Why you should care

You haven’t come across so much intrigue among the over-65s since Cocoon.

Power abhors a vacuum. Which is why succeeding a tyrant — from Caesar to Kim Jong Il — has always been a messy business, and doubly so when the dictator in charge has become synonymous with those he dictates. And few turnovers have been as messy as the one surrounding Mao Zedong in China.

Chairman Mao’s death at 82 in 1976, after three decades of rule, put the ruling Communist Party in quite a quandary. You would think that succession would have been a foregone conclusion. Suffering from ALS and assorted respiratory, heart and kidney ailments, Mao had not been seen in public for five years. But amazingly, at the time of Mao’s death, no officially designated successor existed, though many brave souls had already played the part of heir apparent. How on earth did a country of almost 1 billion find itself without a clear leader? Let’s just say fate had intervened, repeatedly. Consider the ascendance and often painful falls from favor of the men who might have stepped into Mao’s place.

Liu Shaoqi (1898 - 1969), President of the People's Republic of China, attends a rally in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, to support the Vietnamese people in their struggle against US forces, 23rd July 1966.

Liu Shaoqi (1898 - 1969), President of the People’s Republic of China, attends a rally in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, to support the Vietnamese people in their struggle against US forces, 23rd July 1966.

Source Getty Images

Successor No. 1: Liu Shaoqi

Flash back to 1962: It is four years into Mao’s five-year plan called the Great Leap Forward, including a consolidation of small farms that sparked widespread famine and the deaths of 30 million Chinese peasants. Mao’s first successor, an avowed Soviet-style communist and silver-haired statesman named Liu Shaoqi, turned abruptly on his mentor at the Communist Party conference that year, becoming the first senior official to recognize that the Great Leap Forward was inaptly named to say the least.

The defense minister at the time, Lin Biao, a diminutive army general who suffered from manic depression and hypochondria, ardently defended Mao, but the die had been cast. As Liu and General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, a Long March survivor who would later open China to foreign investment, set about rescuing the economy and importing grain to combat the famine, Mao and General Lin planned their political comeback, which was nothing less than a cultural revolution. In fact, it was the Cultural Revolution.

BEIJING, CHINA: Chinese top communist leader and a Marshal of the Red Army Lin Biao (1907-71) reads in 1971 in Beijing a copy of Mao Zedong's 'Little Red Book'. January 1971.

Lin Biao

Source Getty Images

Successor No. 2: Lin Biao

The Cultural Revolution was the opportunity Mao needed to build a cult of personality under the banner of a quasi revolution, as he purged discontents and rivals from the party and ruling class. During this time, General Lin became Mao’s heir apparent and greatest defender, while Liu, labeled a traitor, disappeared in 1968 before being beaten, being denied medicine and ultimately dying under house arrest. But just three years later, a rift developed between Mao and his general, and Lin and his family were killed when their plane crashed in Mongolia as they attempted to flee China for the Soviet Union (after a botched coup attempt, according to official Chinese history).

Zhou Enlai

Source Zhou Enlai

Successor No. 3: Zhou Enlai

With Lin dead, attention turned to the suave Zhou Enlai, Mao’s confidant and chief diplomat who headed negotiations with foreign leaders like Henry Kissinger. But Zhou, 77, succumbed to cancer several months before Mao’s death. So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s three heirs apparent down, followed by the chairman himself. No wonder it took 16 hours for the party to land on the next victim.

Successor No. 4: Hua Guofeng

With eight days of memorial services scheduled to begin on September 11, 1976, the Communist Party met to determine who would replace a man who had commanded diehard allegiance from so many Chinese. The victor was party chairman Hua Guofeng, 65, a moderate who advocated a return to Soviet-style central planning and who, according to party lore, had been anointed by Mao on his deathbed. Just four weeks after Mao’s death, Hua would arrest his major political rivals, nicknamed the Gang of Four, including Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing. But Hua was outmaneuvered a few years later by a rejuvenated Deng Xiaoping, 74, who wanted to introduce market-based policies into the Chinese economy. Deng went on to preside over China for the next decade, a period that included the protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

Chinese Prime Minister Hua Guofeng on a visit to Romania. August 16, 1978

Hua Guofeng

Source © Henri Bureau/Corbis

So, what’s the takeaway from the post-Mao transition of power? With eight days of memorial services scheduled to begin on September 11, 1976, the Communist Party met to determine who would replace a man who had commanded diehard allegiance from so many Chinese. The victor was party chairman Hua Guofeng, 65, a moderate who advocated a return to Soviet-style central planning and who, according to party lore, had been anointed by Mao on his deathbed. Just four weeks after Mao’s death, Hua would arrest his major political rivals, nicknamed the Gang of Four, including Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing. But Hua was outmaneuvered a few years later by a rejuvenated Deng Xiaoping, 74, who wanted to introduce market-based policies into the Chinese economy. Deng went on to preside over China for the next decade, a period that included the protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

That successions, whether in China, Cuba, Iran or maybe even your own country, invite instability — especially when the exiting leader hasn’t made a post-mortem plan? Or maybe it’s a cautionary tale not to bet on today’s front-runner, because he or she may be a smoldering ash heap in the hills of Mongolia tomorrow. Sic transit successor.

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