Liu Shaoqi, the Chinese president turned ‘capitalist roader’

Society & Culture

Liu Shaoqi was president of China, the handpicked successor to Mao. But he was a bit too bold, too truthful — and flew too close to the sun.

January 3, 1967. In the offices of the Central Committee in Beijing’s elite Zhongnanhai, a large crowd looked on in silence as the Chinese president was beaten to a pulp, “pushed and kicked and beaten by staff members,” according to one onlooker, as relayed in Mao: The Real Story by Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine. The president’s shirt “had already been torn open, and a couple of buttons were missing, and people were jerking him around by the hair…Finally, they forced him down and pushed his face toward the ground until it was nearly touching the dirt, kicking him and slapping him in the face.”

This was just the beginning of a spectacular fall from grace for Liú Shǎoqí 刘少奇, a man once lined up as Mao’s successor. He’d been a key architect of the Chinese Communist Party from the start, but now he was nothing but a traitor, a “scab,” “the biggest capitalist roader in the Party” who’d sought to overthrow Mao’s revolution.

Years later, after Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 rose to power, Liu would be rehabilitated, and many of his most significant policies live on in the era of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平. But as far as Mao was concerned, he stood in the way — not of revolution, but of Mao himself.

Who is Liu Shaoqi?

Despite what the Red Guard said, Liu wasn’t born to feudal landlords, but rich peasants in Hunan province in 1898. By 1919 he had emerged from a middle school trained in factory work; it would later be a point of pride for him that he knew how to use the tools of the worker.

By the time he arrived at the Socalist Youth League in Shanghai, he was a serious and studious young man, trying to apply Communism to solve China’s national problems. An old classmate, quoted in Liu Shaoqi and the Cultural Revolution by Lowell Dittmer, remembered he had “hardly any personal hobbies, never engaged in random chatting and seldom went out…whenever we saw him he was studying Russian, reading The Communist Manifesto or considering problems in the Chinese revolution.”

This led to the Youth League selecting him to study in Russia, where he joined the brand new Chinese Communist Party in 1921. Upon his return to China a year later, he went straight to work for the Chinese labor unions promoting class struggle. His first major assignment was in Hunan, under a young district secretary named Máo Zédōng 毛泽东.

Liu was a great organizer, unionizing industrial workforces by giving them a Marxist education, turning them into effective striking units from steel works, coal mines, and the railroads. Alongside Mao, he played a big part in the Anyuan Coal Mine Strikes of 1922, an important uprising that made the town a base for future CCP agitation. Mao and Liu’s partnership would last over 40 years.

He was the perfect bureaucrat and theoretician. Whereas most Chinese revolutionaries were passionate and romantic, Liu was a practical strategist, squinting at the nitty-gritty while Mao looked to the horizon. According to one cadre colleague, he “had a quiet nature, did not talk much, and who, if he wasn’t sitting all day reading a book, would be writing something.” But revolution fired him — “If I do not succeed, China will fail,” he stated in 1924. He clearly meant it: he organized 30-odd strikes in his first month alone as head of the Hubei Federation of Trade Unions in 1926.

It all ensured him a place in the Politburo of the Chinese Soviet Republic by 1931. While on the Long March he lectured to new recruits, and when Mao announced guerilla fighting was required, Liu was the one drumming up forces to work undercover in Nationalist- and Japanese-occupied areas. He was the one to organize the New Fourth Army after the Nationalists abandoned it in 1941, placing it under the CCP with Liu as their political commissar.  

As with defeating CCP enemies, so with organizing the CCP itself. At the 7th National Congress in 1945, he argued that Mao Zedong Thought was the successor to Marxist-Leninism in China, proposing it be enshrined in Party ideology. While drawing up the PRC’s constitution in 1954, he argued for democratic centralism, whereby individual cadres must put their personal beliefs on a Party policy aside if it becomes law. He visited Stalin in 1949, the two men dividing the labor for the ongoing Communist revolution — going forward, China was to promote the “eastern revolution.”

He cultivated good souls for the Party, writing a booklet in 1939 clearly setting out “How to Be a Good Communist” for recruits. It would become the standard textbook for Party followers until the Little Red Book. In it he argued for constant struggle against outdated ideas and for individuals to dedicate themselves to the Party, whose collective needs were greater than their own. But he also advocated leniency, saying that mistakes must be tolerated but fixed, as wrong ideas “cannot possibly be eliminated at one stroke.”

He became an integral organizer once the Party gained power, reeling through a string of prominent desk jobs: Vice-Chairman of the Central People’s Government; Chairman of the NPC Standing Committee; First Vice Chairman of the CCP; and finally Chairman of the PRC (the constitutional head of state) from 1959 to 1968, second only to Mao himself.

But the honeymoon was not to last.

Liu also knew that the CCP’s power came from giving the people what they wanted, listening to their needs. After the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, he went back to Hunan in 1961 to empirically study the devastation. In May he returned to Beijing and reported that “the people say that three-tenths was natural calamity and seven-tenths was man-made,” that many errors had occurred while implementing policies for which the Party “should take collective responsibility rather than individual departments or people.”

