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CHINA: Comeback of a ‘Capitalist Reader’

5 minute read
TIME

Far from being over, the struggle to succeed Mao Tse-tung may have just begun. Most China watchers thought the battle for power had been settled—at least temporarily—when Hua Kuo-feng was named Party Chairman and then moved decisively to purge Mao’s widow Chiang Ch’ing and her radical “Gang of Four.” But widespread protests against the radicals’ purge have persisted in China (TIME, Jan. 10). Then came another mysterious shock. At ceremonies in Peking’s T’ien An Men Square marking the first anniversary of the death of Premier Chou Enlai, there were wall posters calling for the return to office of Chou’s discredited protege, ex-Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-p’ing, 73.

Potential Rival. In Hong Kong last week there were even rumors that Teng had actually been named Premier—the post he was expected to get after Chou’s death. If that was true—or even if Teng was on the comeback trail—Hua’s control of the government might be less secure than Sinologists had believed. Teng was not only the archenemy of Chiang Ch’ing’s radicals, who last year organized a massive press campaign against this “capitalist reader,” he was also a serious potential rival to Hua, who had denounced the tough, abrasive little bureaucrat for his “counterrevolutionary line.”

One of the first signs that Teng might be re-emerging as a political force came at a screening in Peking of a new documentary film titled Eternal Glory to Esteemed and Beloved Premier Chou; in the theater, a voice was heard reading the eulogy that Teng had delivered at Chou’s funeral. Then, as more than a million black-garbed Chinese surged into T’ien An Men Square, sobbing, singing the Internationale and taking oaths to Chou, posters began to appear demanding that Teng be named Premier. Soon the entire square seemed to be papered with posters—almost always the harbingers of policy changes—carrying an unmistakable message: WE WANT TENG HSIAO-P’ING TO BECOME PREMIER RIGHT AWAY; THERE IS NO NEED TO KEEP 800 MILLION PEOPLE WAITING; WITH TENG AS PREMIER, CHOU CAN REST IN PEACE. Other posters pointedly denounced the “slanderers” of Teng.

One of the slanderers was Hua, who is Premier as well as Party Chairman. He had held Teng responsible for the unprecedented riots that erupted in T’ien An Men Square last April, after an earlier commemoration ceremony for Chou. Mourners had become enraged when militiamen removed flower wreaths laid in his honor at the Monument to the Martyrs of the Revolution. According to some reports, over 1,000 people were arrested in connection with the outbreak of violence. The riots were originally condemned as counterrevolutionary acts provoked by Teng and his supporters. In some posters last week, though, the riots were hailed as “a brilliant page in the history of the Chinese Revolution.” The real culprits, the posters declared, were the people who forcibly put down the April demonstrations. These included the present mayor of Peking, Wu Teh, a close associate of Hua’s. Said one poster in T’ien An Men Square: THE CAPITAL’S 8 MILLION PEOPLE DO NOT TRUST WU TEH.

Teng’s resurrection would be something of a political miracle, since he has twice survived periods of official execration. A veteran of the Long March, he had an early, meteoric rise as a close comrade of Mao’s, but eventually tangled with the Chairman over agricultural policy. As party general secretary in the 1960s, Teng began backing away from Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, and presided over a moderate program of economic reform. His gruff, authoritarian style as well as his pragmatic approach annoyed the Chairman, who once complained that Teng treated him “like a dead ancestor.”

Retribution came during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-69. Teng was accused of many of the sins now attributed to Chiang Ch’ing. Denounced for his addiction to bridge, mah-jongg and all manner of high living, Teng was driven through the streets wearing a dunce cap while hordes of Red Guards screamed curses at him. He was stripped of his party posts, and disappeared for seven years.

Teng was the most notable of the discredited pragmatists whom Chou brought back to power in the early 1970s. Teng quickly acquired the jobs of Vice Premier, Politburo member, vice chairman of the party and chief of staff of the army. As Chou’s strength ebbed, he became Peking’s principal international spokesman. Most experts thought he would succeed Chou as Premier. Hua and the radicals—apparently with the blessing of the ailing Helmsman —blocked his way. A few months after Chou’s death he was dismissed from his jobs and vilified in the press. When Hua accused him of the crime of counterrevolution, he may only barely have escaped the fate promised him by wall posters that appeared in Shanghai last April saying: HANG THE CULPRIT TENG.

Speculation about Teng’s comeback was reinforced last week by the continued and conspicuous absence of Hua and his twelve-man Politburo, who did not attend the week-long ceremonies honoring Chou. Few analysts thought Hua had completely lost his grip, but many China watchers viewed his nonappearance as further evidence of a raging power struggle. Hua would certainly prefer to see the premiership go to an ally or a subordinate with less ambition than Teng, like Vice Premier Li Hsien-nien. If Teng succeeds in becoming Premier, Hua would probably remain as Chairman. But in the face of Teng’s determination and drive, Hua might conceivably be reduced to filling only such ceremonial functions as greeting foreign dignitaries. Indeed, his only public action since Teng reappeared on the scene has been to confer with visiting Communists from Honduras.

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