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The Hinge of Fate after 1978


The Hinge of Fate after 1978

By Zhao Shukai, Research Fellow and Director-General of Information Center, DRC

The 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee held at the end of 1978 marked a significant change for Ji Dengkui’s fate. Such a change was very dramatic. At the beginning of the plenum, as one of the leaders of the central government shouldering important responsibilities, Ji Dengkui made a speech on the drafting of relevant documents for the meeting. However, during the plenum, he was harshly berated unexpectedly, but some believed it did not go beyond people’s expectations. After the closing of the plenum, he simply disappeared from China’s top political arena. For Ji Dengkui, this plenum was really like a gate of hell.

Part One

The 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee that we are talking about today actually consisted of two consecutive sessions. The first session was the central working conference held from November 10 to December 16, for preparing the plenum; the second session was held from December 18 to 31. The working conference focused on discussing the documents to be passed at the 3rd Plenary Session. The plenum reviewed and approved the documents discussed at the working conference in light of relevant procedures. Therefore, the two sessions were intrinsically linked to each other.

With regard to the conference agenda, Ji Dengkui played an important role at the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee. Since the conference mainly aimed at the review and approval of two major documents about agricultural development, Ji Dengkui, as the Executive Vice Premier of the State Council in charge of agriculture and head of the drafting team, made an explanation on how the documents were prepared. This plenum lasted for a couple of days, most sessions were group discussions and there were only three or four major speeches made at the meeting. The report made by Ji Dengkui at the plenum occupied a significant part of the agenda. On November 13, 1978, the fourth day of the central working conference, the second session of the plenum was held and presided by Hua Guofeng. The session was totally focused on the briefing given by Ji Dengkui on how the two documents about agriculture were drafted.

The 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee passed two important documents about agricultural issue, which were Decisions on Accelerating Agricultural Development and Regulations on People's Communes (also known as Sixty New Regulations). Though agriculture was the primary topic of the plenum, people attending the meeting did not spent much time on that issue and their major concern focused on talking about some historical and political events during the Cultural Revolution, especially the conclusions given to some previous state leaders including Liu Shaoqi, Peng Dehuai, Tao Zhu, Bo Yibo and the so-called “61 traitors’ group”. Chen Yun and Hu Yaobang gave some guidelines to the discussions. The report on agricultural documents made by Ji Dengkui became less important at the plenum. Moreover, Ji’s role at the plenum was not as important as it indicated in the conference agenda. He no longer played a leading role at the plenum, but was criticized and scolded instead.

Viewing from Ji Dengkui’s passive attitude, it could be seen that he showed little interest in such a conference. In other words, Ji had already lost power before the plenum. He was aware of what would happen to him during the meeting in advance. The plenum proceeded mainly in the form of group discussions attended by members of the Standing Committee of CPC Central Committee and members of the Political Bureau took part in different groups according to prearrangement. The meeting minutes taken by Yu Guangyuan showed that apart from him in the northwest group, Fang Yi, Xu Xiangqian and Ji Dengkui, three members of the Political Bureau, were also assigned to attend the discussion in the same group. Ji Dengkui’s passive attitude caught the attention of Yu Guangyuan. He wrote in his book “1978: The Historical Turning Point I Had Experienced” , that “Among the 35 members in northwest group, 34 of them spoke actively. But Ji Dengkui made no additional remarks other than introducing the drafted documents in a group meeting. I don’t know why he seldom attended the meeting. He was criticized during the meeting without his presence, and his self-criticism was not mentioned in the group meeting. No one quarreled with him during the meeting.” Ji Dengkui had already lost interest in the plenum prior to its convention.

