20111030-wikicommons Deng XiaopinggXiaoping.jpg

Mao died in September 1976. At that time China was still in virtual chaos as a result of the Cultural Revolution. Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: ““The Cultural Revolution came to an end with" Mao' death. "The responsibility for the decade of chaos was officially placed on the Gang of Four (Jiang Qing and three of her supporters), who were arrested and imprisoned. The Communist Party now turned to the task of repairing its image and encouraging economic growth. Hua Guofeng was made the chair of the Communist Party as Mao’s successor, but it soon became clear that real power lay with the vice-chair Deng Xiaoping, well-known for his pragmatic approach toward politics. In December of 1978, at the historical Third Plenum of the Eleventh Party Central Committee, Deng announced that China would embark on the program of the "Four Modernizations" with the aim of becoming a powerful socialist nation in the forefront of the world. Deng's policies set in motion an economic boom that continues to transform the face of Chinese society. In the post-Mao era, the increase in wealth and the availability of new consumer goods is reflected in the variety of contemporary advertising. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

After Mao's death, China opened up more. Many socialist programs were dismantled; China began withdrawing support from revolutionary groups around the globe; foreign tourists on special tours were allowed into China; the Shanghai Puppet theater was allowed to open its doors again; and lovers were again shown in films, although they discreetly did their kissing behind closed doors.

James Griffiths of CNN wrote: “After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping emerged as the country's paramount leader, initiating four decades of economic development and a gradual repudiation of orthodox Marxism. Deng and his supporters oversaw the reversal of Cultural Revolution policies and the official opening up of China's economy. While Deng is often given credit for turning China from a collectivist, Communist economy into the powerhouse it would become,” according to historian Frank Dikotter, “Deng's reforms were a reflection of those forced upon the country from the bottom up, by a populace alienated to and despairing of Communism. [Source: James Griffiths, CNN, May 13, 2016 /^]

Good Websites and Sources on Deng Xiaoping: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; CNN Profile ; New York Times Obituary; China Daily Profile ; Wikipedia article on Economic Reforms in China Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Special Economic Zones Wikipedia

Political Situation in China at the Time of Mao’s Death in 1976

drawing of the Gang of Four

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “Although Mao had resigned his position as chairman of the People's Republic during the failures of the Great Leap Forward, as chairman of the central committee of the Communist party he remained the most powerful political figure in China. (Liu Shaoqi, who succeeded Mao as chairman of the Republic in 1959, was deposed during the Cultural Revolution.) By the mid-1970s, political power was balanced between the moderates, led by Deng Xiaoping and Premier Zhou Enlai, and the more radical heirs to the Cultural Revolution, led by the Gang of Four, which included Jiang Qing (Mao's wife), Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan, and Zhang Chunqiao. Mao mediated between the two factions. The most significant political move Mao made in his later years was in March 1973, when he reinstated Deng Xiaoping as vice premier, paving the way for his ascendancy after Mao's death. Even so, Hua Guofeng, Mao's colorless but loyal security chief, was Mao's chosen successor. He was a classic cadre who had hoped to run the economy with Soviet-style five year plans, emphasizing heavy industry, and communal agriculture. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations: “In 1975 at the Fourth National People's Congress, Zhou Enlai (Chou Enlai) announced a reordering of economic and social priorities to achieve the Four Modernizations (of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology). Factional strife reminiscent of the late 1960s emerged between radical party elements led by the Gang of Four, who opposed the modernization plans, and veteran party officials, such as Deng Xiaoping (previously associated with Liu Shaoqi and restored to power in 1973), who favored them. When Zhou died on 8 January 1976, the radicals moved to block the appointment of Deng (Zhou's heir apparent) as premier, with Mao resolving the impasse by appointing Hua Guofeng, a veteran party official and government administrator, as acting premier. Attacks on Deng continued until he was blamed for spontaneous disorders at a Beijing demonstration honoring Zhou on the Festival of the Dead, 5 April 1976, and, for the second time in his career, Deng was removed from all official positions. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

When Mao Zedong died on 9 September 1976, Hua Guofeng was quickly confirmed as party chairman and premier. A month later, the Gang of Four was arrested, and in early 1977, the banished Deng Xiaoping was again "reinstated." By 1978, Deng Xiaoping had consolidated his political dominance, and a new era of economic reforms began. The Third Party Plenum and the Fifth National People's Congress in 1978 adopted a new constitution and confirmed the goals of the Four Modernizations. Another new constitution in 1982 again confirmed policies of economic reform and emphasized legal procedure. The Cultural Revolution was officially condemned and Mao's historical role reevaluated.

