Ever since Nikita Khrushchev coined the term "cult of the personality," the West has been trying to explain China this way. The raft of facts are misleading. The West in stressing strong men and personalities overlooks the factors which really make Chinese history.
Chinese Communist leadership never was monolithic. It was made up of a great variety of interests and opinions which shared common grounds. The art of leadership has been to reconcile these interests and opinions while foreseeing historical development.
The Gang of Four seemed to have a strong political machine throughout the country. When the showdown came, they expected it to take over through armed militia, with bands of rowdies either exciting or cowing the populace.
Their program for three years was one of disrupting anything the government tried to achieve, and the revolutionary slogans under which they did it soured through lack of follow-up with constructive programs. What programs they had were impractical attention-getters; their local machines attacked people indiscriminately as convenient to the moment, leaving no single social group firmly behind them; and, from top to bottom, whenever they got near the till they got their hands into it. As a result, one little roundup of central leaders, and local militias handed in arms while local machines collapsed.
The Chinese people are far less tractable and more demanding today than before the cultural revolution. Today, high school graduation is almost universal in urban areas, and eight-year schools in rural areas. The number of students entering four-year higher education institutions has doubled since the sixties, and there is a huge enrollment in spare-time, vocational, and junior colleges.
Since 1949 the Chinese people have been taught to think politics, and today's young adults got a very sophisticated political education during the cultural revolution. They look everything over carefully now, then endorse conditionally. It no longer does to tell them, "Remember the bitter past." Who wants to stay in the stone age forever?
Any Chinese government must address itself to the problems of the nation. An individual leader may have his own ideas but must adapt them rapidly as conditions change.
For example, it was vital in 1977 to improve educational levels. Entrance exams were reintroduced for government high schools. This not only served notice to school-children to take their studies seriously but enabled children from districts with low-level schools to enter better schools elsewhere.There has been a rapid raising of scholastic levels and teacher improvement. Last year the shortcomings of the tracking system were already being criticized in the schools. Change now could be reasonable.
Tracking also generated parent pressure on community schools (set up by factories, communes, etc. without government funding). Deng Xiaoping in 1977 advised consolidating rural eight-year schools, with no further formation for a time of high school classes.
Very reasonable. My daughter's brigade school had a graduating class of 30. The best teacher crammed them so that 12 passed county high school exams. The others were too young to work at full pay, and their parents had grown up in a rapidly developing country with enough schooling to realize the opportunities available to better educated persons. They demanded (and got) a high school class. Other brigades with poorer schools did not.
A vital flaw in Chinese government has been hundred-percentageness -- I'm right and you're wrong with no middle ground. Acting on success in setting up agricultural colleges in rural areas, the Gang of Four demanded that all universities move out of town (reorganizing them under the gang's administration). When Jiang Qing stamped her personal seal on operas on modern themes, a program initiated years earlier, no others were permitted. Since the fall from power of the Gang of Four, performance of modern operas has ceased entirely.
The years of political factionalism drove the vast mass of Chinese people into a middle ground. It both politicized and depoliticianized them. People who once clearly aligned themselves with one or another faction now often stand up as professionals against politicos of their former camp. They firmly support the government's program of building China into a modern socialist nation. The government has the difficult task of doing this in a nation vastly changed from the early sixties, the last period of undisturbed administrative experience.