The End of the Long March

In Peking last September, China’s supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, pensioned off the surviving generals of the Long March. Fifty years after their epic exploit, these old soldiers finally agreed to fade away. Deng must hope that the legend has now been laid to rest, and that China can enter a new era in which the potent myths of the past will no longer distort thought and action in the present or in planning for the future.

In October 1935, the battered remnants of the Chinese Red Army reached the loess lands of north China after an eight-thousand-mile odyssey that started as a retreat under the onslaughts of Chiang Kai-shek’s encirclement campaigns. Eighty-six thousand Communist soldiers left the Soviet base in the Southern province of Kiangsi in October 1934; a battle-hardened force of only four thousand survived the trek through south and west China and arrived in Shensi province a year later. But in those twelve months a powerful new weapon had been created. It would be used skillfully by the new Chinese Communist leader who emerged on the march, Mao Zedong.

For Mao, always responsive to feats of martial glory, the Long March was incontrovertible proof of the superiority of men over weapons, and more broadly of the power of the human will. As he gradually rebuilt the Red Army and the Communist party in his image during the years that followed, he infused both with the basically un-Marxist idea that they could determine their own future no matter what the objective difficulties.

* * *

The Long March and the later victory of the People’s Liberation Army over the initially far superior forces of Chiang Kai-shek had two important consequences for the People’s Republic of China. It confirmed Mao in the belief that mind could and should prevail over matter, that heart and will could move mountains. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were the most monumental of the disasters that resulted from this philosophy. The other consequence was that China’s military leaders occupied positions of great power and influence within the Communist party.

In October 1955, Mao conferred the title of marshal on China’s ten most successful commanders, all but one of whom had been on the Long March twenty years earlier. At the Party’s Eighth Congress a year later, seven of them, including all the commanders of the great field armies that had swept Chiang’s forces from the mainland, were elected to the ruling Politburo. By the Twelfth Congress in 1982, all China’s marshals and an equivalent number of generals had served on the Politburo. Soviet generals never achieved comparable political recognition; indeed, such a degree of military influence is probably unprecedented in any twentieth-century regime run by civilians. Only in the perspective of Chinese history does it seem more comprehensible.

In the dying decades of the Chinese dynasties, emperors often had to strengthen the imperial forces in attempts to suppress widespread peasant uprisings. After a dynasty fell, it might be several decades before the military were firmly under control and back in the barracks. The last century and a half has witnessed just such a militarization of Chinese politics. The Qing dynasty modernized and expanded its forces in an ultimately vain effort to stave off the challenges of foreign gun-boats and domestic disorder. After the abdication of the last emperor in 1912 and the collapse of the early republican regime, competing warlords fought for power until the Nationalists set up the Nanking government in 1928. The Nanking regime remained essentially a military one as Chiang Kai-shek sought to liquidate the Communist soviets, then struggled to survive against the Japanese, and finally was defeated by the PLA.

After Mao’s triumph, his victorious generals ruled vast regions of China in the name of the civil power, a pattern familar from Chinese history. But less traditionally, they surrendered their power to full-time civilian officials without apparent protest when a new state apparatus was inaugurated in 1954. It was only Mao’s urgent need of support during the early months of the Cultural Revolution that brought the military back into civilian life in a big way. By the Ninth Party Congress in 1969, the proportion of soldiers in the Central Committee had doubled to 47.5 percent, and Defense Minister Lin Biao was Mao’s constitutionally anointed successor. The Chairman spent his remaining years exorcising the spectre of Bonapartism that he had himself conjured up.

* * *

When Deng came to power after Mao’s death, he took control of the military and has retained it ever since. He has pressed forward with a campaign to impose professional standards on the PLA and to replace the old military traditions based on guerrilla warfare with modern methods of military planning and organization. The political impact of this process is far greater than its military importance, even though the war with Vietnam in 1979 showed up the army’s antiquated command structure, poor communications, and outmoded tactics.

The PLA has a political legitimacy never possessed by any imperial Chinese army because its roots are almost as deeply embedded in the revolution as the Party’s. After 1949, army officers were at least as sensitive as Party cadres to the feelings of the rural population through their work with peasant conscripts. It was no accident that the first Politburo member roundly to condemn the Great Leap Forward was the Defense Minister, Peng Dehuai, whose soldiers were increasingly troubled by the plight of their peasant families. During the Cultural Revolution, the PLA’s strength as a political institution was enhanced as the Party’s was undermined.

Professional training and the passage of time should gradually transform the PLA into a more conventional army. The successors to Long March generals will have fewer political pretensions. A more professional army will also be considerably smaller; and the erosion of the PLA’s mass base will be further hastened by Deng’s rural reforms, which are encouraging peasant boys to stay on the farm. In the cities, especially among intellectuals and students, the PLA’s reputation has already been diminished. This is partly because of the heavy hand with which soldiers sometimes carried out their responsibilities during the Cultural Revolution, partly because they were seen to be every bit as privileged as the dethroned Party cadres, and partly because of their resistance in more recent years to Deng’s reforms.

