Liu Zhidan and the fall of No. 1's dad

What the hell happened to Xi Jinping’s dad? I realized last week that I did not know the story of how Xi Zhongxun first got betrayed and had his career destroyed by Mao Zedong. So I went looking.

It is a sorry tale of palace machinations in which Xi Snr. is seemingly the blameless victim, picked upon because of his open loyalty to a friend. His son was only nine years old at the time, but when people say Xi Jnr. learned to conceal his own thoughts and feelings from his dad’s mistakes, it makes sense. Of course, though, everyone else in Chinese politics has learnt the same lesson, which is why we all talking today about the inability of good information to find its way to the boss. Hong Kong is just one example of that (and this SCMP pieceexplains why, even if the underlings dared say something, their research methods are doomed). The other lesson perhaps is that there’s nothing more dangerous than a top Chinese Communist Party leader cornered after a big policy failure, and clever, evil men using that to advance their own power-hungry agendas.

Xi Zhongxun in 1958, with Xi Jinping (left) and Xi Yuanping, his younger brother.

So to tell our tale, we go back to the 1930s. Liu Zhidan (刘志丹) was a hero of the northwestern Shaanxi-Gansu Soviet, a colleague of Gao Gang (who I wrote about here) and Xi Zhongxun. Xi was the chairman of the ‘Shaan-Gan’ Soviet, and Liu the chair of its military commission. A peasant soldier, Liu led the 26th and 27th Red Army corps and fought hard to drive the Guomingdang (KMT) out of home territory. Thus secured, this is area into which Mao, the first Red Army corp, and the rest of the Long March survivors rocked up to in 1935.

Mao had to be friendly with Gao, who had the respect of the local people. Gao also shared Mao’s extreme leftism, so Mao ended up nurturing his political career after 1949. But the big man was always envious of the northwestern faction’s military successes. Putting aside guerilla strategy, Mao’s major military legacy was a 4,000 mile retreat in which thousands died. Xi Snr. ‘to the end of his days spoke about Mao’s overblown [military] reputation’ (Byron, 271). Liu died fighting the Japanese in 1939; here’s a heroic painting.

Fast forward to 1954; Gao Gang over-reaches, Mao turns on him, and Gao is labelled the head of ‘Anti-Mao clique’. He’s sentenced to suicide. Mao’s ‘romanticism’ (as Xi’s old friend Kong Dan likes to say (here) then leads China into the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward, in which upwards of 30 million Chinese people die of slow hunger, while Mao keeps shipping the grain out to the cities and to the Soviet Union.

Fast forward again to 1962. The incompetent Helmsman, having lain low after the suffering of the GLF is laid bare by comrades like Liu Shaoqi, wants back in, and at a Central Work meeting at Beidaihe in August talks again about the importance of class struggle, it’s place still as the ‘major contradiction’. (Think about that for just one second; China has barely finished burying its dead, the fields are just recovering, his colleagues want to talk economics, and Mao decides to plunge his country back into chaos again.) And so begins the quiet prep for Cultural Revolution which formally erupts four years later.

Earlier that year, Peng Zhen, then working within the Central Committee Secretariat under Deng Xiaoping, had dared to put into words what most of the rest of the CCP leadership thought. He criticized Mao for his ‘accelerated transition to communism’. He went on: ‘There is a tendency in the party - people dare not express their opinions, they’re not bold enough to criticize their own mistakes’ (Pantsov, p. 219). Wise words, huh?

Paying more attention to Mao’s words than most, Kang Sheng hears his chance to regain power. In Shanghai in the 1930s, Kang had led CCP intelligence and assassination operations. In the Soviet Union, he’d learned that violence and fear were how to rule. In Yanan in the early 1940s, once he’d betrayed his sponsor Wang Ming, he’d led Mao’s terrifying, bloody Rectification Movement (which I wrote about here). But then he’d fallen out of favor after 1949 - certainly no one liked him, and maybe even Mao was afraid of him. Bundled off to run the backwater known as Shandong, Kang booked himself into a Beijing hospital, stewed, nurtured his relationship with Jiang Qing, Mao’s estranged wife, and sponsored erotic theatre.