Gang of Four's Power Grab and Arrest

Mao’s successor was Hua Guofeng, a former Minister of Public Security and Mao protégé whom Mao had promoted through the ranks of the party. However, the Gang of Four — Mao's widow, Jiang Qing and three other high-level officials, Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, and Yao Wenyuan — grabbed more power in the transitional government. They were widely disliked and when they publicly announced their opposition to Hua in 1976, Hua had them arrested, a move that was widely approved. The four politicians were imprisoned but did not come to trial until 1980. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, Countries and Their Cultures, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Gang of Four drawing

Zhou En Lai, China’s popular longtime head of state, also died in 1976 but before Mao. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “With the death of Zhou in January 1976, the Gang of Four convinced Mao that Deng's economic plan, the Four Modernizations, would overturn the legacy of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Deng was purged in April, along with many of his supporters, as the Gang of Four consolidated their power. After Mao's death in September 1976, however, a coalition of political and military leaders purged the Gang of Four, and Hua Guofeng, who had succeeded Zhou as premier, became party chairman. Deng was rehabilitated in 1977 and soon was recognized as the most powerful party member, although he was nominally deputy chairman to Hua. In 1980, Hua stepped down from the premiership in favor of Zhao Ziyang, who was Deng's choice. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

Mao’s death removed a towering figure from Chinese politics and set off a scramble for succession. Hua Guofeng had been quickly confirmed as Party Chairman and Premier. A month after Mao's death, Hua, backed by the PLA, arrested the “Gang of Four.” After extensive deliberations, the Chinese Communist Party leadership reinstated Deng Xiaoping to all of his previous posts at the 11th Party Congress in August 1977. Deng then led the effort to place government control in the hands of veteran party officials opposed to the radical excesses of the previous two decades. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale, 2008]

After a show trial from November 1980 to January 1981, the Gang of Four, along with Mao's former secretary and five others associated with Lin Biao, were convicted of crimes of the Cultural Revolution. Jiang Qing, whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, committed suicide in 1991 after being diagnosed with cancer. The jubilation following the incarceration of the Gang of Four and the popularity of the new ruling triumvirate (Hua Guofeng, Ye Jianying, and Li Xiannian, a temporary alliance of necessity) were succeeded by calls for the restoration to power of Deng Xiaoping and the elimination of leftist influence throughout the political system. By July 1977, at no small risk to undercutting Hua Guofeng's legitimacy as Mao's successor and seeming to contradict Mao's apparent will, the Central Committee exonerated Deng Xiaoping from responsibility for the Tiananmen Square incident. Deng admitted some shortcomings in the events of 1975, and finally, at a party Central Committee session, he resumed all the posts from which he had been removed in 1976. [Source: The Library of Congress]

Leaving the Cultural Revolution Behind?

The Communist Party has officially declared the Cultural Revolution a "disaster." Some textbooks mention it and the Great Leap Forward but not the atrocities and millions of deaths associated with them. Any allusion or mention of the Cultural Revolution in the media is banned. Scholars who have attempted to research it have ended up in jail. For many ordinary Chinese the Cultural Revolution is something people don’t want to talk about or confront and is increasingly becoming irrelevant in their present lives.

In the years after the Cultural Revolution, the radical camp fought back by building an armed urban militia, but its mass base of support was limited to Shanghai and parts of northeastern China — hardly sufficient to arrest what it denounced as "revisionist" and "capitalist" tendencies. In January 1975 Zhou Enlai, speaking before the Fourth National People's Congress, outlined a program of what has come to be known as the Four Modernizations for the four sectors of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. This program would be reaffirmed at the Eleventh National Party Congress, which convened in August 1977. Also in January 1975, Deng Xiaoping's position was solidified by his election as a vice chairman of the CCP and as a member of the Political Bureau and its Standing Committee. Deng also was installed as China's first civilian chief of PLA General Staff Department. *

Most people believe that the Cultural Revolution seriously delayed China’s development. But not everyone agrees.The dissident journalist Lui Binyan told Newsweek, "Most Chinese would probably agree that the reforms that began in 1979 under Deng Xiaoping would never have taken place without [the Cultural Revolution]...The Red Guards who had followed Mao so fanatically grew disillusioned. They became the first generation capable of independent thinking, full of insubordinate spirit. It is this generation that forms the backbone of Chinese society. Many have become influential writers, scholars, journalists and entrepreneurs as well as middle- to high-ranking officials in the government, the army and the Communist Party."

Rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping

Deng in 1976

Among the most prominent of those rehabilitated was Deng Xiaoping, who was reinstated as a vice premier in April 1973, ostensibly under the aegis of Premier Zhou Enlai but certainly with the concurrence of Mao Zedong. Together, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping came to exert strong influence. Their moderate line favoring modernization of all sectors of the economy was formally confirmed at the Tenth National Party Congress in August 1973, at which time Deng Xiaoping was made a member of the party's Central Committee (but not yet of the Political Bureau). [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Deng was restored to his official posts in July 1977 after being purged by Mao. His “reform and opening” policy was approved at the same party meeting in December 1978 in in which his rival Hua Guofeng was ousted. Orville Shell wrote in Newsweek, "Deng's resistance to pure ideology and his ability to moderate his political ambitions allowed him to survive so long at the center of power. He came to be known as "xiao pingzi", or 'the little bottle,' a pun on his name that alluded both to his ability to bob up back up after each of the numerous purges he suffered and to his 4-foot-11-inch height."

Carl Minzner wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Ideologically, Deng decisively broke with Maoist isolationism in the late 1970s. China opened up. Students flowed out; outside influences flowed in. When other party leaders criticized such policies for allowing dangerous foreign influences to circulate, Deng famously responded, “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” With Deng's rise, key elements that marked Maoist rule during the 1950s and '60s vanished. Gone were the all-powerful supreme leader, the frenzied cult of personality and the regular purges of the top ranks. Deng and his successors settled into a low-key style of collective governance marked by a search for consensus. Elite politics became institutionalized. Sure, periodic campaigns occasionally ensnared mid-level cadres. But unwritten rules guaranteed that the very top echelon was immune, untouchable. [Source: Carl Minzner, Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2014]

How the Chinese Communist Party Maintained Power After the Cultural Revolution

Daniel Leese told the Los Angeles Review of Books: "Besides the threat of brute force and censorship regarding historical issues, the stimulation of economic growth is cited as the most important factor guaranteeing political and social stability. However, the legacies of the Cultural Revolution forced the party to deal with past injustices in much more detail than is commonly known. [Source: “Conversation with Denise Ho, Fabio Lanza, Yiching Wu, and Daniel Leese on the Cultural Revolution” by Alexander C. Cook, Los Angeles Review of Books, March 2, 2016 ~] “While the trial of the Gang of Four and the resolution on party history are common knowledge, below the surface, the CCP was faced with millions of cases that did not easily fit these simplistic ways of dealing with the past. Who was to be considered victim or perpetrator and based on what standards? How were victims to be compensated for their ordeals and what about stolen property and withhold wages? Were party members or groups whose participation was important to reform to be treated differently than ordinary citizens? These questions were of fundamental importance and constitute core issues that can be considered part of what we now call “transitional justice.” Although China did not witness the fall of a dictatorial regime, and therefore seems ill-suited for the application of this concept, nevertheless there can be no denying the fact that the party consciously adopted certain elements and rhetoric associated with transitional justice, even while taking every effort at distinguishing between the Chinese situation and human rights violations in other contexts. ~

“Previous injustices were interpreted as temporary miscarriages of justice to be solved on an individual basis in a political system portrayed as generally sound. The party tried to preclude the formation of collective claims or the overburdening of local budgets. In both scope and timing, it was inevitable that case revisions saw great regional differences. Just as Yiching has turned historians’ attention to local history, our research group in Freiburg analyses how the party dealt with Maoist era legacies in different regions, ranging from the rehabilitation of former capitalists to the purge of persecutors within the party. Yet despite the political character of the “rehabilitation campaign” and the obvious continuities in the Chinese judiciary, the reversal of verdicts changed the fate of millions of people. Not least, the research leads us to rethink many aspects of what actually happened during the Cultural Revolution. ~

Hua Guofeng with Mao in 1976

China's Constitution

The Constitution of the People's Republic of China was ratified in 1982 and amended and adopted at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on October 21, 2007. The constitution enshrines the values of “security, honor and interests of the motherland.” It includes Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory. There was some discussion about Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” being included.

