153. Memorandum From Michel Oksenberg of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Rise in the Chinese Political Temperature and U.S. Policy Implications


The Chinese internal political situation has heated rapidly in the past week or two. Pressure is clearly mounting for further changes in the Politburo as well as at lower levels. The political current still seems to be running in Teng’s direction, but as always in such fluid situations chances for surprises and sudden reversals exist. Basically, Teng seems intent on eliminating several top leaders who acquiesced in his 1975 tumble and who are foot-dragging on his bold modernization campaign. In so doing he is violating the terms on which he was permitted to return last year.

Nor is this simply a matter of court politics in the Chung Nan-hai, since the struggle has been joined at a moment when Peking faces thorny policy issues in Indochina, Europe, and in its relations with us. The volatility of Chinese politics over the past 25 years has been due to the interplay of policy and personality in an uninstitutionalized setting.

The Internal Scene

Signs of the developing internal struggle have been mounting in the past week:

—Posters are attacking the national security organs for a wide range of “illegal” actions. Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Tung-hsing has had supervisory responsibility for security matters for many years, hence the attack seems directed against him. Wang is the highest-ranking official to come under attack since the fall of the “Gang of Four.”

—Attacks on discredited ex-Peking mayor Wu Te are continuing and growing in vituperation despite initial indications that Wu would be allowed to remain nominally a Politburo member. The poster attacks tend to implicate Wang Tung-hsing and Chen Hsi-lien, the Peking Military Region Commander. All three were involved in the suppression of pro-Teng rioters in April 1976.

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—Growing public and private criticism of the leading ideological journal, Red Flag, for failing fully to support Teng’s modernization policies. The target is again Wang Tung-hsing, who plays an important role in formulating the journal’s editorial policy.

—Posters are now speaking openly of divisions in the Politburo, implying that a minority is resisting current policy. An official recently told the British privately that Wang is isolated on the prestigious five-man Politburo Standing Committee.

—An investigation of the actions of the Peking Party Committee when headed by Wu Te, with ominous implications for Wu and perhaps Chen Hsi-lien, parallels an effort to give the pre-Cultural Revolution Municipal Party Committee a clean bill of political health. This foreshadows the “rehabilitation” of Peng Chen, former Peking party boss, who was the first Politburo-level victim of the Cultural Revolution.

—These developments help explain why Hua Kuo-feng dwelled at such length on his role in toppling the “Gang of Four” in his conversation with Jim Schlesinger.2 Hua’s remarks will be circulated widely to party cadre and enable him to disassociate himself from the Wang Wu–Chen trio.

In all this Teng Hsiao-p’ing is clearly on the offensive. The odds are that he will prevail, but he is pursuing a high-risk policy that cuts across the desire of a number of his colleagues for leadership unity and stability. Simultaneous attacks on the national security organs and on the commander of troops in the capital area, moreover, require an especially careful effort at bean-counting. The current attacks, of course, also sharpen further the issues of the legitimacy of the Cultural Revolution and of the Maoist legacy.

Bold attacks are characteristic of Teng’s political style, but he has overreached himself in the past. In the earlier memorandum to you I pointed out some of his vulnerabilities; they have not yet diminished.3 Teng has many balls in the air at the moment, and it would be dangerous for him to drop any of them.

The struggle could take up to six weeks to resolve.

Policy Implications for U.S.

Since coming to Washington, I have deliberately refrained from making suggestions to you about ways to influence Chinese internal [Page 595] politics. We are now, however, faced with a situation where the stakes are high and it is important to us that Teng should win. There are a number of minimal steps we can take—and for the most part are taking—in this context:

Indochina. Teng is highly vulnerable on this issue and could be blamed if things get more sour. We should be cautious in our Vietnamese dealings so as not to increase his risks.

Western Europe. We should quietly encourage the European countries to consider seriously China’s quest for technology, arms and credit. If the Chinese feel that the door has been slammed in their face, Teng may be on the end of a very exposed limb.

Framatome. If we make a positive decision, we should leak the fact that we were responsible for making the sale possible.4

Normalization. With a leadership struggle in a fairly acute phase, the Chinese may find it difficult to take hard decisions.5

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 8, China (People’s Republic of): 9–11/78. Secret. Sent for information. A handwritten note at the top of the page reads, “ZB has seen.”
  2. Telegram 3603 from Beijing, November 8, transmitted a memorandum of conversation of a meeting between Hua and Schlesinger during which the Chinese Premier discussed the Gang of Four. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P820112–0377)
  3. See Document 128.
  4. Framatome was a company attempting to sell nuclear reactors to the PRC.
  5. Someone underlined most of this sentence. Below the paragraph, Inderfurth wrote, “ZB, Do you want this included as an alert item in the WR, with a few examples of the struggle itself? Rick.” Brzezinski replied, “yes.”