1.08  Seven Thousand Cadre Conference (1962)

6 March 2018

In 1962, the widening ideological rift between Mao and his pragmatic colleagues began to manifest during the Seven Thousand Cadres Work Conference held in January – February 1962.


As a review, Liu Shaoqi made the key report and blamed much of the recent trouble on the Party centre and stressed the importance of avoiding the kind of brutal purges and counterpurges that had racked the Party during the twists and turns of the previous few years. He had reportedly also called for the rehabilitation of Peng Dehuai, among other "rightists." Mao's own talk to the conference on generally endorsed these themes, and Mao informed the cadres in the audience that he himself had made a self-criticism the previous June. Thus, this conference in general helped to patch up the rather tattered decision-making apparatus within the Party.


But in other areas the conference failed to produce a consensus. In terms of what had caused the Great Leap disaster, Liu argued that wrong political decisions accounted for 70%, with the Soviet withdrawal of aid and the several years of bad weather accounting for the other 30%. Mao felt this stood the true situation on its head. Liu also felt that the economy still remained in a crisis and more far-reaching measures to salvage the situation would take a long time to put back into shape. The more optimistic Mao argued, in contrast, that things had now largely returned to normal.


Zhou Enlai supported Mao at this meeting and seems to have given an overall positive assessment of the Great Leap Forward. Deng Xiaoping reiterated the correctness of Mao Zedong Thought but then supported Liu on substantive issues such as the rehabilitation of rightists. Chen Yun had been asked to present a report on the situation in finance and trade, but he demurred on the basis that he had not yet fully clarified the situation in that sphere. Perhaps, the person who went to the conference armed with the information that could have summed up most clearly the difficult and uncertain position in which Politburo members found themselves in January 1962 was Peng Chen (彭真).


A report prepared by Peng Chen’s subordinates in December 1961 placed the blame for the disaster directly on the mobilizational politics of the GLF strategy. The centre had approved and circulated too many false reports, had issued too many conflicting directives, and had virtually totally ignored economic reality in its calls for action by local cadres. In short, the Politburo was largely responsible for the GLF disaster. Given Mao's headstrong leadership of that body, there is little question that the report in fact amounted to a severe critique of the Chairman's own work. Peng Chen reportedly went to the Seven Thousand Cadres Conference in January 1962 prepared to spell out the case but eventually hesitated and failed to criticize the Chairman's leadership at this major conference.


This reflects the unique position that the Chairman had assumed within the Chinese Party after 1949. In the eyes of his colleagues, Mao had conceptualized the Chinese revolution itself. While people recognized that he could make serious mistakes,  none had the courage (or gall) to question directly Mao's fundamental evaluation of the current situation and the priority tasks of the Party. There were, in short, no effective institutional curbs on Mao's power, and the Chairman used this advantage with great skill when he felt challenged or threatened.


Finally, while this conference made some progress toward accomplishing the vitally necessary task of reconstructing a disciplined and responsive Party apparatus, there was little agreement as to how best to carry out this task would carry out on the ground.


Hence, the conference left several issues only partly resolved. They include the rehabilitation of Peng Dehuai and some other leading "rightists", the evaluation of the overall economic situation and the rectification of the Party apparatus. Thus, while the meeting reflected the fact that Peking was again ready to begin to again seize the initiative, it also revealed the fissures within the central leadership that the traumatic previous three years had produced.


Disagreement over How Quickly China was Recovering


The issue that would come back to haunt the Chinese top leadership soon after the Seven Thousand Conference is the disagreement over just how quickly China was recovering from the depredations of the GLF.


In February 1962, the projection by the Ministry of Finance showed that central government would face would face a budget deficit of 2 billion to 3 billion yuan that year under current plans and projections. In response, Chen Yun called for appropriate changes in plans, including a significant scaling down of the production targets discussed during the previous month. In addition, fearing a deteriorating food situation, Chen also argued that the poor agrarian situation demanded a revision of the recently adopted plans for recovery. This would entail designating 1962-65 as a period of recovery, where energies would remain focused on rural production, and growth in the metallurgical and machine-building industries would necessarily be held back.


Chen’s sober assessment was strongly endorsed during a meeting in Beijing called by Liu who had assumed charge of day-today affairs of the Politburo. In any case, the assessment seems to have come close to the picture that Liu himself had painted at the recently concluded Seven Thousand Cadres Conference. However, not everyone agreed with Chen’s assessment. The Ministry of Metallurgy for example, refused to accept Chen's analysis and continued to hold out for a larger steel target - placed at 25 to 30 million tons by 1970 - as the core of the new Five-Year Plan.


Different assessments naturally justified different measures for bringing about a more normal situation. Mao tended to be more optimistic than many of his colleagues as this issue was debated in 1962, and indeed the Chairman seems to have begun to suspect that the pessimists were trying to limit his own flexibility and room for manoeuvre in the system. As Mao became more concerned with revisionism, this set of issues assumed increasing importance for him.


Thus, two significantly different assessments of the situation emerged during the first half of 1962.