The Chinese constitution has been called a “collection of slogans.” It purportedly offers the freedoms of speech, press and association. Many of the laws are not all that different from laws in Western countries the only problem is that these laws have traditionally been ignored, interpreted in strange ways or not enforced.The constitution is not allowed to be used for arguments made in court and courts have no right to review constitutionality. This weakness is based on judicial interpretation by China’s top prosecutor in the 1950s that regular laws were detailed and sufficient. The Communist Party is viewed as the final arbitrator of the law. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has had four constitutions, promulgated in 1954, 1975, 1978, and 1982. The current version, adopted on December 4, 1982 by the Fifth National People’s Congress of the PRC, has since been amended four times, in 1988, 1993, 1999, and 2004. It was created as a part of the reform program in which China moved away from the planned socialist economy and toward a mixed economy in which the market and private property have played increasingly large roles. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Hua Guofeng

Hua Guofeng was Mao’s successor and widely seen as bridge between the excesses of the Mao era and more pragmatic policies under Deng. "With you in charge, I am at ease,” Mao Zedong is supposed to have told Hua. Hua took power in September 1976 and lasted for two years, his power eroding during that time, until he was pushed out by Deng Xiaoping. He was forced out as Communist Party chairman in 1981 and slipped into obscurity. He died in 2008 at the age of 87.

Born into a poor family in 1921, Hua became a guerilla fighter in the Mao’s Communist movement at the age of 15. After the Communists came to power he held a number of post and took over as premier when Zou Enlai died, He was chosen after Mao’s death as a compromise candidate “who didn’t set off any alarm bells in any camp” according to one historian. . Mao is said to said, “With you in charge, I’ m at ease.” After he took power Hua attempted to revive the economy, rebuild the education system and allow urban people banished to the countryside to return home and was given credit for holding he party together during a tumultuous transition.

The arrest of the Gang of Four took place under Hua but it unclear what role if any he had in it. Many think the decision to make the arrest was made by senior leaders in the military and internal security forces and Hua went along with their decision. It has been said one reason Hua was ousted was that he continued to espouse the ideology of the Cultural Revolution. Deng maneuvered to get Hua ousted because he was seen as an obstacle to reform. Hua was effectively stripped of his power at the party meeting in December 1978.

Deng Xiaoping Grabs Power

Hua Guofeng

After Mao's death on September 9, 1976, Mao's chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, called Deng back from internal exile to help him restore order and oust the Gang of Four. Deng and Hua battled each other for two years until Deng won enough support from other elite party members to oust Hua.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Deng Xiaoping engineered a take-over of the Communist Party leadership in 1978, which culminated at the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in December of that year, when his supporters took over the Central Committee and the Central Committee’s Political Bureau (Politburo). [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“As part of his struggle to take control of the Party leadership, Deng had tacitly allowed democracy activists in Beijing to put up posters at “Democracy Wall” and to print and circulate informal news magazines. Inasmuch as the activists attacked the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s successor, Hua Guofeng (b. 1921), they were helpful. However, when Deng had gained power, the activists were no longer of any value — in fact, their questioning and challenging of Deng and his policies made them a liability. The repression began in the spring of 1979. This was part of the larger process of Deng Xiaoping asserting his control and preparing the Party, the government, and the country to move in the direction of economic reform and opening to the outside world that would characterize the period of Deng’s leadership.

When Deng emerged as China's de facto leader in 1978 he was 78. Ronald Reagan, the United States' oldest president, was 77 when he left office. Deng was advised by an inner circle called the Eight Immortals. Most of them like Deng were veteran Communist Party leaders purged during the Cultural Revolution and, under Deng, were given high government positions in the 1980s and 90s. The last of the Eight Immortals, Bo Yiho, died in 2007 at the age of 98.

In the early 1980s, then party chairman Hua Guofeng was ousted following accusations of “continuing to advocate the worship of Comrade Mao Zedong while creating the opportunity for and allowing himself to be worshipped”.

Battle Between Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping

The post-Mao political order was given its first vote of confidence at the Eleventh National Party Congress, held August 12- 18, 1977. Hua was confirmed as party chairman, and Ye Jianying, Deng Xiaoping, Li Xiannian, and Wang Dongxing were elected vice chairmen. The congress proclaimed the formal end of the Cultural Revolution, blamed it entirely on the Gang of Four, and reiterated that "the fundamental task of the party in the new historical period is to build China into a modern, powerful socialist country by the end of the twentieth century." Many contradictions still were apparent, however, in regard to the Maoist legacy and the possibility of future cultural revolutions. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Hua Guofeng