OK. We now get to the story of Liu Zhidan. In 1956, the Workers’ Publishing House in Beijing realizes it does not yet have a hagiography of Liu, an early CCP martyr. And so asks Li Jiantong to write it - part novel, part airbrushed historical “fact”. Li is working at the Supervision Ministry and had married Liu’s younger brother, Liu Jingfang, so seemed liked a good choice. She then spends several years researching Liu’s life, traveling around Shaanxi, talking to his former comrades, including Xi Zhongxun, now a Vice Premier. Xi takes an interest, reading and extensively criticizing a first draft in 1960. Li begins the re-write.

A guy named Yan Hongyan then hears about the draft. He had been part of rival faction to Gao and Liu in northern Shaanxi, and apparently bore the grudge. He alerts Kang Sheng to the project.

Kang, devious motherfucker that he was, sees an opening. He knows Mao’s long-running resentment about Gao, Liu’s friend. He also knows that Xi Zhongxun is vulnerable. Xi Snr. even reportedly visited Gao after the Party had issued its counter-revolutionary verdict on him, an open act of defiance (and which pre-echoes Xi speaking up for about-to-be-fired General Secretary Hu Yaobang in 1987). Xi is not a high-level target, but Kang senses that Mao wants the economics-focused State Council destabilized. And there’s plenty of time for the rest of them.

So, with Mao’s nod, Kang launches a political attack on the unpublished book as ‘a novel to carry out anti-Party activities’. Just as he did in Yanan, and would go on to do with the play The Dismissal of Hai Rui, the kindle to the Cultural Revolution, Kang just makes shit up to destroy his erstwhile colleagues. And there is nothing to stop him as Mao stands by, innocently.

Xi gets publicly criticized, sacked and either jailed or sent-down to a factory in Luoyang (I’ve yet to find an authoritative source - anyone?), and then suffers even more during the Cultural Revolution. But his seniority offers some protection. The head of the Workers’ Publishing House is tortured to death, numerous other northwestern army and party guys get demoted, arrested, tortured and/or killed. The manager of a restaurant Xi liked gets arrested for spying for him. Byron and Packer report some 1,000+ victims in this purge - and that is just during 1962-66. When the Cultural Revolution kicks off proper, Kang makes sure to distribute the relevant materials (all of Li Jiantong’s research notes) to his Red Guards, who go on to persecute hundreds, if not thousands more. Peng Zhen and others fall in 1966.

The aftermath: Liu Zhidan, the novel, is published in 1978, after Kang dies (unfortunately, peacefully) in 1975, and Li Jiantong is rehabilitated. Kang was expelled from the CCP in 1980, only some 50 years too late.

Proscribing clean lessons from then to today is always tempting but never perfectly done. But to my mind there are two. There might be no single Kang Sheng today, but the same fear of being attacked and having one’s career rescinded for being critical pervades the system nevertheless. And second, and this may be more of an unease about the future; when the paramount leader is cornered after a clear policy failure, then there is reason to fear. In that environment, the CCP has shown its ability to pivot to better things, as in 1978, but also to worse.


A. Pantsov & S. Levine, Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life, 2015 D. Holm, ‘The Strange Case of Liu Zhidan’, Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, Jan 1992 here J. Byron * R. Pack, The Claws of the Dragon, 1992 Huang, J., Factionalism in Chinese Communist Politics, 2000 Official CPC bio Liu Zhidan, here Nakazawa, K., ‘What Xi learned from his father’, Nikkei Asian Review, July 14, 2015, here Photo source here

Note: John Byron is/was the nom de plume for Roger Urens, a former Australian intelligence officer, who has been in the news in recent years (here). Claws of the Dragon is an excellent read, solidly researched, and a reminder of the good old days in Beijing, when Party people did not fear talking to interested foreigners.