* * *

This past summer Deng dismissed a number of conservative regional commanders, including Politburo member Li Desheng, a beneficiary of the Cultural Revolution. Finally, at the Party’s special national conference in September, Deng Xiaoping virtually completed the task of sending the Long March generation into retirement. The three remaining marshals and other military men quit the Politburo, leaving behind a single soldier, Chief of Staff Yang Dezhi, who was only a junior officer on the march. This is the smallest representation of military men in the Party’s ruling body in over forty years. By the Party’s Thirteenth Congress in 1987, Deng may finally feel able to relinquish control of the military, confident that his civilian successor will no longer be in danger of being upstaged by famous veterans who knew Mao on the march.

But of course Party officials as well as army officers were imbued with the Long March ethos. The catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward severely dented but did not destroy the belief that men could move mountains. Even after the death of Mao, Chinese economic officials pressed forward with ludicrously ambitious economic plans.

Today, China’s leaders seem agreed that a simplistic can-do philosophy, gung-ho spirit, and back-of-the-envelope planning are no longer sufficient. They recognize that the guerrilla methods beloved of Mao are disastrous when transferred from warfare to the war with nature. At the top of the Party hierarchy Deng has now no open opposition to his determination to make “Redness” give way to expertise, and his housecleaning extends far beyond the military. For him to have secured the resignation of ten members of the Politburo and sixty-four members and alternate members of the Central Committee was an undoubted triumph. Never in the history of communism have so many given up so much with so little coercion. The average age of the Central Committee replacements is only fifty, and 76 percent of them have had a college education. Deng’s reformed party is to be the model of a modern meritocracy.

But three of Deng’s old comrades refused to jump into the dustbin of history along with all the others: eighty-one-year-old Chen Yun, who joined the Politburo at least a decade before Deng and was the economic overlord during much of the 1950s; seventy-six-year-old Li Xiannian, longtime finance minister before the Cultural Revolution, who visited the US as head of state this summer; and eighty-three-year-old Peng Zhen, the first major victim of the Cultural Revolution, now chairman of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament. Unlike Mao, Deng cannot simply choose to purge these old colleagues. That is part of his revolution: even the supreme leader must abide by some form of due process. Deng, at eighty-one, had to stay on to safeguard his program.

* * *

The motives of these three intransigents are almost certainly mixed; one motive may be the ambition to outlive Deng and emerge as his successor. The concept of gerontocrat-in-waiting is far from absurd in East Asia, as it can be elsewhere. Chen Yun, who was the voice of sanity during the Sturm und Drang of the Great Leap, is all in favor of rationalism in economics. For him, however, such rationalism prevailed during the golden age of the 1950s and instilling it now would mean a return to some Chinese variant of the Stalinist command economy. At the September national conference, he struck a discordant note in an otherwise well-orchestrated ceremony of modest self-congratulation by reaffirming the values of those distant days.

But Deng is surely looking not backward but sideways, at China’s East Asian neighbors, whose shared Confucian values have helped make for “miracle” growth in the years since China’s last period of economic experiment in the early 1960s. He no longer has to choose between Soviet statism or Western capitalism. Already the Chinese have followed Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in deciding that prosperity must be founded on a thriving agriculture liberated by land reform. Premier Zhao Ziyang and Vice Premier Wan Li have rolled back thirty years of collectivism; the peasants who are now free to farm as families have doubled their incomes in five years. It would be hazardous for ideological conservatives to try to reverse this rural revolution. At the September conference, Chen Yun could only complain of exaggerated claims for the new system, and say that it had deep “distortions.”

Deng is also seeking a more dynamic relation between the bureaucracy and the economy. But the inevitable problems produced by the relaxation of controls have encouraged conservatives to issue warnings. Again, at the September conference, Chen insisted that planning should have a primary, and the markets a subordinate, role; he cautioned against “blindly allowing supply and demand to determine production.”

Deng is up against not just Soviet practice but Chinese tradition. Politics dominated economics long before Mao. Ever since the debates on the state monopoly of salt and iron two thousand years ago, bureaucratic control of the commanding heights of the industrial economy has been assumed. Private creation of wealth has been looked down on by Mandarins and Marxists alike. It is no accident that the thriving economies of Singapore and Taiwan are run by Chinese drawn largely from the more commercially minded coastal districts of south and east China. When they are cut off from the motherland, Chinese have been able to develop new relationships between bureaucrats and businessmen. The growth of Hong Kong shows that the ethnic identity of the bureaucracy is irrelevant, so long as Chinese entrepreneurship is not curbed.

