Burundi, Dahomey and Central African Republic for subversion. Only Brazzaville and Tanzania remain influenced, and in Tanzania’s case, at substantial cash cost – China promised 16 million pounds for Tanzania’s five year development plan, and in June gave a further two million pound interest-free loan and a one million pound grant, all of which has to be extracted from the sweat of the Chinese peasant. Finally, in Latin America, Cuba has publicly denounced China for cutting its rice exports and subverting the Cuban army – ‘this is not a matter of a few tons of rice,’ Castro maintained, ‘but of something far more important – whether in the world of tomorrow ... the world powers will keep to themselves the right to blackmail, submit to pressures and aggression, and strangle smaller powers, and whether they will also use the worst methods of piracy and oppression of Yankee imperialism.’ It is a long way from 1964 when China was chasing the Soviet Union hard. Neither diplomacy nor subversion nor straight bribery have been able to compete with Soviet power, and all three of the key powers on which China relied, Indonesia, Ghana and Cuba, have rejected it, a rejection symbolised in the collapse of the second Bandung congress last year and the trivial gains for China at January’s Havana tricontinental conference.

If intransigence abroad has so little success, how much greater is the need for ideological control at home, for increasing substitution of words for action (symbolised in Vietnam). Nove describes Stalinist economic campaigns as ‘among other things, a means of goading the goaders, of mobilising the controllers’ (The Soviet Economy, 1961, p.292) where the State, not the profit motive, is the growth-inducing agency. Chinese ideological ‘campaignology’ is the substitute for impossible economic campaigns: it prevents privileged groups using their position to root themselves firmly in their locality so that they can successfully resist the power of the Politbureau and create enclaves of independent power. But mere ideology only leads to cynicism after repetition; to add an edge, heads must fall, even if on the most ludicrous charges, and the higher the head, the more vivid the warning to everyone else. Wu Han should feel comforted, for even his sinfulness contributes to the power of the Party and China’s economic stability.

Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 17.12.2007