As I could remember, Ji Dengkui seldom talked about the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee. Sometimes he only mentioned the names of some deputies, some individual incidents and the criticism he received during the plenum. He once said that Chen Yun was not very fond of him but he did not explain why. Some relevant data of the Party history revealed that during a meeting, Ji Dengkui argued with Chen Yun face to face. Ji Dengkui strongly objected to redressing Liu Shaoqi’s grievance. He was annoyed by Chen Yun’s remarks that Chairman Mao was a common man but not the God; Liu Shaoqi was a man but not a ghost; Kang Sheng was a ghost but not a man. Later, Hua Guofeng intervened and proposed to review Liu Shaoqi’s case. That was why the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee did not give a conclusion to Liu Shaoqi’s case. Besides, Chen Yun was elected the Vice Chairman of CPC Central Committee, although Ji Dengkui and some others blackballed it. Not long after the closing of the plenum, Ji Dengkui was dismissed from his concurrent post as the Political Commissar of Beijing Military Command. (Revitalization of China: Some Events Relating to the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee ) I think the source of this data is reliable. However, I don’t know why Ji Dengkui objected to redressing the grievance of Liu Shaoqi. Generally speaking, people who were in charge of dealing with the case were the first ones to object the redressing. But apparently, Ji Dengkui was not one of them. Before Ji became a member of the Political Bureau at the 9th CPC National Congress, Liu Shaoqi was already labeled as the “traitor, enemy agent and scab” and “was permanently expelled from the Party” at the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee presided over by Chairman Mao. Ji was the leader of the inquiry team for Lin Biao’s case, but he did not participate in the investigation of Liu Shaoqi’s case. In general, one possibility is that maybe Ji Dengkui and Liu Shaoqi had some resentment between each other in the past, so he didn’t approve of redressing Liu’s grievance. However, this kind of conjecture seems impossible. Because at that time Liu Shaoqi occupied a very high position in the CPC, it was less possible for him to have any disputes with local officials like Ji. Another possibility is that maybe in Ji Dengkui’s mind, Liu Shaoqi’s case was ruled on by Chairman Mao personally and he wanted to safeguard the authority of Mao as he believed whatever decisions made by Mao were correct and whatever instructions made by Mao should be followed. But from Ji Dengkui’s general performance, he was not that sincere to uphold these principles. In a word, the reason why Ji Dengkui objected the rehabilitation of Liu Shaoqi’s case still remains to be a mystery today.

In addition, this data also referred that Ji Dengkui and some others cast dissenting votes for Chen Yun at the 3rd Plenary Session. But people believed that this claim is not fabricated out of nothing. The question is how the election proceeded at the plenum. One kind of voting is to raise hands and the other is to vote by secret ballot. If the form of election was the former one, we could deduce that Ji Dengkui didn’t raise his hand for approval. But if it is the latter kind, how could the author know Ji Dengkui and some others cast dissenting votes ?

Part Two

At the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee, Ji Dengkui was criticized fiercely by name. Such criticism was mentioned by him many times through his talks in his later years. However, he seldom mentioned the actual criticism or by whom he was criticized. According to Yu Guangyuan’s memoirs, the delegates’ opinions could mainly be classified into three aspects. First, they criticized Wang Dongxing, Wu De, Chen Xilian and Ji Dengkui for the mistakes they had committed. During the earlier part of the plenum, Wang Dongxing was not criticized by name, but after he was named by Jiang Yizhen and Yu Guangyuan during the northwest group session, other groups also joined to criticize him by name. Second, some delegates had a lot of complaints about the General Office of the CPC Central Committee, the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee, the Red Flag political journal and the editorial office of Mao Zedong’s works, because they thought these institutions behaved improperly in the debate on “Criterion for Testing Truth”. They also required these institutions to be reorganized. Third, they also criticized Li Xin, Zhang Pinghua, Xiong Fu and Wu Lengxi, who were leaders of the above-mentioned institutions, for their wrong views on the debate. Taking all those opinions into consideration, we can say that among all the leaders being scolded, the criticism was focused on Wang Dongxing rather than Ji Dengkui. According to Yu Guangyuan, twelve proposals were raised to the CPC Central Committee by the northwest group, and out of which eight were about Wang Dongxing’s mistakes. One of the proposals was to dismiss Ji Dengkui’s job as the Executive Vice Premier of the State Council, but without detailed description of his mistakes.

The 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee was held from December 18 to 22, 1978. Ji Dengkui made a self-criticism at the meeting on December 19. His self-criticism mainly touched upon his improper remarks he had made and the wrong cases he had dealt with in Henan Province in the initial period of the Cultural Revolution. According to him, he and Liu Jianxun had jointly drafted “a big-character poster” supporting the minority mass groups which had made a bad influence across the country; he had made some speeches supporting the minority mass groups on different occasions; he was responsible for wrongly dealing with the issue of Wang Peiyu, Secretary of the Party Committee of Zhengzhou University in Henan Province; he provided guns for some “left-wing mass groups”, and suppressed some “right-wing mass groups” and he had to shoulder the responsibility of giving unequal treatment to some veteran cadres, resulting in many unjust and misjudged cases, and hurting the feelings of the masses and cadres both in local areas and in the army. Ji Dengkui also made a self-criticism about his contact with Liu Jianxun after the Tiananmen Incident. When the “Gang of Four” were ousted from the Party, Ji told Liu Jianxun in a telephone call that he should not restrict the masses from putting up “big-character posters” or holding parades. Ji Dengkui said, “When I worked in the Central Committee of CPC, I was concurrently the Secretary of Henan Provincial Party Committee. I had inescapable responsibility for the trouble issues in Henan Province”. He said, “Since I’ve made such mistakes, I am no longer the suitable person to continue performing my present job. Therefore, I sincerely hope that the CPC Central Committee could accept my request of quitting my job as the Executive Vice Premier and I am no longer qualified to attend the work of political science and law, agriculture and salary reform.” He also said, “I will earnestly think about my errors and draw lessons from the past. I’ll read more books and do some research. I am determined to correct my mistakes. Under the leadership of comrade Hua Guofeng, I will work harder, make amends for my faults by good deeds, and do my bit for the realization of the four modernizations”. Each incident mentioned by Ji Dengkui in his self-criticism is a piece of complex story during the Cultural Revolution. Due to the space limit of the article and limited knowledge of the author, these incidents cannot be illustrated in detail here in this article. But through Ji Dengkui’s self-criticism, we can have a general idea about Ji’s attitude relating to his mistakes in the Cultural Revolution.

