For a few nights in November crowds numbering thousands in Peking's ceremonial Tienanmen Square revealed glimpses of the political turbulence and in-fighting just, below the veneer of stability and collective government normally visible to foreigners in the People's Republic of China. Because of the bitter power struggle going on inside the Politburo for Mao Tse-tung's exalted mantle, the police and the Communist Party control mechanisms were momentarily relaxed and outsiders, including Washington's own Bob Novak, witnessed the rare spectacle of genuine popular demands for greater freedom from what was termed in handwritten political wall posters the "feudalistic fascist dictatorship" of the last years of Mao's rule.
Not surprisingly, the startled regime quickly restored political discipline and restrained "the blooming of the hundred flowers" lest too many "weeds) unacceptable to Chinese Communist ideology spring up. After two especially heady nights of wall posters and public demonstrations, the Communist Party called countless meetings to warn activists to "cool it," and, of course, they prudently obeyed. Thus quickly ended the remarkable flare-up of something close to democratics sentiment in the world's most massively oppressive society.
To understand the wild wall-poster week in Peking requires learning the names and political numbers of the Chinese Politburo players, something most Americans seem unable to do. It also helps to know something about the similar political succession struggles in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union.
What is going on is a power-and-policy fight between two political teams now locked in an uneasy, fragile coalition within the Politburo. One side is led by the scrappy vice premier, 74-year-old Gen. Teng Hsiao-ping, twice purged as a "capitalist-roader" by Mao, Madame Mao, and the ideologically extermist leaders of the revolutionary wing of the Chinese party. This meant that Teng advocated then, as now, rapid economic "modernization," material incentives for workers rather than reliance on the "spirit" of the new Maoist Communist man, and the import of new military and industrial technology, borrowing both money and equipment from the "imperialist, capitalist" West if necessary.
Unrepentant after being twice politically reborn, Teng Hsiao-ping is now riding high on the strength of support from the majority of his old Army comrades and is out to revenge himself on the party leaders who benefitted from his previous misfortunes. Those men and their bureaucratic followers constitute the other political team in Peking and are the targets of the main criticisms in the wall posters. They are the present premier and Communist Party chairman, Hua Kuo-feng, and his strongest support, Wang Tung-hsing, the chief of the elite security police who closely guard and monitor the daily lives of all Chinese-leaders.
Hua was Mao's minister of public security; Wang was his personal bodyguard. They both rose to high posts from relative obscurity during the 10 turbulent years of the "Cultural Revolution," 1966-1976, when Mao and the fanatically ideological Madame Mao were purging Teng and his economic materialist clique.
Vice Premier Teng, to ensure that his power and his policy program will proceed unimpeded despite Hua's technically superior position, feels he must diminish the leverage of both Hua and Wang as well as the thousands of their henchmen who got the jobs vacated by Teng's purged friends. To some extent, it is a struggle between the old-guard military and the secret police. It is also, however, partly a generational battle, because the Teng military set are nearly all over 70 while Hua represents the "middle-aged" bureaucrats and security specialists who are from 50 to 65 years old. Hua himself is 57, and Wang Tung-hsing is 62. They are trying to hold on under the coalition banner, hoping to outlast Teng. Teng's team of geriatric generals has seized the "modernization" slogan and are clamoring for predominant authority beyond the ability of the security chiefs and the more ideologically oriented "middle-aged" bureaucrats to resist.
Unfortunately for Teng, the wall-poster campaign that he authorize din its tame initial phase began to get out of hand when rhetoric appeared fundamentally irreconcilable with Communist Party doctrine. The demonstrations were damped down without a resolution of the Teng-Hua conflict. No formal changes in the Politburo lineup were made, although some changes in Teng's favor had been widely anticipated.
The key to the drama unfolding in Peking is that Mao himself approved the party decisions between 1966 and 1976 that brought Teng down and Hua up. Hence the vice premier is obliged to discredit Mao's last 10 years of rule in order to cut Hua down to size. In a sense, Teng is playing the role of a Chinese Khrushchev, engaging in a limited version of de-Stalinization. The wall-poster demonstrations are part of a controlled process of de-maoification that is evident in other spheres of Peking political life.
Teng is obliged, however, to proceed with de-Maoification with great delicacy. Mao is not only China's Stalin, the willful aging autocrat, but China's Lenin, the founder and theoretician of the People's Republic. It follows that only the last 10 years of Mao's rule can be discredited because otherwise the whole regime would lose its legitimacy-its claims to the right to rule.
Some 500 million Chinese youth born since the People's Republic was founded in 1949 have no loyal memories of civil war days, and they are painfully aware of Mao's destruction of the mainland economy and educational system.
If Mao's whole career is in question, the logical but unthinkable alternative is some kind of non-Communist government. When one of the wall posters referred favorably not only to the United States but also to the prosperity of Taiwan, where the flourishing, comparatively free Republic of China governs, the Tienanmen game became too dangerous for the whole Politburo coalition. Peking's leaders closed ranks again temporarily and turned off the expressions of popular sentiment lest too many people say latter-day "Emperor" Mao had no clothes of a achievement and legitimacy at all. For then, neither would any of his present-day successors.