The Death of Mao, By James Palmer

A seismic shift, and its tremors are with us still

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The Independent Culture

The year 1976 is shaping up to be one of history's dramatic turning points. It saw Mao Zedong's death and the power struggle that followed, which has put China on the road to becoming the wealthiest and therefore most powerful country on Earth by the middle of this century, if not before.

Yet it could have all been very different.

On one side of the struggle were moderates led by the insipid Hua Guofeng, but with a formidable éminence grise in the person of Deng Xiaoping, still a player despite Mao's attacks upon him. Opposing them was the Gang of Four, the far-left clique led by Mao's wife Jiang Qing, famed for her hectoring manner.

China was recovering from the Cultural Revolution, which began 10 years previously and ran to mass murder, ritual torture and even cannibalism, all on a shocking scale. This was the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Nevertheless, while the populace was utterly sick of violence and chaos, the Gang of Four supported ongoing revolutionary upheaval.

Traditionally in China, natural calamities demonstrate that rulers have lost the favour of the gods. During 1976, an apocalyptic earthquake annihilated the mining city of Tangshan. It was estimated to be 400 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and more than half a million people are believed to have died. The earthquake played a part in settling the succession issue. Hua's visits to the disaster area and his display of compassion lent the reformists credibility, while the leftists were conspicuously absent, apparently indifferent to the suffering.

James Palmer's account is as dispassionate as it is detailed; his subject matter is so bizarre that he can let it speak for itself. In the China of the mid-1970s, life was astoundingly bleak; simply getting enough to eat was a challenge. Mao's personality cult remained rampant. One of its more eccentric consequences was the numerous letters from women begging to bear his child. Meanwhile the Great Helmsman enjoyed watching imported kung fu movies, a pleasure he denied to the masses.

China's appalling austerity gradually eased under Deng, enabling him to begin a process of buying off demands for democracy with ever-increasing prosperity. If the bargain is coming under growing strain, as the populace recoils from alarming corruption and repression, Palmer's book is a timely reminder of the supreme horror of the alternative that could so easily have been.