Zhang Chunqiao: Communist leader of China’s Cultural Revolution

Jun 1, 2005

Veteran Chinese communist Zhang Chunqiao died of throat cancer on April 21, 2005, at the age of 88. The official New China News Agency announced his death on May 10.

Despite Zhang’s distinguished career as a communist theoretician and organizer, his death was given no official fanfare in China. He was in prison from 1976 to 1998, and lived his final years in obscurity.

His revolutionary legacy is quite different from the political line practiced by today’s Chinese Communist Party. Zhang’s most important political contributions came during the period known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, beginning in 1966.

The 1949 Chinese Revolution was a historic victory for the world’s working class. Hundreds of millions of Chinese workers and peasants were liberated from centuries of exploitation and colonial rule. Zhang joined the struggle against Japanese occupation and colonialism in 1936 as a member of the League of Chinese Left-wing Writers. In 1940, at age 23, he joined the Communist Party and served in a guerrilla unit behind Japanese lines.

The main problem facing the new Chinese Communist Party leadership after the revolution was rebuilding the Chinese economy. Land ownership, dominated by big landlords, had to be reorganized to provide for agricultural production for the benefit of the peasants as well as the workers in the cities. China’s small industrial base, overwhelmingly oriented toward Japanese and U.S. imperialism, had to be grown and developed toward fulfilling the needs of the new socialist-oriented state.

How to address the problem was debated vigorously within the Chinese Communist Party—both at party congresses and in practice. Should the government emphasize increasing production at all costs, measuring the successes of the revolution in purely economic terms? What should be the role of the masses of workers and peasants in production? What would be the top priority: developing the means of production—factories, farms, technology, and so on—or changing the relations of production—the role of the workers and peasants within the process of production?

Mao Zedong, chairman of the CCP and the most widely respected leader of the Chinese Revolution, is perhaps most known for his reliance on the masses as the driving force of the revolution. For Mao, educating the working classes in politics, culture and technology was a central task of a workers’ state.

It was a task for which Zhang Chunqiao was well suited. By 1960, he had assumed responsibility as the editor of the Liberation Daily, the Shanghai Communist Party’s main organ. Shanghai was China’s working class center.

The Cultural Revolution

In November 1965, one of the publications that Zhang edited published an essay by Yao Wenyuan criticizing a play that had been published four years earlier. The critique was not on the basis of the play’s aesthetic value. Yao used the play to politically challenge elements within the Communist Party that advocated using elements of capitalism—for example, private ownership of land—to develop the economy.

The essay turned out to be the opening shot in an intense struggle against what became known as “capitalist roaders” within the CCP. Those in the party who advocated deepening the socialist course of the Chinese revolution—Mao included—launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution as a means of bringing the masses into what had been up to that point an inner-party struggle.

Zhang played a key role in this struggle as one of the key members of the Group in Charge of the Cultural Revolution. The GCCR was formally responsible to the CCP’s Central Committee, charged in August 1966 with carrying out the party’s “Sixteen Point Decision.”

The core of the Cultural Revolution was the Red Guards. These groups were organized at schools and colleges across China. They were responsible for criticizing teachers, administrators and Communist Party officials who were bureaucratic or “capitalist roaders.”

Based in Shanghai, Zhang Chunqiao played an instrumental role in widening the Cultural Revolution from a student-based movement to the working class. He was charged with implementing one of the most far-reaching of the 16 points: “It is necessary to institute a system of general elections, like that of the Paris Commune, for electing members to the cultural revolutionary groups and committees. … The masses are entitled at any time to criticize members of the cultural revolutionary groups and committees and delegates elected to the cultural revolutionary congresses. If these members or delegates prove incompetent, they can be replaced through election or recalled by the masses after discussion.”

In late 1966, Zhang was charged with setting up the “Shanghai Commune,” modeled after the Paris Commune of 1871. The Paris Commune had been recognized as a new form of state by revolutionary leaders Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin.

The students and workers who had mobilized to push forward the Chinese revolution were to be the base of a new type of government. No longer would bureaucratic elements administer the party and state from behind closed doors, separate from the masses.

Zhang set to work in Shanghai organizing the Workers Headquarters, bringing factory committees into the Cultural Revolution mobilization. But almost as soon as the Shanghai Commune was declared on Feb. 5, the Group in Charge of the Cultural Revolution retreated.

The Triple Alliance: End of an era

On Feb. 24, Zhang spoke to a huge crowd in Shanghai’s Culture Square, having just returned from Beijing. It was too early, he said, to set up the Commune’s direct workers’ democracy. The government would be a “Triple Alliance” between the mass organizations, the People’s Liberation Army, and the party bureaucracy.

In many ways, Zhang’s speech marked the end of the most revolutionary phase of the Cultural Revolution.

Within two years, the left wing of the Chinese Communist Party—those who had jointly provided leadership initiating the Cultural Revolution against China’s capitalist roaders—split into two wings. There were undoubtedly many issues involved in this catastrophic split within the left, but China’s foreign policy orientation was pivotal.

The Peoples Liberation Army leader Lin Biao and Chen Boda—two of the principal leaders of the Cultural Revolution—were defeated in a massive purge in 1970. In 1971, Mao began secret negotiations with the Nixon administration leading to Nixon’s and Kissinger’s much vaunted 1972 trip to Beijing, setting the stage for China’s accommodation with U.S. imperialism.

Nixon was able to use the Sino-Soviet polemic that had, by that time, degenerated into a state-to-state struggle between the two socialist governments, to bring China into an anti-Soviet alliance. Zhang Chunqiao was assigned to greet Nixon at the airport.

Zhang’s most known writing in the West was the essay “On Exercising All-Round Dictatorship over the Bourgeoisie,” published in the April 4, 1975, Beijing Review. The document is in many ways a summary of the experience of the Cultural Revolution—both its left and right phases. It recognizes the importance of the continued class struggle after the conquest of power by the working class. It highlights the need for constant struggle within the communist party against trends that accommodate themselves to capitalist methods or norms. But it also resorts to slanders against Chinese revolutionaries like Lin Piao and resorts to inflammatory characterizations of the non-revolutionary Soviet government.

Zhang’s 1975 essay would be one of his last. When Mao died in 1976, Zhang was arrested along with other Cultural Revolution leaders Jiang Qing, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen. These leaders were demonized as the “Gang of Four” by the new right-wing leadership of the CCP. The four were tried in 1980. Zhang was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1983. He was released for medical reasons in 1998, according to Xinhua news service.

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