He and Deng Xiaoping advocated liberal economic and agrarian policies to plug the key gap in national demand for material goods, now more important than making revolution. They scaled down collective farming so that by 1961, production of grain increased by 4 million tons, and by 12.5 million tons in 1962. Such success meant Liu and Deng became popular, and since Mao had acknowledged Liu as his successor, the latter risked outshining the former.

But Mao believed collective farming was still the way forward, the peasants just needed to be instructed correctly. The Socialist Education Movement was therefore organized by Liu, but he rapidly found it was impossible to create trust when, according to Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, local cadres were viewed “as corrupt as the KMT officials they had replaced.” The movement turned into an anti-corruption campaign — after all, a good communist only ever put the people and the Party first.

Flying too close to the sun

By 1962, Liu was more outspoken. Perhaps his new position of power as Mao’s successor gave him the confidence to row back ever more obviously from Mao’s agenda — making the big mistake of not giving face. At a Central Committee meeting in January 1962, he was dangerously honest about the “human errors” of the Great Leap Forward, and even called for the rehabilitation of “Rightists” persecuted toward the end of the movement.

This was a dangerous time to turn on the Great Helmsman. Nikita Krushchev had posthumously denounced Stalin and begun rolling back his policies. Would Liu become the Chinese equivalent, turning the country back down the road to capitalist decadence? It was obvious, Mao fumed at a Central Committee conference in 1962, that abandoning collective farming restored “corruption, thievery, speculation, the taking of concubines, and usury.” Worse, perhaps Liu was planning to put himself in Mao’s place.

Quietly, Mao began setting the stage for a power display that would leave him the undisputed leader: the Cultural Revolution. Liu agreed to it, seeing an opportunity to bring cadres more in line with selfless Party morals, chairing the Politburo meeting that opened the policy. But he rapidly lost control. When students at Tsinghua and Peking University rose up to join the Red Guard, Liu made the mistake of doing what he did best, sending work teams to restore order, organize the revolution, and bring it under central control. But for Mao, this was obstructing the new revolution.

Soon, slogans began appearing on big-character posters and daubed onto Liu’s house, exclaiming he was “China’s Krushchev.” It opened the floodgates for the brutal struggle sessions that literally dragged China’s president through the dirt. He would be repeatedly forced into the “airplane position” for hours and made to kowtow in front of cartoons of Red Guards. His fifth wife, the talented, beautiful and sophisticated Wáng Guāngměi 王光美, was forced to dress in a tight-fitting qipao (split up to the hip to imply prostitution) while wearing a decadent “pearl” necklace of ping-pong balls.

Liu was placed under house arrest in 1967, then stripped of all positions and expelled from the Party in 1968. Worse, he was denied the medication he needed as a diabetic. He wasted away and caught pneumonia while being transferred between hospitals. He died in 1969, living just long enough to be branded as “a criminal traitor, enemy agent and scab in the service of imperialists” at the 9th Party Congress, his death certificate only listing him as “unemployed.” His name became a byword for treachery and capitalism for the rest of Mao’s tenure.

But he was rehabilitated in 1980 once his old colleague Deng came to power, no longer a scab but “a great Marxist.” Deng renewed their economic liberalization campaign, in 1982 praising Liu’s so-called “line of the 8th Party Congress.” This referred to the 8th National Party Congress of 1956, where Liu argued that nurturing the nation’s forces of production was the Party’s essential task. It sanctioned the re-opening of markets, privatization of land, and scaling back the planned economy during the reform and opening up period.

Since then, Liu has been an exceptional member of the Party. For his 120th birthday, Xi Jinping announced that cadres should take him as a “role model,” to learn from his dedication, putting the Party and the people above their own interests, to accept a policy if enshrined in law, and to face up to and fix mistakes.

Although Liu once said Xi’s father “does not care about class, as long as someone has the surname Xi, he is very interested,” it’s possible that Liu’s anti-corruption campaign and dedication to duty strike a chord with Xi. He has, after all, been a ruthless anti-corruption campaigner from the moment he took office. During the 120th ceremonies, Xi echoed Liu’s policies on selfishness. According to the People’s Daily, he reminded cadres that “seeking privilege and pursuing private gains through power are not allowed at any time,” and asked “all Party members to be loyal to the Party, have moral integrity, and demonstrate a keen sense of responsibility.”

Mao is off the hook for the demise of this martyred model — he is, after all, unofficially assessed by the CCP as 70% correct, 30% wrong. Exterminating a Party role model to keep yourself in power would be very wrong. On Baidu Baike, it’s baddies Lín Biāo 林彪 and Jiāng Qīng 江青 who are said to have caused Liu’s downfall.

Today, the earlier rosy relationship between the Helmsman and his first mate is emphasized, and much is done to clear the air of Liu’s black legend. He’s known for his celebrated love of learning, with Weibo posts sometimes reciting a quote attributed to Mao himself: “If you don’t study for three days, you can’t catch up with Liu Shaoqi.”

Chinese Lives is a weekly series.