Tag Archives: Lin Biao

What Mao meant by “Left” and “Right”

How could Mao Zedong call the Chairman of the Communist Party, the President of the People’s Republic of China, and the Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China “Rightist,” while also labeling the Soviet Union “Rightist,” while confiding to Nixon that he trusted governments of Rightists more than governments of Leftists?

Because those terms meant different things to Mao than they mean to us.

The iconic picture from Tiananmen Square, showing the Goddess of Democracy starring at Chairman Mao Zedong, is often interpretted to show Democracy starring down Communism. Rather, the Goddess and the Chairman were two faces of what intellectualls in the square would have identified as Leftism: a belief in the spontaneous power of the people to organize amongst themselves for the common good when an oppressive regime has been removed.

Both the portrait of the Chairman and the statue of the Goddess were positioned along the Central Axis, or “Dragon Line,” of Beijing. While they face each other, they both look at right angles away from Zhongnanhai, a former imperial garden and public park where the Communist leadership lives and works. At the time of Tiananmen the party machinery was led by Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, two survivors from the old days fighting the KMT. Deng and Chen were two faces of what reflective officials in Zhongnanhai would have identified as Rightism: a belief in the importance of an educated bureaucracy to guide a people basically incompetent to look after themselves.

In the days before the Massacre the protesters showed classic signs of what Mao would have termed the people’s spontaneous energy



(If the liberated area of Beijing actually stretched to the Third Ring Road, as Wikileaks implies, this would have included all of non-suburban Beijing in 1989. The term ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’ may thus be as much of a misnomer as if the fall of 1871 Battle of Paris as the “Place de la Concorde Massacre'”)

Understanding that the Massacre was interpreted by all reflective individuals involved as a a Left/Right struggle is critical to understanding the 40 years that proceeded it, and the 22 since:

Under slogans such as “Down with one-party dictatorship!” and greatly aided by the KMT (full of spies, wildly corrupt, and distracted by the greatest purge in the history of 20th-century regimes), the Chinese Communist Party established “New China” in 1949. After referring itself to a time as simply the Republic of China, and then trying on Democratic People’s Republic of China, the new regime soon settled on calling itself the “People’s Republic of China.”

The Communists made many promises to gain power, and broke nearly all of them.

The regime was lead by its Chairman, Mao Zedong, with tremendous help from Returned Students (including Deng Xiaoping) and the Whampoa Clique (such as Lin Biao). Certainly highly-influential people, including Premier Zhou Enlai, acted as godfather to both factions. But 1949 China had not yet been purged of ideology, and both Left and Right tendencies were visible to Mao in the party.

Mao’s dilemma, as a Leftist, is that naive attempts to simply exterminate the bureaucratic class had failed as early in the Chinese Soviet Republic (1931-1937). The CSR’s attempt at Leftism failed for the same reason the first liberal Chinese Republic failed in the 1910s: material conditions had not created a sufficient number of liberals to lead the country in the 1910s, as it had not created a sufficient number of educated peasants to lead the CSR in the 1930s.

Mao’s struggle, from 1949 till his head, was to allow the Right to build up the State, the Military, and the Bureaucracy, to safeguard the development of the peasantry until the time they were able to spontaneously organize. Thus, Mao typically governed as a Rightist in order to build Leftism.

Mao’s right-hand man and nemesis, Zhou Enlai, had the opposite estrategy. Zhou’s great legacy was to rebuild the bureaucracy that had nearly been destroyed by a serious of revolutions following 1911. Mao needed Zhou as a Rightest leader to give the Leftist cohorts he was building up time to mature. Zhou needed Mao’s political power and cover to build a Rightist bureaucracy. Between the two of them they allowed 100 million Chinese to die, because neither was willing to abandon the other in their opposing quest to change China.

Mao’s first designated successor, Liu Shaoqi, was a Rightist whose prestige was greatly helped by Mao’s failed Left-wing shock, the Great Leap Forward. Unfortunately for Liu, he was one of the first victims of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s second designated successor, Lin Biao, spoke and agitated as a Leftist, while secretly believing in Rightism and governing as one, as well. Lin became one of the last victims of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s third designated successor, Wang Hongwen was a Leftist. He also was proof of Mao’s fear that the peasantry was not yet competent enough to govern. Wang was simply shoved aside due to general incompetence and political impotence, though he would be arrested, tried, and jailed (for a time) later following Mao’s death.

