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Gao Gang

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Gao Gang was a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader during the Chinese Civil War
Chinese Civil War
The Chinese Civil War was a civil war fought between the Kuomintang , the governing party of the Republic of China, and the Communist Party of China , for the control of China which eventually led to China's division into two Chinas, Republic of China and People's Republic of...

 and the early years of the People's Republic of China
People's Republic of China
China , officially the People's Republic of China , is the most populous country in the world, with over 1.3 billion citizens. Located in East Asia, the country covers approximately 9.6 million square kilometres...

 (PRC), before becoming the victim of the first major purge within the CCP since before 1949. The events surrounding Gao's purge, the so-called "Gao Gang Affair", are still the subject of debate: a limited amount of research has been done on the topic, partly due to the relatively small amount of information available.

Born in rural Shaanxi
Shaanxi
' is a province in the central part of Mainland China, and it includes portions of the Loess Plateau on the middle reaches of the Yellow River in addition to the Qinling Mountains across the southern part of this province...

 province in 1905, Gao Gang joined the CCP in 1926 and led a revolutionary guerilla base there during the Chinese Civil War
Chinese Civil War
The Chinese Civil War was a civil war fought between the Kuomintang , the governing party of the Republic of China, and the Communist Party of China , for the control of China which eventually led to China's division into two Chinas, Republic of China and People's Republic of...

. He was of peasant background with a low level of education: he is said to have not been very literate. Among his colleagues inside the CCP, he gained a reputation as having great confidence and ambition, and of being a notorious womanizer. Trusted by Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong, also transliterated as Mao Tse-tung , and commonly referred to as Chairman Mao , was a Chinese Communist revolutionary, guerrilla warfare strategist, Marxist political philosopher, and leader of the Chinese Revolution...

, Gao was dramatically promoted in the final years of the civil war to become the Party, state and military head of the key Northeast area of China. In 1952 he was ordered to Beijing to become head of the State Planning Commission of China (SPC), where he later attempted a leadership challenge against Liu Shaoqi
Liu Shaoqi
Liu Shaoqi was a Chinese revolutionary, statesman, and theorist. He was Chairman of the People's Republic of China, China's head of state, from 27 April 1959 to 31 October 1968, during which he implemented policies of economic reconstruction in China...

 and Zhou Enlai
Zhou Enlai
Zhou Enlai was the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, serving from October 1949 until his death in January 1976...

. His attempt failed and he committed suicide in August 1954.

Guerilla Activities in Shaanxi


When his friend since middle school Liu Zhidan led a failed insurrection in 1928, Gao joined him in remote Northwest Shaanxi
Shaanxi
' is a province in the central part of Mainland China, and it includes portions of the Loess Plateau on the middle reaches of the Yellow River in addition to the Qinling Mountains across the southern part of this province...

 where together they built up a guerilla base. The deaths of local guerilla leaders in the Northwest region distinguished Gao as the symbol of the revolutionary base. Gao met Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong, also transliterated as Mao Tse-tung , and commonly referred to as Chairman Mao , was a Chinese Communist revolutionary, guerrilla warfare strategist, Marxist political philosopher, and leader of the Chinese Revolution...

 in 1935 when the Long March
Long March
The Long March was a massive military retreat undertaken by the Red Army of the Communist Party of China, the forerunner of the People's Liberation Army, to evade the pursuit of the Kuomintang army. There was not one Long March, but a series of marches, as various Communist armies in the south...

 ended in Shaanxi. The two developed a close relationship based on a personal friendship and their agreement on ideological matters. Gao spend many years during the Chinese Civil War co-ordinating CCP activities and became one of the top commanders in the region.

Manchuria


In 1945 Gao joined the Politburo, and was transferred along with Lin Biao
Lin Biao
Lin Biao was a major Chinese Communist military leader who was pivotal in the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, especially in Northeastern China...

 to Manchuria
Manchuria
Manchuria is a historical name given to a large geographic region in northeast Asia. Depending on the definition of its extent, Manchuria usually falls entirely within the People's Republic of China, or is sometimes divided between China and Russia. The region is commonly referred to as Northeast...

, becoming head of the local Party, state and military apparatus. By 1947 Gao was the most important cadre in the region. After the founding of the PRC
People's Republic of China
China , officially the People's Republic of China , is the most populous country in the world, with over 1.3 billion citizens. Located in East Asia, the country covers approximately 9.6 million square kilometres...

 in 1949, Gao was named one of the six chairmen of the State Council
State Council
State Council may refer to:In politics:* State Council of the Soviet Union, was the chief administrative authority of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics...

