One of Duke’s first official acts as U.S. ambassador to China was to participate in an exchange of toasts with the man who would eventually replace Mao Zedong as China’s paramount leader: Deng Xiaoping. Garry Trudeau, showing a level of political prescience that he would probably be the first to deny, focused much of his writing on China’s domestic politics on Deng, who went on to arguably do as much as Mao to define China’s future. By focusing on Deng’s situation during Duke’s time in office, GBT provided a perfect window into the complex dynamics driving Chinese politics at a crucial juncture in the history of the People’s Republic.
At Duke’s welcoming banquet, a Chinese official uses one of Mao’s trademark sayings to describe China’s current moment: “There is great disorder under Heaven, and the situation is excellent.” Duke’s appointment came at a critical time in Chinese history: Maoism would soon give way to new visions for China’s future as the old guard of revolutionaries was replaced by a (somewhat) younger generation. As Duke notes, by the mid-1970s, the “Long March vets” were “dropping like flies.” On 8 January 1976, as Duke was being confirmed by the Senate, Zhou Enlai, Premier of the People’s Republic and a principal architect of rapprochement with the U.S., died of cancer. As Zhou was dying, Mao was becoming increasingly incapacitated by age and illness. During his welcoming dinner, Duke pivots from praising the menu to asking about Mao’s health: “speaking of [vegetables],” he asks, “how’s the Chairman doing?”
Mao died a few months later and his death set in motion a political struggle with significant consequences for China’s future.
In principle, if not in practice, Duke saw his ambassadorial role in terms of “the awesome responsibility of making the day-to-day upheavals of [China’s] government comprehensible to [his] superiors.” Yet, as one Chinese official notes, Duke was “baffled by the ebb and flow of [China’s] internal affairs.” Fair enough: while Duke was characteristically clueless about the intricacies of Chinese Communist Party manoeuvrings, those complexities were equally obscure to the average Western observer. What’s important to remember is that, in the wake of disasters like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and the passing of men like Zhou and Mao, Deng represented a tendency within the CCP that realized that China had to undertake significant reforms and embrace some form of liberalization – what Deng later called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” This movement was opposed within the CCP by hardline factions, notably the Gang of Four, led by Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing. While Deng’s cohort was pushing for change, the Gang of Four was, in the words of one of Duke’s Chinese interlocutors, driven by “the necessity for a sustained struggle against reactionaryism.”
Deng’s tribulations revealed the chaos of the times: for much of Duke’s time in Beijing, Deng was banished from power after “a team of top Marxologists … spent MONTHS painstakingly scrutinizing” five years’ worth of his speeches” and finding “RAMPANT revisionism.” Yet by the end of Duke’s tenure, Deng was put on the political path that would allow him to bring crucial reforms to Chinese society.
The first hint that Deng was in trouble with the hardliners came during Duke’s only meeting with Mao. Duke tells the Chairman that he is alarmed at “the recent instability in [China’s] top echelons,” and inquires as to what had become of Deng. Mao’s one-word answer evokes the Orwellian fate faced by many of those who fell into disfavour of communist regimes: “Who?” A few weeks later, Duke, arguing with Honey about how Richard Nixon was treated after Watergate, points out that while Nixon continued to be the target of opprobrium after being driven from office, when one of China’s “top honchos takes a dive, he just becomes a non-person. ‘Deng?’ ‘Deng’ who?”
As Duke observes, Deng ran into trouble because he was “Zhou’s boy.” Deng was, in fact, purged because of events surrounding Zhou’s death and memory. Zhou, who had been facing sharp criticism from the Gang of Four, was one of Deng’s main supporters; after Deng delivered the eulogy at Zhou’s funeral, the Gang of Four launched the “Criticize Deng and Oppose the Rehabilitation of Right–Leaning Elements” campaign. In April 1976, during the Qingming Festival, an annual holiday when the Chinese people commemorate their dead, public mourning of Zhou became political; some two million people flooded Tiananmen to honour Zhou and express their displeasure at how the Gang of Four had treated his memory. Alongside pro-Zhou messages, protesters’ slogans criticized the Gang of Four, Mao, and the Cultural Revolution. The hardliners blamed Deng for the outburst, and Mao removed him from office and had him placed under house arrest. This was the second time Deng had been purged: during the Cultural Revolution, he was removed from power and spent four years working in a tractor factory.
While the real-life Deng was not sentenced to work off his crimes in 1976, in the funny pages he ended up at a “May Fourth farm” to be rehabilitated. In April, Duke and Honey paid him a visit. Echoing the charges of “rampant revisionism” levelled against him, Deng wonders if he “should have been more hard line,” but ultimately blames his fate on “the media,” specifically the “damn wall posters” that had publicized the Gang of Four’s criticisms of him.
“Wall posters,” also known as “big-character posters,” or dazibao, are a mainstay of Chinese political discourse, using text and image to convey messages ranging from official propaganda to anti-government protest. Duke, in a letter to Zonker, notes that “if one knows the nuances … the walls tell all.” American diplomats and journalists recall going out into the streets to read the posters in order to gain insight into Chinese political developments. As one diplomat recalled:
“We would go out and literally spend hours just standing in front of a wall reading the big-character posters, then exchanging notes with western journalists who were out doing the same thing.”
After a year in China, Duke, guided by Honey, undertakes an intense study of the wall posters because the insights he gleans could be “invaluable,” not so much for guiding policy decisions, but to gain an edge as he was “making serious book” betting with his British counterpart on Chinese political developments. Even though, in the wake of Mao’s death, political moderates were in the ascendancy, Duke was betting on the radical wing of the CCP to take power, and losing so much that he had to pay off his losses with stolen embassy silverware. This episode was the first of many that would unfold over the years in which Duke would lose his shirt over ill-advised political wagers; it’s also a direct nod to Hunter Thompson, whose gambling blurred the lines between two of his great loves, electoral politics and pro football.
The posters describe a battle for political supremacy between the Gang of Four and a more moderate wing of the CCP led by Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng. The walls might “tell all,” but, unlike in Duke’s description, there’s not a lot of nuance at play. The first poster Honey shows Duke reads “Madam Mao is a maggot,” highlighting the unpleasant political future facing Jiang, who would later be tried and sentenced to death for the Gang of Four’s crimes against the Chinese people. (While the trial took place in 1981, the strip ran a couple of months after Hua had purged Jiang from power.)
The last poster that Honey translates for Duke has important news about Deng: he was to be rehabilitated for a second time. As Duke notes, Deng had an amazing ability to bounce back from political misfortune: “Seems when he’s not pulling turnips, he’s running the country.” The expression on Deng’s face as he learns that he is poised to stage a political comeback reveals his determination to use whatever power he gains effectively, if not ruthlessly. While Hua took power after Mao’s death, by the early 1980s he was pushed aside by Deng, who would introduce the reforms that made contemporary China the global powerhouse it has become.
Duke’s ambassadorship coincided with one of the most important moments in communist China’s history: the end of Mao’s rule and the first moves towards change that would, whatever we say about the continued abuses of the CCP, bring a level of prosperity to the Chinese people that was unimaginable in Mao’s time.
Next time, we’ll look at how Duke dealt with some of the pressing foreign relations questions that unfolded during his tenure. Stay tuned.