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1.06  Lushan Meeting & the Anti-Right Deviation Campaign (1959)

6 March 2018

Lushan Conference & the Discord between Mao Zedong and Peng Dehuai

It was already clear by 1959 that drastic measures had to be taken to redress the rapidly deteriorating situation. At the meeting of the Political Bureau and the Eighth Plenary Session of the Eighth CCCCP convened in Lushan (庐山会议 Lushan Conference) from July to August that year, the Chinese leaders, after having suppressed the Tibetan revolt militarily, turned their attention back to discussing measures to correct the problems caused by the GLF, not knowing that the conference would prove to be one of the most fateful in the history of the PRC.


At the beginning of the meeting, Mao Zedong proposed to summarize the experience since the start of GLF. He concluded that there had been over-delegation of powers and that some of those powers had to be taken back by central and provincial government. However, Peng Dehuai, the Defense Minister as well as a member of the Political Bureau, raised a range of criticisms of the Great Leap, based in large part on his own investigations. He summed these up in a letter that he sent to Mao during the conference.


There are different interpretations as to what really motivated Peng to write the letter.


One interpretation portrays Peng as the valiant marshal who spoke out bravely about the failings of the GLF, for the benefits of the suffering masses. Though he had no intention to challenge the Chairman’s leadership within the party, the autocratic Mao took it as a direct personal attack on him and responded ferociously. Once the Chairman had made clear his stand against Peng and his ‘clique’ and demanded that Peng and his supporters be removed from power, the rest of the top leadership fell in line in support of Mao. All they could do to help was to be less harsh in their public criticisms against Peng and those identified as in his ‘clique’. [1]


Another interpretation, in contrast, draws Peng as having an axe to grind. Unfortunately also for Peng, his criticism coincided with Soviet criticisms of the campaign.[2] It looked as though Peng had briefed Khrushchev during his travels to Moscow and Eastern Europe in June just before the Lushan Conference. Mao was outraged at Peng criticizing his ways to the USSR and even suspected collusion if not conspiracy between Peng and Khrushchev. This struck a raw nerve in Mao whose nationalistic desire drove him to maintain China’s independence right from the start despite seeking help from the Soviet Union in the post-war reconstruction. To Mao, Peng made China and him look weak.

To be sure, there was already latent discord between Mao and Peng even before the Lushan Conference. As earlier noted, Mao conceived of the GLF as a way to break out of the Soviet economic development model's constraints, given China's very different factor endowments. On the military side too, Mao also sought to cast off the Soviet model, and he made this clear at a prolonged enlarged meeting of the Military Affairs Commission. It met directly after the Great Leap strategy was adopted by the Second Session of the Eighth Party Congress in May and continued until July 1958. As the Defence Minister who had successfully led the ill-equipped PLA to hold off the American-led UN forces in the Korean War, Peng was anxious to raise the professionalism of the Chinese fighting forces after the war by emulating the organization and training methodologies of the Soviet Union’s military. He was therefore less than enthusiastic with Mao’s decision. To add insult to injury from Peng's perspective, the guerrilla conception of the role of the PLA demanded that the army create closer working relationships with the civilian population, a task that cut into military training and put the army in charge of the development and management of an enormous militia force.


At just this time, Mao moved Lin Biao, long a close supporter and one of China's finest military tacticians, into a position on the Politburo that gave Lin a higher CCP rank than Peng. The implications must have been clear - to both Lin and Peng.


During 1958 these tensions paled beside the overall enthusiasm of the bulk of the leadership for the GLF strategy; but when the Great Leap began to encounter serious problems, they rose to the surface to cause great resentment while widening the rift between Mao and Peng.[3]


The Anti-Right Deviation Campaign


In any case, Mao chose to make Peng's personal letter to him public by printing and circulating it without responding to the criticism for eight days. In effect, his moves put Peng on trial by his colleagues. Finally, on the ninth day, Mao responded by attacking Peng for “right deviationism” (右倾) and demanded the purge of Peng and all his followers. From then on, what was supposed to be a meeting to correct the left deviation of the over-zealous cadres in the GLF campaign evolved into one to oppose right deviation.