, under Mao Zedong.

Influence from the nearby Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 meant that Soviet ideas of industrial organization and economic planning were prominent, and Gao strongly supported these methods as the area became China's centre of heavy industry. Due to its economic advancement, the Manchurian region was often used to test new Communist policies, something that increased both the prestige of the region and that of Gao himself. Gao also received significant propaganda coverage, as workers and peasants were encourage to respond to his 'call' for increased industrial production; personal letters supporting him and salutations to his health were also published.

In July 1950, shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War
Korean War
The Korean War was a conventional war between South Korea, supported by the United Nations, and North Korea, supported by the People's Republic of China , with military material aid from the Soviet Union...

, Gao was placed in command of the 260,000-man "Northern Frontier Guards", stationed along the border with North Korea
North Korea
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea , , is a country in East Asia, occupying the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. Its capital and largest city is Pyongyang. The Korean Demilitarized Zone serves as the buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea...

. Gao was then held responsible for preparing his forces for the possibility of China's participation in the war. When China finally entered the Korean War in November 1950, Chinese forces were commanded by Peng Dehuai
Peng Dehuai
Peng Dehuai was a prominent military leader of the Communist Party of China, and China's Defence Minister from 1954 to 1959. Peng was an important commander during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese civil war and was also the commander-in-chief of People's Volunteer Army in the Korean War...

.

Beijing


Gao Gang was transferred to Beijing
Beijing
Beijing , also known as Peking , is the capital of the People's Republic of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of 19,612,368 as of 2010. The city is the country's political, cultural, and educational center, and home to the headquarters for most of China's...

 in 1952 to take up the post of Chairman of the State Planning Commission of China (SPC). This made him principally responsible for carrying out the First Five Year Plan, which was the national policy that introduced Soviet economic planning into the People's Republic of China
People's Republic of China
China , officially the People's Republic of China , is the most populous country in the world, with over 1.3 billion citizens. Located in East Asia, the country covers approximately 9.6 million square kilometres...

. Gao was also confirmed as a Politburo member, a Vice-Chairman of the Central People's Government Council and a Vice-Chairman of the People's Revolutionary Military Council. These were key posts, especially his control of the SPC at a time where Sino-Soviet relations were very important, and Gao was seen by both Mao and other senior Party members as a very capable Politburo member. However, there is some evidence that Gao was reluctant to leave his power base in the Northeast and move to Beijing.

Although Gao's transfer to Beijing made him more controllable by the Party center, it motivated him to achieve greater advancement within the Party hierarchy. He saw himself as the second most important leader in the PRC, second only to Mao. After his appointment to Beijing, he openly disagreed with the appointment of Party leaders, rather than military leaders, to high government positions. In 1952 and 1953 there were several major changes in the central administrative structure. Peng Dehuai was recalled from Korea and placed in charge of the Central Military Commission, a post which had previously been held by Zhou Enlai. After transferring his military responsibilities to Peng, Zhou focused his efforts on devising China's first Five-Year Plan, with the participation of the Soviet Union. Mao indicated that he was not pleased with Zhou's performance; and, in late 1952 and late 1953, Mao initiated a major reshuffling of the central government hierarchy. Several regional commanders, including Gao Gang, Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping was a Chinese politician, statesman, and diplomat. As leader of the Communist Party of China, Deng was a reformer who led China towards a market economy...

, and Rao Shushi
Rao Shushi
Rao Shushi like his confederate Gao Gang, was a senior leader of the Communist Party of China , who once enjoyed great power and fame that then quickly evaporated, leaving behind many mysteries about his rise and fall.-Early years:...

, were also transferred to the Beijing to take over responsibilities from Zhou. Although he technically retained the position of the third most important man in the official hierarchy (after Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi), Zhou's position was considerably weakened.

The "Gao Gang Affair"


The so-called “Gao Gang Affair” was Gao Gang's attempt to displace Liu Shaoqi
Liu Shaoqi
Liu Shaoqi was a Chinese revolutionary, statesman, and theorist. He was Chairman of the People's Republic of China, China's head of state, from 27 April 1959 to 31 October 1968, during which he implemented policies of economic reconstruction in China...

 and Zhou Enlai
Zhou Enlai
Zhou Enlai was the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, serving from October 1949 until his death in January 1976...

 from their key posts in government and to try to increase his own personal standing within the Party. Gao thought he had Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong, also transliterated as Mao Tse-tung , and commonly referred to as Chairman Mao , was a Chinese Communist revolutionary, guerrilla warfare strategist, Marxist political philosopher, and leader of the Chinese Revolution...