Mao’s fourth designated successor, Hua Guofeng, and Hua’s successor, Deng Xiaoping both attempted to straddle the Left-Right divide, but for different reasons than Mao.

Mao was a Leftist who used Rightists as tools. Hua was a harmless opportunitist whose only contribution was to promise to say whatever Mao would have said, and do whatever Mao would have done (really!). Deng, in contrast, viewed both the Left and Riught as tools to helping China stand up.

Deng, like Mao, was an earthy fellow. Both enjoyed shocking audiences, Mao with profanity and Deng with undiplomatic honesty. Both felt extremely comfortable granting and taking favor from former peasants. While Mao was a romantic who truly believed in the self-organizing ability of the people, however, Deng had traveled abroad and learned a much deeper lesson: being poor sucks. From watching his friends die at a French factory, to learning his father had to sell land to support his living experiences overseas, Deng keenly believed that China’s problem was not a distant bureacracy but grinding poverty.

Like Mao, Deng could attack the Bureaucrats when it suited him (and both called them “women with bound feet” at times). Like Mao, Deng could rely on Rightists to govern for him, or take away their power when it seemed to obstruct the economic power of the people. Unlike Mao, however, Deng lived without a romantic sensibility, and so could easily believe cases were disasterous levels of incompetence emerged from trusting the common people.

Deng’s lack of heart-felt Leftism lead him to be purged three times (and to the crippling of his son), but his usefulness as an attack-dog against bureaucrats, his focus on results, his ability to praise Mao as long as Mao lived, and his wide network of friends meant he was never permanently gone.

Mao used the right to built the Left, Zhou used the Left to build the Right, Deng used the Right and Left to build China.

In the present day, China has a Bureaucracy that runs the second-largest economy in the world. While it’s relative size is probably smaller than in ancient days, this is the greatest performance for the bureaucracy in China’s history since the Great Divergence.

Also in the present day, China has a population that is connected to the world and knowledgeable about it. While it’s relative freedom is probably smaller than during the Republic, this is the greatest performance for the people since the Nanjing Decade.

When I visit China I am struck by the admiration for Mao, Zhou, and Deng, though of the three only Zhou is considered to be perfect. Opinions on Mao range from “Mao is #1” to “Mao is Evil,” while Deng’s reputation is admiration for the economic miracle combined with sadness at the increase in crime, corruption, and class differences.

In both China and the West the terms “left” and “right” seem to originate with the idea that the “right” is in support of the ruling powers while the “left” is opposed. At the time these terms were first used, however, the sttaus quo in the West meant rich landowners whose origins traced to the feudal era, while in Chian the status quo meant the powerful bureaucracy. In both China and the United States the Left/Right divide relates to the citizen’s relation to power: in China Left therefore meant being opposed to the bureaucracy, while in the West Left meant being opposed to the rich or the socially normal.

Review of “The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan” by Jay Taylor

In The Microsoft Way, historian Randall Stross argues that the market for IBM-compatible PC software in the 1980s and 1990s was contested by two competent companies, Microsoft and Inuit, and a train load of incompetent competitors. While most entrants to that market got lucky once or twice, and rode that cash cow as long as it could, Microsoft and Intuit were able to execute short-term tactics and long-term strategies. If such a view can be transplated to Chinese history, the Chinese Civil War was a multi-way battle with a large number of incompetent, violent and lucky competitors, and three factions actually capable of both winning and ruling

The Returned Students

The Whampoa Clique

The Youth Corps

In this view of history, the fight for China was not between Chiang Kaishek and Mao Zedong, two lucky competitors, but by these three interlocking factions which used allegience to Chiang or Mao as a way of deflecting charges of ambition. The first of these three factions, the Returned Students, were those who had earned a Continental education in the west, either from a study-abroad program in France or from Sun Yatsen University in Moscow. The second of these factions, the Whampoa Clique, where those who were faculty or students at the “West Point of China,” the Whampoa Military Academy in Canton City. The third of these factions, the Youth Corp, established as a cannibalizing agent, “in but not of” the KMT.