In the ensuing Anti-Right Deviation Campaign (反右倾运动), Peng was replaced as defense minister by Lin Biao, the GLF was scaled back and a political campaign was launched to identify and remove all “rightist” elements. The third decision effectively cancelled the second, as party officials refused to scale back the Great Leap for fear of being labeled as “rightists.” Instead of rectification and consolidation, which was the original theme of the conference, the new campaign effectively terminated the spring 1959 effort to rectify and consolidate the communes. Opposition to opportunism swept the country during the fall of 1959, removing all those who had expressed doubts about the efficacy of the GLF policies during the previous months. The net effect of Mao’s actions was to produce a “second leap” or the second go-communism craze that saw not a contraction of but a new radical upsurge in policies and activities leading to the continuation of the GLF and the further worsening of the economic crisis.[4] Overall, this second leap in late 1959 and 1960 produced the most devastating famine of the twentieth century in China (and probably in the world).[5]


Long-term Consequences of the Lushan Conference & the Anti-Right Deviation Campaign


One of the most significant consequences of Mao’s strong action against Peng at Lushan in 1959 was that Mao seems to have broken the unwritten rules that had governed debates among the top leadership to that point.


Before Lushan, any leader could freely voice his opinions at a Party gathering and debate could be heated. Nobody would be taken to task subsequently for what he said, as long as he formally accepted and acted in accord with the final decision reached. During 1953, for example, Finance Minister Bo Yibo (薄一波) had come under sharp criticism for advocating tax policies that, Mao felt, would slow down the development of the public sector of the economy. In 1955, Mao openly disagreed with his colleagues over the pace of the proposed collectivization of agriculture and effectively overturned the program they had adopted. His efforts in 1957 to encourage non-Party intellectuals to criticize the Party had brought bitter disagreement at the highest levels.


The key point about the 1949-57 period is that the conflicts were handled in a way that managed to preserve basic unity among the elite and maintain the élan of the revolutionary movement. But Mao's actions at Lushan effectively changed all that.


Moreover, the events of 1959-61 essentially vindicated what Peng Dehuai had said at Lushan. Peng carried out fairly extensive rural investigations during 1962, and that August he summarized his findings and submitted an 80,000-character document to the Central Committee justifying his rehabilitation on the grounds that his principled criticism at Lushan had been correct. But Lin Biao could not tolerate Peng's rehabilitation, and Mao did not want it either. In addition, by 1962 Mao may already have been thinking about the need to rely increasingly on Lin and the PLA as his concerns about his other colleagues grew. Thus, Mao blocked Peng's rehabilitation - and in so doing did further damage to the norms that had governed relations among the leaders to that date.


The long-term consequences of the Lushan Conference and the ousting of Peng Dehuai were thus profound.  They led to the unravelling of the political consensus that had held the Yanan leadership together through its days in the wilderness and its first decade in power. In the following years, as Mao became increasingly concerned with his colleagues’ ‘revisionism’, the process of political deterioration forbade open communication and collective decision-making within the CCP.  The distrust and the inability to reach consensus set the stage for the final split of the Yanan leadership when Mao unleashed an even more destructive political campaign – the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (无产阶级文化大革命,简称文化大革命) – in 1966 in a bid to protect his legacy as the helmsman of the Chinese socialist revolution.


PREVIOUS: 1.05  Great Leap Forward and its Aftermath (1958 – 65)

NEXT: 1.07  Three Years of Natural Calamities (1960 – 1962) & Termination of the Great Leap Forward



[1] See Frederick C.. Teiwes, Warren Sun. (1999). “China's Road to Disaster: Mao, Central Politicians, and Provincial Leaders in the Unfolding of the Great Leap Forward, 1955-1959.” M.E. Sharpe.

[2] See Thayer Watkins. “The Lushan Meeting of July 1959 and the Assertion of Total Absolute Control of China by Mao Zedong.”

[3] Cambridge Vol 14. Pg 308 - 309

[4] See Britannica “New directions in national policy, 1958–61.”

[5] See Denis Twitchett & John K. Fairbank. (Eds) (2008). Pg. 318.

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