Liu, Deng, Chen, and others, had concluded by late February that the situation remained almost desperately bad and that a significant recovery period would be necessary before Beijing could again really assume the initiative. The grim rural situation demanded further concessions to peasant material interests in the form of official endorsement of speculative activities by the peasants and the type of decollectivization referred to as "going it alone" (dangan单干 or individual farming). The general social demoralization demanded that the regime yield to popular tastes in cultural fare, permitting the staging of old operas and plays and the composition of other works that played down revolutionary politics in favour of traditional favourite themes and characters. The desperate economic situation also demanded that the regime woo former capitalists and the technical intelligentsia into active efforts to revive the urban economy.


In contrast, Mao, who was now based in Wuhan, argued that the country was well on the way to recovery and thus that the time had come to begin to exercise some initiative in moving China farther along a socialist path. He was supported at least by some provincial officials, by Lin Biao in the military, and by people in the heavy industry sector. Mao thus opposed further decollectivization in agriculture and backtracking in other areas, such as culture. Moreover, Mao's ruminations on the development of the Soviet revolution were also spurring his concern over trends in China during these months.


The Beidaihe Conference (August 1962) & the Tenth Plenum (September 1962)


The clash between these two approaches came to a head at the August 1962 Beidaihe (北戴河) meeting.


Liu and his confreres came to this meeting having spent the preceding months actively pursuing the policy implications of Chen Yun's analysis of China's situation and mobilizing support for the policy recommendations. For example, Zhu De (朱德), one of the most respected of the old marshals, called for expansion of the individual responsibility system in agriculture and for other measures that put him solidly with Liu and Deng's evaluation of the problems in the countryside.


Mao approached this meeting in another frame of mind. He evidently felt increasingly isolated from the mainstream of decision making, even though his signature continued to be sought on Central Committee documents before they were disseminated. Mao reportedly had ceased sitting in on Politburo meetings as of January 1958, reflecting probably in part his genuine effort to retire to the "second line" and give his colleagues more prestige. But over time it may well have made him feel increasingly isolated and neglected by his colleagues. Mao clearly began in 1962 to search for ways to reassert himself in the system.


After listening to the reports during the first days of the Beidaihe meeting with chagrin, Mao addressed the meeting on 9 August employing such biting sarcasm that his talk probably seriously affected the tone of the entire proceedings. Mao bitterly attacked the Ministry of Finance, whose budget deficit projection had provided the basis for Chen Yun's February report and all that had followed from it. He then stressed the fact that China still faced the need for class struggle, and it was obvious that he felt the continuing retreat from socialist policies simply exacerbated the dangers in this sphere. He attacked directly the adoption of an individual responsibility system in farming and called for a campaign of "socialist education" to rectify the Party apparatus in the rural areas. And he warned against the possibility of capitalist or even feudal restoration in the PRC.


Mao thus succeeded in turning the agenda around so that it at least in part reflected his own priorities. His commanding presence was most easily brought to bear at these central conclaves, and he took full advantage of his political resources there. Liu Shaoqi challenged the Chairman's priorities in at least some respects at this meeting. What emerged was a patchwork compromise in an atmosphere of somewhat heightened political tension.


The Tenth Plenum (八届十中全会) that convened on 24-27 September revealed all the cleavages and contradictions that had boiled up at the Beidaihe meeting. Mao presided over this meeting, and his speech to the participants closely linked the degeneration of the Soviet Union to the fact that class struggle would still exist in China for decades to come. Mao was persuaded by Liu and others at this meeting, however, to make clear that the issue of class struggle should not be allowed to swamp other policy decisions coming out of the Tenth Plenum, as had happened after the Eighth Plenum at Lushan in 1959.


Mao’s Mounting Concerns over the Trend towards Revisionism


Mao's general concern with class struggle reflected a more basic fear of his that the Chinese revolution was beginning to head down the path of "revisionism" as a result of his colleagues’ pragmatic policies. As the helmsman of the Chinese socialist revolution, Mao was very much intent on shepherding the revolution along collectivist and relatively egalitarian paths. He distrusted urban-based bureaucracies and China's intellectuals as a whole. Even though many of his concrete policy proposals had the effect of exploiting the countryside to develop urban-based industry, he nevertheless seems genuinely to have thought of himself as a representative of China's poor peasants.


In the aftermath of the GLF tragedy, Mao could not argue as of 1962 that mass mobilization could restore the country's productive capacities. He therefore continued to yield to the entreaties that the Party make full use of material incentives and of technical expertise to recoup the situation. But Mao also as of the Tenth Plenum decided to draw the line. He resolutely opposed decollectivization in agriculture and insisted that the communes remain intact (or be restored where they had been abandoned). He also recognized that current policies would increase the strength of the groups in society that he trusted least - the former landlords and rich peasants in the countryside, former capitalists, technical specialists, and intellectuals in the cities. He also feared that a period of normality would nurture tendencies toward sluggish bureaucratism among the many middle-level cadres that had shown themselves so prone to this evil in the past. Thus, Mao called for measures to bring political issues onto the agenda (but without disrupting normal work). He also strengthened the organs responsible for handling those who slip into counterrevolution - the Public Security Ministry and the CCP Control Commission.


The Tenth Plenum embraced Mao's overall analysis in theory but in its concrete provisions kept close to the methods that had been worked out during 1961-62 to bring about a recovery from the Great Leap Forward. This compromise produced a communique that in some paragraphs echoed Mao's rhetoric and in others drove home the logic that Liu, Deng, and Chen had put forward.

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