When Deputies Were Doomed
By JAIME A. FLORCRUZ
Visiting China in 1965, British World War II general Lord Montgomery asked Mao Zedong with characteristic abruptness, "If you died today, who would take over?" Mao named Liu Shaoqi, then head of state. Montgomery recounted this anecdote to the press, and word promptly went out: Liu Shaoqi was the No. 2 man in China. The good Lord might as well have signed Liu's death warrant. The headlines convinced the paranoid Mao that Liu was scheming to take over. In response, the Great Helmsman unleashed the Cultural Revolution and jettisoned his comrade-in-arms. Liu, pilloried as the "No. 1 capitalist roader," died in 1969 in prison, deprived of food and medical attention.
No job in the People's Republic is as dangerous as that of No. 2. Playing second fiddle to modern-day emperors like Mao can be a political trap. For decades, Mao was preoccupied with the issue of succession, apparently to avoid the emergence of a Khrushchev-like revisionist after his passing. But Mao could never trust a deputy for long. By the time he died in 1976, half-a-dozen heirs apparent had risen and fallen.
The man with perhaps the strongest claim to be Mao's deputy escaped that fate--but only because he never sought the job. Zhou Enlai, the popular but self-effacing Premier, always positioned himself as No. 3. Other politicians were not as subtle. Lin Biao, a brilliant Red Army commander, was designated Mao's successor after he had done the dirty work of sweeping away "capitalist roaders" like Liu Shaoqi. By 1969, Lin was a rising star--the Ninth Congress even named him as Mao's successor. But Mao's favor soon ebbed. In September 1971, Lin died in a plane crash in Mongolia; he was later accused of plotting to assassinate Mao and take power.
Lin's replacement was Wang Hongwen, a handsome Shanghai factory worker and Red Guard rabble-rouser. Too incompetent for affairs of state, the poster-boy for the radicals did not last long. When the graying Zhou Enlai fell ill with cancer in 1972, he persuaded Mao to bring Deng Xiaoping back from exile to take his place. Deng was soon being talked of as Mao's successor--only to be purged again in 1976. On his deathbed, Mao anointed Hua Guofeng, the moon-faced former party secretary of Hunan, as his de facto successor. Hua survived Mao but not his Politburo peers. National Defense Minister Ye Jianying led a coup that eventually put the country in Deng's hands.
In 1987, Deng followed Mao's example by sacking a likely successor, General Secretary Hu Yaobang. Hu had only been in the job two years, but his freewheeling approach had scared hardliners. Premier Zhao Ziyang was made general secretary--only to be removed in 1989 as a scapegoat for the Tiananmen protests. Next, Deng picked Jiang Zemin, the unheralded Shanghai mayor, to become China's putative No. 1. For years until Deng's 1997 death, Jiang operated meekly under his shadow, parroting Deng's words and offering few ideas of his own. This prompted critics to dismiss him as a pushover who would not last beyond Deng's demise. But Jiang has survived. His secret? He behaved as No. 2--until No. 1 passed away.