These three factions overlapped. Zhou Enlai, Mao’s second-in-command, was a Returned Student who taught at Whampoa. Chiang Chingkuo, Chiang’s second-in-command after the relocation to Taiwan, was a Returned student who was the Vice Chairman of the Youth Corps.  These factions even overlap with my own life — my wife’s grandfather studied at Whampoa.

These three factions, like Microsoft and Intuit, shared a focus on a high-quality work force. The active members of these three organizations during their youth were young men who wanted to make a difference and despised corruption. It is easy to forget that Zhou Enlai was only 30 when he met a much younger Chiang Chingkuo in Moscow, and told him to tone down his criticizing   father, because it was unbecoming of a son. It is easy to forget that Lin Biao was only 27 during the Long March. It is even easier not to know that Ching Chungkuo, as director of Taiwan’s security services, warned Zhou Enlai of an upcoming attempt on his life — and that Zhou Enlai seemingly did not inform Mao of this. While most factions in the civil war — the Kwantung Army, the Left KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Army, and others were to varying extents patriots of their cause, only these three were able to generate the high internal cohesion among young men required to revolutionary China.

My first reaction on reading The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan was that the 20th century was simply one long tragedy. So easily, so many things could have gone so much better. What if Chiang had given Zhou Enlai the freedom at Whampoa that he later gave that other Communist, Chiang Ching-kuo? What if General Stillwell, who despised Chiang and helped lead American public opinion against the KMT, and met the up-and-coming Chingkuo (who substantively agreed with him on every important issue)? What if, what if?

But to do so, I think, ignores the utter chaos that befell China twice: after the fall of the Benedict Arnold of China, and after the Japanese Invasion.While a unified front would have been better, the emergence of three competent factions (composing a total of, say 100 able individuals) was a miracle in itself. That the old men of the east were stuck in the poetic worlds of Confucius and the Water Margin, and thus their attempts to modernize China were poisoned by a lethal dose of corruption and internal violence, is perhaps not as notable as the men they had around them.

The difference between Kaishek and Zedong was not their military strategy (both were adherents of the Strategic Retreat), their cosmology (Mao famously scored Zero Points on the mathematics portion of his college entrance exam; Chiang Kaishek famously expressed astonishment that Burma had a rainy season that would interfer with military operations), their management style (“working toward the Chairman,” allowing them to capture all glory and escape all blame), or their willingness to betray their followers. Rather, the difference was this: Chiang was capable of trust, Mao was not. As they reached the age when succession planning became increasingly important: Chiang turned Taiwan over to the men of the Youth Corps.  Mao turned on the Returned Students and the Whampoa Clique in a holocaust of violence.

Sun Yatsen, the (theoretically) Hawaiian-born first President of China, had this has his political motto: That a government of the people, by the people, and for the people should be established in China. Through this Youth Corps, Taiwan finally realized these Three People’s Principles through the integration of the Mainland and Taiwanese political elites, economic development, and last through democracy. A government “by the people” was established on Taiwan in stages, from the lifting of Martial Law in 1987, the legalization of a free press in 1988, the first fair elections to the Legislative Yuan in 1992, the first direct Presidential election in 1996, the first election of an opposition President in 2000, and the democratic return to power of the previously ruling party in 2008. Perhaps China, now firmly ruled by those given positions by the Returned Students and the Whampoa Clique, will soon begin on this last, trickiest path.

Jay Taylor’s The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan is an excellent book, and a worthy “prequel” to Taylor’s more recent book, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China. But just as that book does not stand alone, this does not either. Taylor’s biography of Kaishek should be read with Tuchman’s biography of General Stillwell, as otherwise the public declarations of America’s general in China that, if he were a young man, he would grab a gun and fight for Mao is inexplicable. In the same way, Taylor’s biography of Chingkuo must be read with Gao’s Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary to understand that the Youth Corps’ true competitors were not the incompetent and lucky, like the Soong Dynasty and the C-C Clique, but those on the other side of the Straits — the Returned Students and the Whampoa Clique.

The Microsoft-Intuit battle very nearly ended in 1995, after the leadership of the Microsoft and Intuit cliques agreed to a cash-and-stock buyout of Intuit by Microsoft. This was only averted through direct U.S. Government actions. The parallels to the possible near future are striking.