When Ji Dengkui recalled those old days, he didn’t want to tell us the details of the Cultural Revolution. In recent years, I have asked some retired senior cadres, who had experienced the Cultural Revolution, about what on earth were the mistakes of Ji Dengkui, but what I heard were only some general and brief comments. Some said, “During the Cultural Revolution, Ji was in charge of the department of personnel arrangement, political science and law. He had dealt with some major cases and punished many people. So inevitably, he must have made many mistakes and offend many cadres”. Some said that Ji’s problem was mainly “following the wrong line” and he should not be responsible for all the mistakes. And still some illustrated some specific cases to prove how Ji had unequally treated cadres. Despite all my efforts, I cannot get a holistic view of Ji’s problem. Apparently, for some policy issues like the people's commune and “learning from Dazhai in agriculture”, there a

re more transparent documents, more systematic materials, and more people who know the facts or the details of relevant incidents in the past. Therefore, the background and different views about these events are easy to be illustrated and explained. However, to get to know the whole story of historical and political events is different from getting the knowledge about the rural policy. It is very hard for the younger generation like me to grasp the essence of the matter. First, it is difficult to get the general process of these historical issues; second, what is even harder is to clarify the responsibility of leaders at different levels of governments. Sometimes I come up with the idea that “big data” might be able to help solve the problem, since “big data” is widely applied in different sectors. If we could collect the “big data” of the cases during the Cultural Revolution, including the making of political instructions and the actual implementation of these instructions, it might become easier for us to make in-depth studies.

Part Three

Ji Dengkui often mentioned in his later years that for over a year after the closing of the 3rd Plenum of the 11th CPC Central Committee , he was still a member of the Political Bureau and Vice Premier of the State Council but only in name. He said that though he was holding his previous posts, he was only a figurehead without real power. In other words, after the plenum was closed, Ji Dengkui only remained a nominal political leader.

If one reads the Chinese history, he will find that it is not a rare case for some high-ranking officials to hold only nominal posts in the government. The personnel arrangement after the closing of the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee was totally made by Deng Xiaoping. Actually, during the plenum, some deputies proposed to take disciplinary measures against Wang Dongxing and Ji Dengkui. But the decision whether to take disciplinary measures relating to Wang and Ji was not made by Hua Guofeng thought he was the Chairman of CPC Central Committee, Premier of the State Council and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. The decisive and final decision was made by Deng Xiaoping, Vice Chairman of the CPC Central Committee, Vice Premier of the State Council and Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission and concurrently Chief of the General Staff of the Central Military Commission. According to Yu Guangyuan’s memoirs, on November 25, prior to the opening of the 3rd Plenary Session, leaders of the CPC Central Committee listened to the reports made by conveners of each group. Deng Xiaoping said that some deputies had criticized Chen Xilian, Wu De and Ji Dengkui in an appropriate manner, but he indicated it was not necessary to make every deputy feel satisfied with their self-criticism and he didn’t think that their self-criticism should be discussed by deputies at the 3rd Plenary Session. (A Major Turning Point in China’s History, p. 249, by Zhang Shujun). On the evening of November 27, members of the Standing Committee of the CPC Political Bureau listened to the reports of each group. Deng Xiaoping pointed out that “no one should be dismissed either from the Central Committee or from the government. Some comrades can be criticized but not dismissed. Some members of the Central Committee may not perform their duties or attend the central meetings, but they will not be removed from the committee. We shouldn’t leave people the impression that there is a power struggle among us.” Deng mentioned, “It is proper for us to add at most three more members to the Political Bureau otherwise it would become difficult for us to address deputes relating to personnel arrangement.” He made clear that “We do not harbor those who have made mistakes and neither do we force them to admit their mistakes. Comrade Wang Dongxing wished to quit his posts of the Vice Chairman of CPC Central Committee and the member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau. But in light of the big picture, we would not accept his resignation” (Zhang Shujun: The Major Turning Point in China’s History, p. 249). Deng Xiaoping added, “Self-criticism is a good practice of the Party, but first and foremost we must ensure stability and unity. I have told Ji Dengkui that we have accepted his self-criticism and we will not rake up old scores and the Political Bureau needs to pay attention to stability.” (Zhang Shujun: The Major Turning Point in China’s History, p. 249). With the instructions given by Deng Xiaoping, Ji Dengkui was only removed from his post as the Political Commissar of Beijing Military Command and he remained to be the nominal leader of the central government. After the plenum, Ji became occupied with nothing.

