Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds Although Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung managed to patch up the Sino-Korean split by the 1970s, problems resurfaced with the death of Mao in September 1976. Now, by this point, both countries and political elites were grappling with the most fundamental problem of politics– the question of succession. In neither China nor North Korea, since these were not democratic systems, they were unable to rely upon a vote. A simple majority of the public couldn’t decide who would get power and who would lose power. The Communist Party, for its part, was highly effective in terms of personnel movements– putting certain cadre here and there, promoting, demoting, moving them around– that party could do in a relatively efficient way.
Skip to 0 minutes and 59 seconds However, the party had a much bigger problem, both in terms of precedent and principle, when it came to establishing who was paramount leader, who would sit at the apex of that pyramid of power that was the nomenklatura, the party elite. After Mao died, there was a vacuum. And that vacuum was created because of Mao’s own difficulties in establishing a successor. His attempted succession had gone through a number of failed starts. And if we just back up a few years, probably, in a way, the most spectacular failure was one of his later choices for successor– that was Gen. Lin Biao. Lin Biao was another one of these great war heroes.
Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds And Lin emerged in full force in the late 1960s when he led the Cultural Revolution. He was the henchman. He was the editor of “the little red book” that every Chinese person should carry around in their breast pocket. He was the main promoter of the cult of Mao. He was sort of the high priest in that cult. However, Lin, in a turn of events that historians still debate the true nature of, net result, Lin ended up fleeing the country, perhaps having been involved in an attempted coup against Mao or perhaps because his family was involved in the coup. In any case, he fled with family members north. The plane crash-landed in Mongolia.
Skip to 2 minutes and 28 seconds Again, a lot of mystery surrounds the case of Lin Biao. You might want to look into it further yourself. But the point is, with the flight and death of Lin Biao, Mao lost his successor. Now, another figure who was always out there on the wings of the stage, as it were, as a potential successor was Deng Xiaoping. Mao had recognised early on Deng’s talents and had spoken of him as a potential successor. After Lin Biao’s dramatic exit from the scene, Mao actually brought Deng back. Deng, at this point, was living in a kind of political purgatory because his policies were not in favour during the Cultural Revolution.
Skip to 3 minutes and 8 seconds But even though the Cultural Revolution was still going on in 1974, ‘75, Mao brought Deng back to Beijing, put him in various senior positions, and was essentially testing him as potential successor. The problem is, Deng was despised by the other key faction around Mao– the hardcore Maoists, the radical leftist supporters of Mao. And they eventually found cause to convince Mao that Deng was a threat, that Deng could not be trusted, and so Deng Xiaoping was once again purged not too long before Mao’s own death. And so in this game of musical chairs, the last person left sitting there was a fellow Hunan provincial from the same home area as Mao named Hua Guofeng.
Skip to 3 minutes and 56 seconds And so it was Hua who ended up as the official successor to Mao. But, in many cases, Hua ended up in that position simply because he was non-threatening. But Hua Guofeng did do one demonstrative thing. He eliminated the radical Maoists, the so-called Gang of Four, arresting them almost immediately upon taking power over from Mao. That actually set the stage for Deng Xiaoping to start making his comeback. Deng very gently eased Hua Guofeng out of power and, by 1978, had emerged as the new paramount leader. Now, Kim Il-sung was, of course, a good bit younger than Mao and, as it turned out, would have almost two decades left to live out his rule in North Korea.
Skip to 4 minutes and 42 seconds But he was already contemplating the problem of political succession and devising a radically different alternative than the ones that the Chinese would come to. In North Korea, the solution was a dynasty. Already in the 1960s, Kim Jong-il was emerging to play a prominent role in the cultural and ideological spheres of North Korean life. And then from 1970, there were hints in public with cryptic references to a party centre– that had turned out was indeed Kim Jong-il– that some new succession plan was under way.
Skip to 5 minutes and 19 seconds In other words, by the time Mao Zedong died in 1976 and by the time that Deng had eased Hua Guofeng out of power by 1978, Kim Il-sung’s plan was already well under way– his hope to pass power on to his own eldest son, Kim Jong-il. Finally, in 1980, the succession plan was, you could say, officially proclaimed when at the Sixth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party– the equivalent of the CCP in North Korea– Kim Jong-il was promoted to high national office. And Deng Xiaoping was not at all pleased. Deng, after all, had been struggling to eliminate what he called the feudalistic elements in Chinese communism.
Skip to 6 minutes and 5 seconds And here, their next-door neighbour North Korea not only established and maintained the cult of Kim but was now moving to pass the cult of Kim on to another generation. Envoys travelled back and forth between Beijing and Pyongyang, with the North Koreans essentially trying to find ways to persuade Deng to accept Kim Il-sung’s plan that there was no viable alternative at that point other than hereditary succession. In part of this orchestrated effort, Kim Jong-il made a public visit to China in 1983.
Skip to 6 minutes and 44 seconds And you can watch a documentary clip of the visit dug up by a wonderful scholar, Adam Cathcart, and his group who work at the website Sino-NK, which is a treasure trove for those of you in our class to learn more about the China and North Korea relationship. Watch that clip carefully. Unfortunately, there are no English subtitles. But pay attention to the second Chinese official who embraces Kim Jong-il. You can’t see his face, but take my word for it, that’s the back of the head of Xi Zhongxun, the father of none other than today’s President and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, which is something we’ll be coming back to in the last week of the course.
Succession of paramount leadership was an existential crisis for Mao’s China as it was for Kim’s Korea, but the Party leadership resolved the succession problem in different ways, with profound implications for their countries’ future, and planting seeds of divergence between lips and teeth.
© John Delury