's approval for such a move and he began to approach senior cadres asking for support in the summer of 1953. His activities were revealed to Mao by Chen Yun
Chen Yun
Chen Yun was one of the most influential leaders of the People's Republic of China during the 1980s and 90s, and one of the top leaders of the Communist Party of China for almost its entire history. He was also known as Liao Chengyun ; it's unclear whether this was his original name or a pseudonym...

 and Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping was a Chinese politician, statesman, and diplomat. As leader of the Communist Party of China, Deng was a reformer who led China towards a market economy...

 and the Chairman informed Gao that his actions were out of order. Efforts were then made to deal with the risk to Party unity that Gao's attempts had provoked. Under considerable pressure, Gao took his own life in August 1954.

Preliminary discussions with Party leaders


Mao had a series of private conversations with Gao in late 1952 or early 1953 where it is believed he expressed a degree of dissatisfaction with Liu and Zhou, apparently remarking that they were too cautious in their attitude towards the pace of socialist transformation in China. The details of what Mao actually told Gao are still unclear. Although we cannot know his intentions, whether he was approving any action towards Liu and Zhou or merely expressing his frustrations to a friend in private, the significant thing is that Gao took Mao's words as consent for a move against these two senior cadres.

Following this, Gao approached senior Party members and expressed his views regarding Liu and Zhou, making the important point to hint that he had Mao's approval. Rao Shushi
Rao Shushi
Rao Shushi like his confederate Gao Gang, was a senior leader of the Communist Party of China , who once enjoyed great power and fame that then quickly evaporated, leaving behind many mysteries about his rise and fall.-Early years:...

, a military figure who had his power base in East China and was chief of the Organisational Department of the Central committee, gave his support to Gao. Immediately after his conference with Rao, Gao toured the southern and eastern provinces in order to discuss his views with other military leaders, primarily Lin Biao, Peng Dehuai, and Zhu De.

Gao approached the key figure of Lin Biao
Lin Biao
Lin Biao was a major Chinese Communist military leader who was pivotal in the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, especially in Northeastern China...

; while Lin gave no practical support, his agreement with Gao's views probably influenced Gao to continue to seek backing. Peng Dehuai
Peng Dehuai
Peng Dehuai was a prominent military leader of the Communist Party of China, and China's Defence Minister from 1954 to 1959. Peng was an important commander during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese civil war and was also the commander-in-chief of People's Volunteer Army in the Korean War...

, who was known to have some antipathy against Gao's main target Liu Shaoqi
Liu Shaoqi
Liu Shaoqi was a Chinese revolutionary, statesman, and theorist. He was Chairman of the People's Republic of China, China's head of state, from 27 April 1959 to 31 October 1968, during which he implemented policies of economic reconstruction in China...

, also expressed some support, but like Lin he did nothing in particular to aid Gao. When Gao approached key military figure Luo Ronghuan
Luo Ronghuan
Luo Ronghuan was a Chinese communist military leader.-Biography:Luo was born in a village in Hengshan County, Hunan Province. He joined the Chinese Communist Youth League in April 1927 and the Chinese Communist Party later that year...

, Luo demanded to know Mao's exact thoughts. He was doubtful whether Mao had actually endorsed such suggestions and told Gao that it would be inappropriate for them to discuss such a significant matter.

Negative Party reactions


When Gao expressed his thoughts to Chen Yun
Chen Yun
Chen Yun was one of the most influential leaders of the People's Republic of China during the 1980s and 90s, and one of the top leaders of the Communist Party of China for almost its entire history. He was also known as Liao Chengyun ; it's unclear whether this was his original name or a pseudonym...

 and Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping was a Chinese politician, statesman, and diplomat. As leader of the Communist Party of China, Deng was a reformer who led China towards a market economy...

, they were both concerned that his attempts were a clear threat to Party unity. Chen informed Zhou Enlai
Zhou Enlai
Zhou Enlai was the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, serving from October 1949 until his death in January 1976...

 first about Gao's activities and then spoke to Mao. Deng spoke to Mao directly about Gao's approach. At a Politburo meeting on 24 December 1953, Mao confronted Gao and gave him a serious warning that his activities were a severe threat to Party unity. At the conference, Mao's position was clear: he condemned Gao for forming "an anti-Party alliance".

This effectively marked the end of Gao's attempts to advance his position as he realised that he did not in fact have Mao's support. Mao then entrusted Liu Shaoqi, one of the targets of Gao's brief attempt to gain power, with the organisation of a plenum in February 1954 that would focus on Party unity. Mao's reaction could be seen as a signal of both Mao's lack of tolerance for those who sought to threaten the integrity of the CCP, and a public endorsement of Liu.

