history | history

The End of Maoism

In 1972, while the American War was still on in Vietnam but President Nixon believed he was getting the US out of the war honorably, President Nixon was presenting himself to the American people as a man who wanted peace. His administration moved toward friendly relations with China. His Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, was to describe Nixon's motives as a "squeeze" on the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was aiding the Communist regime in Vietnam. There were fears of a growing Soviet influence in East Asia, and there were fears of China's influence on its neighbors. Some strategy-minded people saw Nixon's move to friendly relations with China as a wedge between the Soviet Union and China. There was the hope that friendship with China would increase pressure on the Communist regime in Vietnam to negotiate to more to the liking of the Nixon administration.

But from early in his presidency Nixon had aimed at a long-term stability in Asia. Nixon has been described as resigned to the fact that China would inevitably emerge from isolation and that this opening would be a long process. After China's cultural revolution collapsed and Mao had lost much of his influence within China's Communist Party, Nixon decided that it was time to try normalizing relations with a post-Mao generation of leadership.

The extreme right represented by the John Birch Society was opposed. A California Congressman, John Schmitz, said he wasn't opposed to President Nixon going to China, that he just didn't want him returning to the US. A Birch Society statement declared:

The John Birch society feels that the United States government should not fraternize with a criminal government that murdered between thirty-four and sixty-three million Chinese citizens to consolidate its power. To treat these barbarians as a legitimate government equals, to have the President of the United States meet them as equals and to accept them as rulers of the Chinese people president, is a betrayal of all that the United States represents.

Americans in general have been described as stunned by his announcement in July 1971 that he would be going to China. The public viewed him as solidly anti-Communist. But rather than offended, many seemed to see the move as an interesting change. Perhaps it was easier for Nixon to do than a liberal Democrat who had a soft-on-communism image to be concerned about. The public appears to have supported Nixon's move. Nixon in 1972 was running for re-election. His visit was for one week in late February. In November, he won re-election with 60.7 percent of the vote. One of his opponents was John Schmitz, running on the American Party ticket. He won 1.47 percent of the vote.

When meeting with the Chinese, President Nixon and Mao (still officially Chairman Mao) exchanged pleasantries. Mao was 79 and suffering from Parkinson's disease. Nixon told Mao that his writings had moved China and "changed the world." Mao replied that he had been able to change "only a few places around Beijing."

Throughout the week the President and his most senior advisers engaged in substantive discussions with the PRC, while First Lady Pat Nixon toured schools, factories and hospitals in a few big cities. The visit ended with the Shanghai Communiqué, a diplomatic document issued by the US and China. It pledged that it was in the interest of all nations for the United States and China to work towards the normalization of their relations. The US and China agreed that neither they nor any other power should "seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region". Regarding Taiwan, the US acknowledged that there was one China and agreed to cut back military installations on Taiwan. And the communiqué spoke of included a desire to expand economic and cultural contacts.

Mao died in 1976. A week of mourning was declared. The Soviet Union sent no condolences. Mao's ally, Lin Biao, had died in 1971, a year before Nixon's visit. In keeping with the Party's rejection of the Cultural Revolution, Lin had been declared a "renegade and a traitor." Some had found fault with Mao for having praised him, wondering how a man who was supposed to be wise had been so wrong. After Mao's death, conflicts continued within the Party. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, favored belligerence toward the capitalist powers, her hostility having been apparent to President Nixon during his visit. It appears that Jiang Qing and her associates, eventually to be known as the Gang of Four tried to gain power. They managed to have the prominent Party member Deng Xiaoping, who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution, purged again.

It was a more widely accepted leader, Hua Guofeng, who became the new Party chairman, in October 1976. It is said that Hua won the Army over to his side. Deng Xiaoping was restored again and became one of Hua's deputies. On 6 October 1976, Hua had the four leading radicals and a number of their lesser associates arrested. They were branded as a "counter-revolutionary clique." Jiang Qing acquired throat cancer and was to commit suicide in 1991 by hanging herself in a hospital bathroom.

Chairman Guofeng in 1976 had made a play toward compromise by announcing his plan to "obey whatever Mao had said" and to continue "whatever [Mao] had decided." Across China, Hua Guofeng's policy became known derisively as the "two whatevers."

On January 1, 1979, the United States changed its diplomatic recognition of the Chinese government from Taipei in Taiwan to Beijing China.

Hua Guofeng's standing within the Party faded, and in 1981 he voted out of his various positions. That year, the "capitalist roader" Deng Xiaoping would become the Party Chairman.

It would be under Deng Xiaoping that the troubles in Tiananmen Square would erupt, in 1989. From her prison Jiang Qing, two years before her death, blamed the protests on Deng Xiaoping, writing that "He let in all those Western ideas." Troubles escalated to the point that Deng believed that civil war and another Cultural Revolution was in the making. He had little patience for the youthful purism and dogmatism that he had suffered through during the Cultural Revolution, and believing with his colleagues that China needed stability above all else, the army was sent in and ended the demonstrations.

CONTINUE READING: Brezhnev and Economic Decline

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.