151. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft) to President Ford 1


  • The Passing of Chu Te and China’s Domestic Politics

The death of Chu Te, the 90-year old Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National Peoples Congress, has further reduced the ranks of the old guard. Chu Te, as the founder of the Peoples Liberation Army, was the only Chinese leader after the death of Chou En-lai whose historical role and prestige approached that of Mao. Although his formal role in the regime was only ceremonial, Chu probably represented an independent voice in the Politburo during critical decisions. Chu, for example, reportedly supported the moderate policies of Chou En-lai and Teng Hsiao-p’ing. Two poems by Chu, published in March, implicitly criticized the campaign against Teng and the resultant disunity in the Party.

The Central Leadership Organs

Chu’s death brings to four the number of vacancies in the Politburo Standing Committee (out of a membership of nine) and probably enhances the strength of the two Shanghai leftist leaders in the Standing Committee, Chang Ch’ung-ch’iao and Wang Hung-wen. The only remaining moderate in the Standing Committee is the aging and ailing Defense Minister Yeh Chien-ying. Premier Hua Kuo-feng, who is now Senior Vice Chairman of the Party, is presumably a Standing Committee member, although he has not been identified as such.

It is unlikely that the regime will in the near future be able to fill the vacant positions in the Politburo and the Standing Committee or to name a replacement for Teng Hsiao-p’ing as PLA Chief of Staff. The empty slots in the central leadership indicate the continuing standoff between the contending factions. It is problematic whether the Standing Committee itself is still functioning or whether an ad hoc group within the Politburo may currently be the ultimate decision-making body.

The Left

In any event, the leftists, with Mao’s support, appear to have the political initiative. They should obtain further leeway with the passing [Page 944] of Chu Te. In addition to the Standing Committee and Party headquarters, leftist political strength resides in the central media, the students, the militia, the PLA political department, and the industrial heart of China—Shanghai.

There are still many constraints on the leftists, however. Most importantly, they seem to have little support among provincial leaders, military commanders, or the government bureaucracy. The leftists also would be unlikely to control a meeting of the Central Committee as presently composed.

Thus, the leftists, a disparate group apparently led by Chang Ch’ung-ch’iao, are probably anxious to exploit the advantage they currently enjoy at the center before Mao dies. They must move on two fronts—seeking where possible to weaken their opposition and at the same time broaden their own support. The July 1 joint editorial marking the Chinese Communist Party anniversary, while relatively constrained, indicated the regime’s preoccupation with the domestic political struggle, and clearly suggested the need for the removal of at least a small group of Teng and Chou supporters.

The left is most probably concerned about gaining allies among the military. The role of people like Chien Hsia-lien, the Commander of the Peking Military Region, will be critical. The alignment of military commanders, however, remains the murkiest element of the obscure Peking domestic scene. Most military commanders are probably biding their time until the Chairman dies.

The role of Premier Hua Kuo-feng, and several others in the leadership who are apparently not factional partisans but essentially Mao loyalists, will also be vital to the course of the power struggle. Hua’s control over the Public Security organs has obvious implications. In line with Mao’s proclivities, Hua will presumably seek to protect the left. But, like Mao, the thrust of Hua’s leadership may be to retain a dynamic balance between the left and the right. If so, Hua will probably not wish to see the left consolidate or expand its position at the Party center in the wake of the death of Chu Te.

The Prospect

The political structure in the PRC is probably more fragile today than it has ever been—including during the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s presence remains the key, but it is now a lingering presence and the old Chairman presumably cannot assert a dynamic role. Yet, so long as he lives, he retains the aura of political authority and the leadership stalemate is likely to continue. Realignments that will determine the shape of the post-Mao regime, however, may already be taking shape.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Box 14, People’s Republic of China. Secret. Sent for information. Ford initialed the memorandum and there is a notation on the first page that reads: “The President has seen.” Sent to Scowcroft under cover of a July 13 memorandum from Barnes that recommended that Scowcroft send it to the President. (Ibid.)