China | Wang Dongxing's death stirs memories and lessons from China's past

Wang Dongxing’s death stirs memories and lessons from China’s past

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Death has finally claimed once-powerful Chinese Communist Party security chief Wang Dongxing. He died a few days ago at the age of 99. But his actual demise was only the coda to an official death imposed on him almost 40 years ago in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.

In a tragic long moment between the late summer and early autumn of 1976, Wang Dongxing was faced with the extremely difficult task of how to best express his loyalty to Mao Zedong. The choice lay in supporting or opposing the claim to power of Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing — the head of the notorious Gang of Four.

Wang Dongxing
Wang Dongxing

Wang was Mao’s mighty head of the security. His death last week was celebrated by the party press. Mao had been Wang’s boss, idol, and master for most of his life. Mao had reciprocated this admiration by putting Wang in charge of his personal security with security oversight for all of China’s leadership.

Wang was in charge of a so-called double security check. All top Chinese officials were supposed to be loyal to Mao. But Wang was the one who made sure they actually were. His security post became even more important after 1971, when Lin Biao, Mao’s dauphin and his second in command, attempted a coup against Mao that failed.

Wang’s duty was tough and painstaking, but it was also relatively simple. He didn’t have many difficult decisions to make. He just had to follow what Mao decided.

But once Mao, his idol-cum-master was gone, Wang found himself confronting the ultimate political choice of his life. As the man in charge of providing security to individual Chinese leaders, he was in a position to move the rudder of state power in one direction or another by arresting Jiang Qing (as he eventually ended up doing) or her enemies.

In what seemed a bizarre move at the time, Wang decided that the best expression of loyalty to his late master was to turn over power to the one man whom Mao, in the past decade, had punished, called back, and castigated repeatedly: Deng Xiaoping.

There may have been many factors that led Wang to this decision. He might have not liked or trusted Jiang Qing; he might have felt that most of the army, following Marshal Ye Jianying, sided with Deng. Besides, Hua Guofeng, Mao’s choice as successor, also felt his position was threatened by Jiang Qing and her acolytes.

Whatever the reasons, Wang took the decisive step of deciding that loyalty to Mao meant putting in fetters the woman who called herself “Mao’s dog.” Being faithful to her master meant betraying a part of the master. It meant keeping a piece of his legacy and forfeiting another.

Wang displayed an interesting cultural twist in his decision and loyalty to Mao. This stubborn loyalty, beyond even one’s life, is an aspect of ancient Chinese culture. It is the loyalty between bandits told in the Ming novel Water Margin; it is the adherence to the cause of the Mohist followers told in the 3rd century BC Lvshi Chunqiu. In this tale, a few followers were sent with a warning to save a threatened city. But rather than saving their lives in the process, they went back and died with the rest of the group, defending another town under siege.

From left: Hua Guofeng, Ye Jianying, Deng Xiaoping, Li Xiannian, Wang Dongxing et al. paid their tribute to Chairman Mao’s mortal remains on September 9, 1977, the first anniversary of Mao’s death
From left: Hua Guofeng, Ye Jianying, Deng Xiaoping, Li Xiannian, Wang Dongxing et al. paid their tribute to
Chairman Mao’s mortal remains on September 9, 1977, the first anniversary of Mao’s death

This has nothing to do with Western communism, an ideological organization in which Marx held that followers should call themselves “comrades” not “brothers,” and where he stressed a looser association that was compared to Christian monastic orders. Loyalty was meant to be to an idea, not a person, and this is reflected in the careful Chinese translation of  the word “comrade” as tongzhi, “sharing a principle.”

Yet, in the end, it may also have been Wang’s loyalty to the communist idea and to the party that prevailed, and which later led to his political demise.

After liquidating Jiang Qing, Wang — like his new boss, Hua Guofeng — was also figuratively liquidated by Deng. He was sent into retirement, cut off from all levers of power and influence. There he remained waiting for almost four decades until death came knocking.

Wang may also have realized that his exile was convenient. He understood this was the only way he could survive. Deng and his allies had rushed to control all levers of power after the capture of the Gang of Four in late 1976. Two years later, they split from hardcore Maoism and its heirs, sending its stalwarts in the party ranks gracefully, but decisively into oblivion.

The lesson of Wang Dongxing’s death as it was celebrated in the official Chinese press seems relevant in the present day when some retired leaders appear to be still struggling for the limelight: He accepted civil death and thus was spared physical death or public humiliation.

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Francesco Sisci
Francesco Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. He is the contributor for Il Sole 24ore, and a frequent commentator on international affairs for CCTV and Phoenix TV.
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