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The Death of Mao: personal histories of China's devastating year

James Palmer brings into sharp focus the tumultuous events that gave birth to a new China in 1976, including the death of the Cultural Revolution's "Great Helmsman" and the horrific devastation of the ruinous Tangshan earthquake.

The Death of Mao, by James Palmer.
The Death of Mao, by James Palmer.

There are many popular history books that portray societies at moments of triumph or disaster, or which diagnose their state of mind during periods of wrenching change. James Palmer's The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China does something less common. It captures a society harassed to the point of almost complete exhaustion.

Not that 1976 was an uneventful year in China. It saw the death of Mao Zedong, the country's absolute ruler, which followed hard on the death of his longtime sidekick, the chronically ambivalent but genuinely loved Premier Zhou Enlai. For another, it was the year in which the Tangshan earthquake killed more people in a comparatively small area of north-eastern China than died across Asia from the 2004 tsunami.

It was also the last year of the Cultural Revolution - the "10 years of chaos" unleashed on the population of China through Mao and his close associates' desire to engulf the whole of China in permanent revolution. It's difficult to get a grip on the consequences of that decision for the country as a whole without confirming the adage that one death is murder while a million is a statistic. Palmer does it, in part, by telling the story of the village of Niulang, where somebody inadvertently broke wind at a political meeting. This incident unleashed a dizzying spiral of authoritarian psychosis, until, Palmer writes, "the end result of one fart in a small village was 1,300 arrests, 32 executions and 263 people left permanently injured by torture".

One of the strengths of The Death of Mao is that it makes sense of events by concentrating on the personal and particular, so avoiding the Great Eventitis that tends to be an occupational hazard of books about China. Elsewhere in Palmer's account of the Cultural Revolution, we have the slogan "Long Live the Red Terror" written in human blood on the wall of a Beijing music conservatory; the poet Wen Jie, who committed suicide after falling in love with one of the Red Guards tormenting him and a boy from a "bad" family background, tied up in a sack and casually beaten to death by his schoolmates. He notes that swallowing pesticide was a favourite method of committing suicide simply because there was a lot of the stuff hanging around from a previous mass campaign to rid the country of vermin.

Against this background of essentially random, lethal violence, Red Guards mounted a comprehensive erasure of traditional pastimes, cultural practices and folk beliefs. In the name of attacking the "Four Olds", China's entire common culture was devastated.

The Red Guard movement itself was hopelessly split into warring factions, each redder than thou, all working to seize power in their localities. In 1968, two years after launching the movement, Mao called in the People's Liberation Army to end the chaos, disarming the revolutionary students and packing them off to the countryside. That did not signal the end of the Cultural Revolution as a whole. Instead, the chaos unleashed by the Red Guards was replaced by a rolling programme of political campaigns, as major power holders targeted factional enemies and the party as a whole purged its way back to a kind of equilibrium. Figures in the central leadership were usually the designated victims, but their fall would take thousands of others down with them through a viral application of the principle of guilt by association.

By 1976, this process was more or less accomplished. Permanent revolution had subsided into a daily grind of pointless meetings, rallies and ritual exhortation. The economy recovered somewhat: most people had just about enough to eat. In Beijing, though slowly succumbing to multiple chronic illnesses, Mao remained lucid enough to choose a successor, Hua Guofeng. Various factions circled around the throne, with nothing on their minds but the health of the Great Helmsman.

It was part of the evil genius of Mao and his cronies in the Gang of Four to recognise that the generally repressive nature of Communist Party rule had created a whole generation of disaffected youth, hardened by participation in previous campaigns against the stream of "enemies" identified by the party as part of its everyday practice of governance. Unlike most instances of state terror, the Cultural Revolution was not simply a matter of vertical oppression. It was also something that the Chinese people as a whole were induced and compelled to do to each other. As a result, it didn't just destroy the physical structure of Chinese economy and society, but also destroyed basic trust between individuals, with consequences that are still being felt today.