At the February discussion meetings, Zhou Enlai
Zhou Enlai
Zhou Enlai was the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, serving from October 1949 until his death in January 1976...

 made various charges against Gao Gang. Firstly, Zhou accused Gao of setting up an 'independent kingdom', a reference to Gao's power base in Manchuria; secondly of having 'mixed up right and wrong in Soviet relations', a hint at Gao's alleged close ties to the USSR; and finally of 'fabricating Comrade Mao Zedong's words', as Gao had told others that his plans had Mao's support. Zhou publicly refuted Gao's belief that the military should play a preeminent role in the politics of the PRC, deplored Gao's attempts to spread "rumors" about Liu and other leaders, and concluded that Gao's intention was to sow discord and to usurp power within the Party and the state. Zhou also condemned Gao's dissolute lifestyle.

Apparently distraught, Gao made several attempts to talk to Mao but was refused to be allowed to see the Chairman. It is possible that Mao avoided facing Gao because of the secret talks between the two men that had prompted Gao's attempts to advance his own position. Gao tried to shoot himself during the February meetings and succeeded in poisoning himself in August 1954. After his suicide, in 1955, Gao was formally expelled from the Party. Gao's ally, Rao, was also expelled from the Party, and was jailed until his death in 1975. Gao's death not only brought closure of the most immediate sort to the “Affair”, it made sure that he was duly remembered in a dishonourable fashion as a traitor to the Party.

Conclusions


Gao's assumption that Mao would support the elimination of Zhou and Liu, despite Mao's dissatisfaction with them, was mistaken. At the time, Mao was still relatively tolerant of differing opinions, but was confident that both Liu and Zhou would align their views with Mao if pressed. Mao was satisfied with the "unity" that had been achieved by the Yan'an Rectification Movement, and had no intention of altering the basic Party structure that had been established at the 1945 Party Congress. Mao disagreed with Gao's own opinion of his role in the revolution (which Mao thought was inflated), and clearly believed that the Party should retain a clear command over the state and the military. If Gao's views of the importance of the army in the revolution had prevailed, they would have refuted Mao's interpretation of CCP history, and would have threatened Mao's preeminent position of leadership.

The “Gao Gang Affair” showed the real risk of factional splits within the Chinese Communist Party during the first few years of the People's Republic, a period that is often seen to be an era of Party unity. By attempting to exploit grievances held by some cadres against others, Gao was able to attract the interests of several significant cadres, even if none of them truly backed him. The “Gao Gang Affair” can simply be viewed as a stillborn coup attempt within the Politburo, but its significance is not that it failed to succeed or even to gather basic support. Rather, it showed that there was the possibility of power struggles within the Party that could involve the targeting of very senior Party members. Following the “Gao Gang Affair” there were calls for greater Party unity and there was an increase in centralisation as the old regional administrations with their Party and military bodies were abolished, a change that had been planned for some time but that was no doubt spurred on by Gao's attempts to use his regional power to gain power at the centre.

Another factor that has often been explored, and probably had great importance at the time, is the Soviet connection. Gao's attempt to gain power was certainly not seen as a Soviet-backed move against the Chinese Communists, but it is certain that Gao's connections with the USSR made people suspicious of him. At a time when Sino-Soviet relations were close but tense, as the CCP endorsed Soviet methods of economic planning but wanted to make sure that the USSR did not gain increased influence over the PRC, the impression (however slight) that Gao's attempts to gain power might have had links to his friendship with the Soviets would have been viewed with alarm. This can been seen in Zhou Enlai's public comments against Gao at the February 1954 discussion meetings where he charged him with having 'mixed up right and wrong in Soviet relations'.

Perhaps even more significant is how the case shows the dominating power and manipulation of Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong, also transliterated as Mao Tse-tung , and commonly referred to as Chairman Mao , was a Chinese Communist revolutionary, guerrilla warfare strategist, Marxist political philosopher, and leader of the Chinese Revolution...

, during a period when it is often assumed that Mao's commitment to democratic intra-Party decision-making was at its highest. It was Mao's comments that influenced Gao and led him to believe that, even though he was going against the Party and senior cadres, his actions were justified because he had the Chairman's backing. Senior cadres like Lin Biao and Peng Dehuai only expressed their (admittedly limited) support because they thought Gao had Mao's approval. The entire plot (if indeed we can call it that) was ended in one stroke by Mao, who only needed to express his true thoughts at one Politburo meeting in order to stop to Gao's activities and make other cadres admit their mistakes. Mao's role in the whole affair can be seen as very important indeed.