* * *

On the Chinese mainland, shedding bureaucratic control has provoked strong resistance. The values at stake are embedded in the Chinese political culture. Deng wants Party cadres to be technically qualified. But the right to rule of the Leninist vanguard, like that of the Confucian mandarinate before it, has been based not on practical competence but on ideological certainty. In a political order whose legitimacy derives from a doctrine that bears on every social activity, the “who” in Lenin’s old question, “Who, whom?” should be those who can apply doctrine to the conduct of affairs, not those who graduate top from China’s new management classes. Even in the Soviet Union where officials are often technically qualified, such qualifications are not a condition of Party membership. Khrushchev’s attempt to divide the Party on the basis of specialization was annulled immediately after he fell.

On questions of doctrine, Deng is again striking at tradition, even if he formally reaffirms the importance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong’s thought. One of his protégés, the Party general secretary Hu Yaobang, was quoted in the Party paper last December to the effect that Marxism was a century old and could not solve today’s problems. A pro forma correction was quickly issued: he had allegedly said only that Marxism could not solve “all” of today’s problems. But if the reform group’s maxim that “practice is the sole criterion of truth” means anything, then what price doctrine? Certainly ideological training has been cut back. At Peking University, China’s most important educational institution, the number of political classes has been reduced by 50 percent. Chen Yun, again trying to stand against the tide, demanded last month that the Party be built up ideologically.

The Deng revolution has often been portrayed outside China as the unleashing of capitalism. Certainly the leaders now recognize that material incentives are more effective than moral exhortation; and the ethos of the Party will inevitably change if rich and ambitious peasants are recruited in large numbers. But it would be more accurate to say that Deng wants to uncouple economics from politics. The record of the East Asian countries suggests that this can be done while preserving bureaucratic involvement and without necessarily sacrificing authoritarian control over society. But Marxist doctrine will have to give way.

* * *

If emphasis on theory declines, then the need for a great theoretician also diminishes. The linchpin of both the traditional and the communist systems in China has been the supreme leader who alone had the final right to determine orthodoxy and chart the course. It is to Deng’s credit that he has used his position to try to ensure that hereafter there will be no more Maos or Dengs. His attempt to build up countervailing positions of power and influence within the system seems weak, however; none of these offices has the independent institutional base to provide protection against the emergence of a leader who would use the Party apparatus to impose his ideas. The experiment is likely to work only so long as Party leaders retain personal memories of what happened to them when they allowed one man to dominate them.

Deng himself calls his task “building socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Appalled by the return of the peasantry to private farming, widespread corruption, and foreign penetration, Deng’s most conservative opponents probably consider the direction he favors neither socialist nor Chinese. Perhaps one might most fairly characterize Deng’s approach as “building China with socialist characteristics”: he is promoting economic development while also trying to ensure that nobody is left too far behind.

Deng, like Mao, joined the Communist party seeking an answer to national weakness and humiliation. Social transformation was seen mainly as a means to that end. But during the last twenty years of his life, Mao made an end of the means as he tried to reroute the revolution to an egalitarian utopia. The trauma of those two decades clearly freed Deng from communist orthodoxy and Maoist millenarianism. In redirecting the revolution, he has resumed, in his own way, the long march to wealth and power, the goal of Chinese patriots for over a century.

Like the historic Long March, Deng’s started as a retreat. It too has involved much struggle and many detours, and its survival has depended on the emergence of a leader with a vision and the determination to implement it. Mao’s Long March led eventually to the reunification of China and its social transformation. But the Maoist revolution restored the Confucian triad of supreme leader, doctrine, and bureaucracy. Deng’s long march is headed toward the modernization of China and its incorporation into the international community. His revolution is restoring some old social and economic patterns, but is transforming the three fundamentals of the Confucian-Maoist polity. If Deng’s revolution succeeds, he will have changed not merely Marxism-Maoism, but also a two-thousand-year-old political culture.

Roderick MacFarquhar is the Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science and formerly Director of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. His...

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This article was first published in the December 19, 1985 issue of the New York Review of Books.


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1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.” —Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...


Mao’s China


To most Westerners China is not a part of the known world and Mao is not a figure of our time. The ignorant believe he is the leader of a host of martians whose sole occupation is plotting the destruction of civilization and the enslavement of mankind. The more sophisticated say...

Report from the China Sea


Since the Communist victory in 1949 there has been very little contact between Americans and Chinese. Although a tiny community of aging Americans continues to live in Peking, no American, except for Edgar Snow, has traveled widely in the People’s Republic and written about it...

Peking, Hong Kong, & the US


1.No recent book has blown a bigger hole in the proposition that the US must follow a policy of “positive engagement” with China than The Coming Conflict with China. It is a mark of the wound they inflicted on Peking that the authors, ex-reporters in Peking, Richard Bernstein...