At the 5th Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee held in February 1980, Ji Dengkui resigned his post from the Political Bureau. The main agenda of this plenum included: redressing Liu Shaoqi’s grievance; setting up the Secretariat of the Central Committee and approving the nominees; accepting the resignation of Wang Dongxing, Ji Dengkui, Chen Xilian and Wu De to quit their posts from the Political Bureau. As a matter of fact, these people had already been dismissed during a meeting attended by members of the Political Bureau before the plenum was held. At this meeting, members of the Political Bureau harshly criticized those four people. The remarks made by Chen Yun and Peng Zhen were especially incisive. Chen Yun said, “At present, the ultra-Leftist ideas pursued by Lin Biao and the‘Gang of Four’are still there among some comrades. They still cling to the viewpoint of the ‘Gang of Four’even though the ‘Gang of Four’ have already been smashed. They oppose the Party’s line, principles and objectives set out at the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee and they behave as double-dealers and fabricate rumours to mislead the public. For example, Wang Dongxing, Ji Dengkui, Chen Xilian and Wu De are such men. Loads of letters reporting and complaining about their misdoings were sent to the Commission for Discipline Inspection of the CPC Central Committee by Party members and the masses. It will be harmful for our Party’s reputation if they still remain in the Political Bureau of the Central Committee.” (Revitalization of China, p. 551,CPC History Press). The voting results made by the Political Bureau showed that two-thirds of the deputies wanted them to resign immediately and they submitted their request to the 5th Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee for approval. The four men were informed to attend the 5th Plenum, but three of them took a sick leave and only Chen Xilian was present at the meeting.

If we make an in-depth analysis of Ji Dengkui’s fall from the top leadership, we shouldn’t make a start from the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee in 1978. The downfall of Ji Dengkui from the political arena began from his lost of power when he was no longer allowed to be in charge of the work of the Organization Department of the CPC. The specific time of such change in top leadership within the Party cannot be verified now. But from Ji Dengkui’s casual talks, we can infer that he lost the power of managing personnel affairs in the winter of 1976 or in the spring of 1977. Hua Guofeng told him about the changes in the division of labor. Such changes in the top leadership of must have records in Party’s documents but we have no way to get access to such documents. Actually, Ji was no longer responsible for personnel affairs during the preparation process of the 11th Party Congress held in August 1977. His work was handed over to Wang Dongxing. Previously, Wang’s status within the Party was lower than Ji Dengkui; but later, Wang Dongxing became a member of the Political Bureau and Vice Chairman of CPC Central Committee at the 11th Party Congress. Ji Dengkui’s quit out of the higher leadership revealed, to some extent, Hua Guofeng’s distrust to Ji Dengkui. Later on, Ji Dengkui was mainly in charge of agriculture in the government. It is generally acknowledged that the reason why Hua Guofeng weakened Ji Dengkui’s power was due to Ji’s obscure attitude towards the issue of the “Gang of Four”. It is said that before Hua Guofeng gave the order to arrest the “Gang of Four”, he had asked Ji Dengkui’s opinion about that. Ji’s answer was these people should be treated differently. Obviously, his attitude was very ambiguous, which had led to Hua Guofeng’s dissatisfaction. That is to say, when Hua was still leader of the Party’s Central Committee, Ji’s power already began to phase out. Right before the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee in late 1978, Ji Dengkui entirely lost his power in top leadership. By then, Deng Xiaoping had replaced Hua Guofeng to be the leader of the top political leadership in China. Because Ji Dengkui lost his power before the plenum, he knew for sure what would happen to him during the endued meeting. Perhaps that’s why he kept silent at the plenum and was absent from the meetings.

Based on the limited information the author has gathered, it can be said that Ji Dengkui’s downfall from the top leadership can be generally divided into three steps. First, he lost his power for the management of personnel affairs soon after the “Gang of Four” were arrested. Second, he was publicly criticized and demoted at the 3rd Plenary Session and lost his power in the top leadership. Third, he was officially dismissed from his posts in the Party and the central government. Today, people gradually get to know some arguments at the 3rd Plenary Session, but what happened at the session mainly indicated the conversion of Party’s political line. Before the session, there was a transformation of power structure in top leadership. The process of such transformation remains unknown to the public. These issues remain to be studied relating to the Cultural Revolution and the launch of reform and opening-up policy.

Note: The article was published in China Development Observation, No. 9, Sep. 26, 2015