Portrait of revolutionary and statesman Liu Shaoqi, a contemporary of Mao Zedong. PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

Liu Shaoqi was a leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) whose career symbolized the political struggles in the People’s Republic of China during Mao Zedong’s era. Although it was once thought Liu would be Mao’s successor he was accused in 1966, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, of siding with capitalists. He was physically abused by the Red Guard, expelled from the CCP, and died in prison.

Liu Shaoqi symbolized the political struggle of the first fifty years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Liu joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921 while he was studying in Moscow. After he returned to China he became a CCP leader working in the underground to recruit supporters. In 1922 Liu and Li Lisan (1899–1967) organized a strike by 400,000 workers. In 1926 Liu became secretary general of the National Labor Congress, and in 1934 he took part in the Long March and supported CCP leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) during the Yan’an period. (Named for the town in Shaanxi Province that became the CCP’s headquarters, the Yan’an era symbolizes the halcyon days of the Chinese Communists’ first early successes.) From 1939 to 1941 Liu presented a series of lectures entitled “How to Be a Good Communist” in Yan’an.

After the PRC was founded in 1949 Liu became chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in 1954. In 1956 he boldly proposed to reform China’s economy, a proposal that eventually cost him his life. Liu, with Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), general secretary of the CCP, insisted that China’s socialism should focus on increasing the productivity and development of China’s economy. Liu increased his power in the CCP in 1959 when he replaced Mao Zedong as chairman of the PRC. However, Mao retained chairmanship of the CCP and was in charge of the daily work of the PRC and CCP before the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Liu Shaoqi supported Mao’s plans during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960). However, Liu began to clash with Mao in 1960 over economic policy. In 1961, Liu made a forty-four-day trip to his hometown, in Hunan Province, in order to determine how much the Great Leap Forward damaged the Chinese economy. It had been forty years since Liu left his hometown; it would also be his last visit to his birthplace before he died. During his tour of Hunan Liu determined that the damage to the Chinese economy was 70 percent due to human mistakes (meaning economic policy) and 30 percent due to natural disaster. In 1962, Liu Shaoqi made the important speech at the seven-thousand-person congress in Beijing. His report did not please Mao. While Mao preferred rapid development based on the labor of the Chinese masses, Liu preferred a slower growth, placing economic reliance on a small nucleus of technical experts.

In 1966, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Liu was accused of “taking the capitalist road,” having committed “counterrevolutionary crimes,” and being “China’s Khrushchev.” Liu and his wife, Wang Guangmei (1921–2006), were arrested in 1968. In 1946 Wang Guangmei, who had good education and spoke English well, had been a translator for U.S. secretary of state George Marshall (1880–1959), who mediated unsuccessful peace talks between the Communists and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang). Her intellectual performance eventually raised the ire of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing (1914–1991), during the Cultural Revolution.

Liu Shaoqi was physically abused by the Red Guards (students who admired Mao during the Cultural Revolution), expelled from the CCP in 1968, and died in Kaifeng in 1969. Red Guards discovered him lying dead on the floor of his prison cell, apparently the victim of medical neglect; his family was not informed for three years after he died (and the rest of the Chinese people were not notified for another ten years).

The CCP rehabilitated Liu’s name in 1980 but only after fourteen years of humiliating damage to his reputation. According to Wang Guangmei’s recollection, Liu Shaoqi had said, “If this (Cultural Revolution) is continuing, our nation will be destroyed. This is not a part of Marx-Leninism. I need to write a letter to Mao Zedong”(cited in Wang 2000). Even though Liu’s life was at risk during the chaotic period, he worried about China’s future, not his own. When Deng Xiaoping delivered the eulogy at Liu’s funeral on 17 May 1980, Deng never mentioned any responsibility or mistakes by Mao Zedong, who had allowed the Gang of Four to abuse Liu’s human rights. Today Liu Shaoqi has a museum in his memory, which also commemorates the former Chinese first lady, Wang Guangmei, in Hunan Province.

Further Reading

Barboza, D. (17 October, 2006). Wang Guangmei, 85, dies; Former First Lady of China. New York Times. Retrieved December 1, 2008, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/17/obituaries/17wang.html

Baum, R. (1994). Burying Mao: Chinese politics in the age of Deng Xiaoping. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Chen Yung Ping. (2004). Chinese political thought: Mao Tse-tung and Liu Shao-Chi. New York: Springer.

Dittmer, L. (1998). Liu Shaoqi and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. New York: M. E. Sharpe.

Fairbank, J. K. (1987). The great Chinese revolution: 1800–1985. New York: Harper and Row.

Fairbank, J. K., & Goldman, M. (1998). China: A new history. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

People’s Daily Online. (22 October, 2006). Funeral for Wang Guangmei, Wife of Late Chinese President, Held in Beijing. People’s Daily. Retrieved July 18, 2008, from http://english.people.com.cn/200610/22/print20061022_314178.html

Phoenix TV. (2008) Liu Shaoqi zai Hunan de 44tian [The 44-days Trip in Hunan by Liu Shaoqi]. Oral History, November 16, 2008.

Wang Guangmei. (2000). Huashuo Liu Shaoqi [Talking to Liu Shaoqi]. Retrieved July 16, 2008, from http://cyc90.cycnet.com/leaders/lsq/content.jsp?id=11804&s_code=2706

Source: Suganuma, Unryu. (2009). LIU Shaoqi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1342–1343. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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