The new balance of power clearly was unsatisfactory to Deng, who sought genuine party reform and, soon after the National Party Congress, took the initiative to reorganize the bureaucracy and redirect policy. His longtime protege Hu Yaobang replaced Hua supporter Wang Dongxing as head of the CCP Organization Department. Educational reforms were instituted, and Cultural Revolution-era verdicts on literature, art, and intellectuals were overturned. The year 1978 proved a crucial one for the reformers. Differences among the two competing factions — that headed by Hua Guofeng (soon to be branded as a leftist) and that led by Deng and the more moderate figures — became readily apparent by the time the Fifth National People's Congress was held in February and March 1978. *

Serious disputes arose over the apparently disproportionate development of the national economy, the Hua forces calling for still more largescale projects that China could ill afford. In the face of substantive losses in leadership positions and policy decisions, the leftists sought to counterattack with calls for strict adherence to Mao Zedong Thought and the party line of class struggle. Rehabilitations of Deng's associates and others sympathetic to his reform plans were stepped up. Not only were many of those purged during the Cultural Revolution returned to power, but individuals who had fallen from favor as early as the mid-1950s were rehabilitated. It was a time of increased political activism by students, whose big-character posters attacking Deng's opponents — and even Mao himself — appeared with regularity. *

Hu Yaobang

Hu Yaobang was leader of the Chinese Communist Party from 1981 to 1987, first as Chairman from 1981 to 1982, then as General Secretary from 1982 to 1987. Hu joined the CCP in the 1930s, and rose to prominence as a comrade of Deng Xiaoping. Popular among Chinese, he was a political reformer who made efforts to rehabilitate the millions of people purged in Mao’s Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Cultural Revolution. He was sacked in 1987 for being soft on what was known as “bourgeois liberalisation”—the embrace of Western-style freedoms. Mourning over his death in April 1989 was one of main forces that lead to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations

According to The Economist: “Hu remains popular. This is in part because of his image—as an earthy, unpompous, tolerant figure whose small stature prompted jokes that he was the only Chinese leader who literally looked up to the diminutive Deng Xiaoping. And bourgeois liberalisation, or some of its facets, remains attractive to many, especially during a period in Mr Xi’s China in which the slow, incremental broadening of personal freedom seems to be in reverse. Moreover, Hu was China’s leader, alongside Deng, when China began righting some of the wrongs done during Mao Zedong’s tyrannical rule. Many of the countless people who had been persecuted under Mao, and were then allowed to pick up the threads of their lives again, were (and remain) grateful to Hu personally. They included Xi Jinping’s late father, Xi Zhongxun. Like Hu and Deng, the elder Xi was a party leader of the old, Long March generation, whom Mao turned against. His rehabilitation is said to have owed much to Hu’s intervention. Now, as in 1989, the highest level of Chinese politics is dominated by a relatively small number of families whose mutual debts and grudges span the generations.” [Source: The Economist, November 28, 2015 /+]

Hu Yaobang

In November 2015, the 100th anniversary of Hu Yaobang’s birth was marked, The Economist reported: “The last time people turned out in large numbers in Beijing to commemorate Hu Yaobang, it did not end well. In April 1989 he had died of a heart attack. On the eve of his funeral, 1 million people took part in the biggest anti-government demonstration yet seen in the People’s Republic....Hu was a plausible symbol for pro-democracy protesters, who then staged a weeks-long sit-in in Tiananmen Square in the heart of the capital. They brought party rule to the brink of collapse. It took the massacre of hundreds on June 3rd-4th to bring an end to their movement. /+\

“So it seems odd that the party should have made so much of the centenary on November 20th of Hu’s birth. Xi Jinping, the present party leader, and his six fellow members of the Politburo’s ruling Standing Committee attended a commemoration in the Great Hall of the People, on Tiananmen. Mr Xi’s speech extolled Hu as “a time-tested loyal communist fighter and a great proletarian revolutionist”; newspapers were filled with laudatory biographies; a new book of his utterances appeared. /+\

“The respect paid to a man who symbolises a liberal strain the party has spurned, and who will forever be associated with its near-death experience in 1989, has prompted speculation about the leadership’s intentions. Is Mr Xi, having spent three years in power cracking down on dissent, about to emerge as Hu’s political heir, a closet liberal? Might it even presage a “reversal of verdicts” over the Tiananmen protests, no longer to be seen as the work of traitors but of misguided idealists? Both of these explanations seem unlikely. The boosting of Hu may reflect a factional struggle among party leaders, played out, as at times in the past, over the corpse of a fallen comrade. Other interpretations are more mundane. They cast light on how Chinese politics has changed since 1989 and, more strikingly, on how it has not.” /+\

Image Sources:Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.