CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 18, June 2009


1969: April Fools' Day | China Heritage Quarterly

1969: April Fools’ Day

Geremie R. Barmé

The Ninth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing from 1 to 24 April 1969. The country’s twenty-two Party members were ostensibly represented by 1,512 delegates at the gathering. Shrouded in secrecy and with no foreign observers, it was the first Party congress convened in thirteen years. The Eighth Party Congress had been held in far more relaxed circumstances in 1956, and according to the stipulations of the Party’s own constitution, the Ninth should have been held in 1961.

In August 1966, Mao had remarked that a congress should be convened in the near future. The political infighting of the early 1960s, however, followed by the mass purges of the Cultural Revolution period starting in 1964 and running through Red Guard violence and factional warfare from 1966 to 1968, had left the Party in disarray making it impossible to convene a congress.

From 1968, with the vicious denunciation and ouster of many Party leaders, the most famous being China’s State President Liu Shaoqi and the Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, Mao now called for the creation of a ‘Party full of people suffused with vigour and vitality.’ The much-delayed gathering on April Fools’ Day 1969 was supposed to signal the reorganization and reinvigoration of the Party entirely under the aegis of Mao Zedong’s victorious revolutionary line. In reality, the Ninth Party Congress represented a short-lived and uneasy coalition of forces that had survived, or prospered, in the cruel anarchy and factional infighting of the previous years.

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Clip 1: The Opening of the Ninth Party Congress. Source: official documentary film of the congress, Long Bow Archive.
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Clip 2: Mao Zedong spoke during the opening session of the congress amidst deafening adulation. He declared, ‘This congress will be a congress unity, a congress of victory…. After it is concluded still greater victories will be won countrywide!’.

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Clip 3. Peking order. Mao Zedong, flanked on the left by: Lin Biao, Zhou Enlai, Chen Boda, Kang Sheng, Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, Xie Fuzhi, Huang Yongsheng, Wu Faxian, Ye Qun, Wang Dongxing… The camera pans quickly over those sitting on his right: Dong Biwu, Liu Bocheng, Zhu De, Li Fuchen, Chen Yi, Li Xiannian, Xu Xiangqian, Nie Rongzhen and Ye Jianying.

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Clip 4: Voting for Lin Biao’s political report and the revised Party Constitution by a show of hands on 14 April 1969. Premier Zhou Enlai later gushed in a written report that, ‘We do not only feel boundless joy because we have as our great leader the greatest Marxist-Leninist of our era, Chairman Mao, but also great joy because we have Vice-Chairman Lin as Chairman Mao’s universally recognized successor’.

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Clip 5: Casting votes for the new Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party at the conclusion of the congress consisting of 170 full members and 109 alternate members. Only nineteen percent, or fifty-three, of the Eighth Central Committee were elected to the Ninth. Over a third of the new members were in the People’s Liberation Army.

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Clip 6: The evening fireworks display and mass celebration in Tiananmen Square marked the victorious conclusion of the Ninth Party Congress and raucously celebrate the looming collapse of capitalism and the global victory of Maoist-style revolutionary ideology.

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For some observers—in particular many young people who had been swept up in the revolutionary ardour of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution only to be discarded—the congress was a farrago. As the writer and political commentator Wang Lixiong 王力雄 remarked in an oral history interview for the film Morning Sun released by the Long Bow Group in Boston in 2003 (see

The Party Congress opened on April Fools’ Day. We thought it was a huge joke, a meeting of lies.

At the time we had no profound critique of society, [nor could we make] a thorough going theoretical negation of the Cultural Revolution. But because of the damage caused to our families, we thought the congress was a farce.

In archival interview material also recorded for Morning Sun, Zhang Zhong 张仲 remarked:

When the Party Congress was held I was working in the fields. By then I had no interest in any of that stuff. I had learnt that [when the peasants spoke about the leadership they’d call] they called Chairman Mao ‘old duffer Mao’, and they said that Lin Biao had evil written all over his face. In those [isolated] places where ‘the skies were vast and the emperor distant’, we didn’t care that much about politics. We preferred tuning in to so-called ‘enemy broadcasts’, like Radio Moscow which broadcast a lot of music.

At the Ninth Party Congress, Mao’s second in command, Lin Biao, was enshrined in the new party constitution as the Chairman’s handpicked successor, something Deng Xiaoping would later remark was nothing less than ‘feudal’. In his political report to the congress (one drafted by others and revised a number of times by Mao himself), Lin denounced Liu Shaoqi, former President of China, with unprecedented vehemence. Liu was Mao’s previous handpicked successor, but he hadn’t been seen in public for years, and he would not long survive the successful conclusion of the Ninth Congress.

Luo Xiaohai 骆小海, one of the founding Red Guards, observed:

The Ninth Congress was a declaration of victory for the Maoists and of Lin Biao’s faction. It was depressing because I was completely disgusted with the Cultural Revolution.

In the film it is all very obvious—the leftists are all seated on the left, and they all get a lot of time on camera. The rightists are on the right, they are the old Party cadres, and the camera passes over them very quickly. It’s very evident.

There was something that was very rare in Chinese news documentaries. It actually shows Mao speaking in sync.

The congress celebrated unity and victory, but the protracted discussions reflected profound politic infighting both inside and outside the venue. One of the most memorable moments in the official film account of the meeting shows Mao leading a vote on Lin Biao’s political report and on the revised Party Constitution. Mao evinces evident relish in the vote taking. He makes sure that every one of the standing committee members seated on the presidium behind him gets to participate in the particular brand of democracy permitted by his Party.

Zhu Xueqin 朱学勤, later a noted philosopher and commentator on intellectual trends, also remembered the congress. As he remarked in an archival interview for the Morning Sun project:

I was in a really bad spot.

One I was scribbling carelessly and didn’t realize that my left arm was covering up the words ‘Long live Chairman Mao!’ that someone had etched onto the desk. I wrote ‘fuck you!’ on top of it then left. The next day this was declared to be a reactionary slogan. I suddenly became a mini-counter-revolutionary.

When all of this stuff appeared on the screen it seemed extremely distant from me. I had begun to have a vague sense of doubt about it all.

I remember the Ninth Congress well. That spring I was getting ready to go down to the countryside. I wanted to escape the label I had as a counter-revolutionary, the further away I got from my classmates the better. On the other hand, I wanted to throw myself into a professional revolutionary’s life, one full of ardor and romance.

In the event, the Ninth Party supposedly marked the formal end of the Cultural Revolution. And, for a moment, it did.

As the authors of Mao’s Last Revolution remark:

To the extent that the Ninth Congress marked anything at all, it was neither the victory nor the end of the Cultural Revolution. It was but the beginning of an ending so painfully drawn out, so tortuously slow, that it would last more than twice as long as the event it supposedly brought to a close. And what until recently has been obscured by a paucity of documentation is the immense human cost of that ending… . A greater number of ordinary citizens died while revolutionary committees across the country ‘finished the job’ that Mao had mentioned at the Ninth Congress than at the hands of the rampaging Red Guards in 1966-67 or in armed combat between ‘mass organizations’ competing for power in 1967-68. [From Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution, Harvard, 2006, pp.285-86.]

The uneasy coalition of forces forged in the lead up to the congress soon fractured. In 1970, Chen Boda was purged and the following year Mao’s hand-picked successor Lin Biao fell from grace, both literally as well as figuratively. Lin’s mysterious denouement in September 1971 marked a new phase in Chinese revolutionary politics that eventually led to the Open Door and Reform policies that were initiated in late 1978.