The previous articles to this series are as follows –

Part 1 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 1

Part 2 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 2

Part 3 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 3

Part 4 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 4

Part 5 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 5

Part 6 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 6

Mao confronts Peng

By turns humble, rambling, introspective, egotistical, sarcastic, and downright intimidating, Mao confronted his chief critic, Peng Dehuai:

Now that you’ve said so much, [Mao began,] let me say something … People say we’ve become isolated from the masses, but the masses still support us … [Some comrades] are wavering. They [pay lip service], affirming that the Great Leap and the people’s communes are good and correct. But we must see on whose side they [really] stand. I would advise them not to waver at this crucial point in time. [Their] brinkmanship is rather dangerous. If you don’t believe me, [just] wait and see what happens.

Having said this, Mao paused for effect. Casting his gaze in the general direction of a group of top PLA generals seated in the conference hall, he laid down the gauntlet: “If the People’s Liberation Army won’t follow me,” he said, “then I will go down to the countryside, reorganize the Red Army guerrillas, and organize other People’s Liberation Army.”

Pausing yet again for effect, he continued: “But I think the Army will follow me.” At that point, several Chinese generals stood up and shouted their pledges of allegiance to Mao.

When Mao finished speaking, Peng Dehuai’s famously short temper erupted. He accused Mao of despotism, comparing him to Stalin in his later years; and he warned that “if the Chinese peasants were not so patient, we’d have another Hungary [on our hands].”

The gloves were off, and Mao now responded in kind, accusing Peng of being a rightist, of sabotaging the people’s democratic dictatorship, and of attempting to organize an opposition faction within the Communist Party.

Things turned even uglier when Mao attempted to cut short the defence minister’s retort, at which point Peng angrily reminded the chairman of a quarrel they had had two decades earlier, during the anti-Japanese War. The defence minister had overplayed his hand. Several key leaders who had initially been inclined to endorse his criticism of the Great Leap, including such senior figures as Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, and Marshal Zhu De, now backed off, intimidated by the chairman’s display of full-bore combativeness. Mao had won.

Peng is sacked

In the days that followed, no one ventured to speak out in Peng Dehuai’s defence. At Mao’s initiative, Peng and his small inner circle of supporters, including the PLA chief of staff/ Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Zhu De, deputy foreign minister Zhang Wentian, and Mao’s own longtime personal secretary Tian Jiaying, were officially charged with having formed an ‘anti-party clique’, and they were subjected to varying degrees of punishment. Peng himself was stripped of his post as defence minister and placed under house arrest in Beijing.

Zhang Wentian, a party veteran, a Politburo member, and General Secretary of the Party during 1935-1943, was outspoken in his criticism of Mao. Peng, Zhang and other critics were branded ‘rightists‘ and ‘counter-revolutionaries‘ and were purged after the Lushan conference. Zhang was accused of having ‘illicit relations with a foreign country, which meant the Soviet Union, and buckets of sewage water were poured over his head as he was ordered to confess his mistakes.

The lessons of Peng Dehuai’s abject defeat at the hands of Mao were not lost on anyone in the party’s leadership circle: First, it was clearly safer to err on the side of leftism than on the side of rightism. And second, despite Mao’s open invitation to his colleagues to speak out freely and openly, challenging the chairman could be extremely hazardous to one’s political health. As a senior Chinese diplomat put it, “After Lushan, the whole party shut up. We were all afraid to speak out.”

Mao denounced Peng (who came from a poor peasant family) and his supporters as “bourgeois“, and launched a nationwide campaign against “rightist opportunism“. Peng was replaced by Lin Biao, who began a systematic purge of Peng’s supporters from the military. He was immediately removed from all party and state posts and placed in detention until his death during the Cultural Revolution.

From that time, Mao regarded any criticism of his policies as nothing less than a crime of lèse-majesté, meriting exemplary punishment. The old marshal Zhu De, founder of PLA, had tried to protect Peng at Lushan by criticising him only mildly. That was enough for Mao, and Zhu was dismissed from his post as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The CCP studied the damage which was done at conferences it held in 1960 and 1962, especially at the “Seven Thousand Cadres Conference“. Mao did not retreat from his policies; instead, he blamed problems on bad implementation and “rightists” who opposed him.

Though few spoke up at Lushan in support of Peng, a considerable number of the top leaders sympathized with him in private. Almost immediately, in 1960, Mao began building an alternative power base in the People’s Liberation Army, which the new defence minister, Lin Biao, had set out to turn into a “great school of Mao Zedong Thought.” At about the same time, Mao began to denounce the emergence, not only in the Soviet Union but also in China itself, of “new bourgeois elements” among the privileged strata of the state and party bureaucracy and the technical and artistic elite. Under those conditions, he concluded, a “protracted, complex, and sometimes even violent class struggle” would continue during the whole socialist stage.


Peng was brought to Beijing in chains, in 1966

Thus the effects on the upper levels of government and the Party in response to the disaster were complex, with Mao purging Peng Dehuai, temporary promoting Lin Biao, Liu Shaoqi, and Deng Xiaoping, and Mao himself losing some power and prestige following the Great Leap Forward, which led him to launch the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Peng lived in virtual obscurity until 1965, when the reformers Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping supported Peng’s limited return to government, developing military industries in Southwest China. In 1966, following the advent of the Cultural Revolution, Peng was arrested by Red Guards. From 1966–1970, radical factions within the Communist Party, led by Lin Biao and Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, singled out Peng for national persecution, and Peng was publicly humiliated in numerous large-scale struggle sessions and subjected to physical and psychological torture in organized efforts to force Peng to confess his “crimes” against Mao and the Communist Party.

In 1970, Peng was formally tried and sentenced to life imprisonment, and he died in prison in 1974. After Mao died in 1976, Peng’s old ally, Deng Xiaoping, emerged as China’s paramount leader. Deng led an effort to formally rehabilitate people who had been unjustly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and Peng was one of the first leaders to be posthumously rehabilitated, in 1978.

( To be continued in the next article…………….)

Courtesy – Hamlet in Monsoon

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