Tangshan suffered its share of madness as the supposed epicentre of the "East Hebei Spy Case", which involved a complex and entirely imaginary network of Japanese and British secret agents and saboteurs acting through Liu Shaoqi, China's former president and the "number one target" of the Red Guards. The scare originated directly from Chen Boda, a senior leadership figure and grey eminence behind the Cultural Revolution, who later cheerfully admitted that he made the whole thing up. "It was a crazy time and I was a crazy man," he said. Crazy indeed: almost 3,000 people were killed and another 763 people were maimed permanently by torture once the frenzy was over.

Yet in other respects, Tangshan could be considered fortunate. As China's "coal capital", it had a strong aristocracy of labour ethos based around local mines and factories. It had a population of a million and just enough in the way of things to do to count as a local metropolis. In a society smashed to atoms, it still meant something to be a Tangshanese.

On July 28, it was Tangshan's turn to be smashed in one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded - "probably the most concentrated instance of destruction humanity has ever known" Palmer writes, which wreaked more destruction on the city than the nuclear bomb did on Hiroshima, and which, thousands of kilometres away, shifted the whole of Alaska by one eighth of an inch. Nine tenths of the city's living space was destroyed. Tens of thousands of people lay under the rubble, with nothing to remove them but bare hands.

The response to the disaster showed both the venality of the Communist Party and the revival of the spirit that brought it to power in the first place. "Everyone in Tangshan was a communist that day," writes Palmer as he describes the way survivors simply pulled themselves together and returned to the rubble to rescue people traped underneath. Communist party cadres were very much to the fore in the work. But all too typically, the People's Daily chose to print a report, probably fabricated, of an official who let his own daughter die in order to rescue his superior. The local militias founded by Mao in the 1960s as a guerrilla army to resist foreign invasion, meanwhile, swaggered about shooting people at random as "looters". Eventually, the PLA arrived and put the rescue effort on at least a semi-professional footing.

In Beijing, the quake was forceful enough to rattle the bed on which Mao lay stunned after his latest heart attack. More widely, Palmer notes that natural disasters are supposed to presage the end of dynasties in traditional Chinese culture. Tangshan added to an inchoate but growing conviction that something had to change.

That sentiment had already become clear during the Qing Ming festival the previous spring, when crowds mourning Zhou Enlai erupted in fury after mourning bouquets were removed by the orders of his enemies in the party. It was an unexpected act of defiance in a city that had seen Mao bask in the adoration of millions of red guards ten years before.

Palmer has a very good knack for the low politics of high places, presenting a lucid and gripping account of the discreet and vicious contest over the succession that took place as the old tyrant gradually petered out. It was deadly intrigue, but with an appealing Machiavelli meets Benny Hill twist, as elderly communists took madcap secret dashes around town and popped up in each other's shrubberies.

The end result was a kind of unfolding, Matyroshka coup. First, Hua Guofeng allied with Deng Xiaoping, then under suspicion as a "rightist", to get rid of the Gang of Four. Then Deng and allies from the party's old guard gradually unseated Hua and his allies. In the process, Deng first patronised, then disposed of the "democracy wall" protestors who emerged in 1978, who themselves mainly consisted of former Red Guards.

That was quite a vicious piece of cruelty, but nothing special by previous standards. Nor did Hua suffer the fate of other overthrown party bigwigs. "Chairman Who?" was ushered off to a comfortable retirement. In The Death of Mao, Palmer makes clear that the kinds of violence used in the Cultural Revolution had been a feature of communist rule since the beginning. They were structural features of an organisation that functioned through the discovery, exposure and "dragging out" of enemies. Deng is generally accredited with bringing market forces to China, but it's perhaps even more significant that, while thuggery and abuse of power is still endemic in Chinese political culture, the Communist Party governs from day to day without deliberately killing huge numbers of people.

Palmer notes that Deng is still held in considerable affection by the people of China. There's even lingering nostalgia for the Maoist era, though China being what it is these days this often takes on distinctly commercial forms. "It reminds me of friends I made in the countryside," says a businessman he meets of a Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant. "We really believed in something at that time, you know? It wasn't as bad as they say."

Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and writer specialising in China and its growing interaction with the rest of the world.