Mao also decided to use the Tibet issue and the border dispute with India to enhance his still shaky position within the Party and the state. The Lushan Conference ended on August 16, and on August 25, a PLA unit launched a surprise attack on an Indian position at Longju on the NEFA border. Then came the firefight at Kongka La in Ladakh on October 21. Lin Biao, the man Mao had put in charge of the military, was obviously doing his job. It is doubtful whether any of those attacks would have happened if the more professional, veteran officer Peng had still been in command of the PLA. On the other hand, China’s battlefield achievements in 1959 as well as in Myanmar in 1961, and, especially, the victory in the 1962 War were made possible because the PLA had benefitted from initiatives taken by Peng to professionalize the officer corps and make the command structure of the armed forces more efficient. These were to be reversed under Lin Biao. It was under him that the Lei Feng concept was promoted and for political and ideological reasons turned into a nation-wide cult, which survives to this day.
Mao’s gradual climb back to a position of absolute power had begun. By 1961, the Great Leap Forward was buried along with all the people who had died during the three years it had lasted. Apart from the millions who had died from starvation, there were others who had been beaten to death by Party zealots or had been executed on accusations of sabotage and other imagined crimes. It was over, and the political legacy of the Great Leap Forward was that Mao decided to replace the old principles of collective leadership of the Party with his own rule, which was not to be disputed or even challenged. He would, from now on, not tolerate any criticism of his rule or of his person.
But his struggle for a political comeback was not yet over. So, how safe was he from plots and intrigues within the Party? Dr Li Zhisui, Mao’s personal physician and confidante, wrote much later in his biography of the Chairman that his support within the Party was waning even after the Great Leap Forward. Mao was ‘depressed over the agricultural crisis and angry with the party elite, upon whom he was less able now to work his will. Mao was in temporary eclipse, spending most of his time in bed.’
But then came 1962. According to Dr Li, ‘Nineteen sixty-two was a political turning point for Mao. In January, when he convened another expanded Central Committee work conference to discuss the continuing disaster, his support within the party was at its lowest.’ At the meeting, President Liu Shaoqi openly blamed the famine on ‘man-made disasters’. Liu wanted to bring back the leaders who had been purged for opposing the Great Leap Forward, which made Mao furious. The sycophantic Lin Biao praised Mao, and the Chairman himself began counterattacking his enemies more vigorously by arguing that ‘classes continue to exist even under socialism’. The ‘class struggle’ had to be carried
on and the notorious
hardliner and spymaster Kang Sheng was put in charge of carrying out more purges of ‘revisionist’, i.e., anti-Mao elements within the CCP. Kang was almost inseparable from Jiang Qing, the former actress who in 1938 became Mao’s fourth wife.
Together with Lin Biao, they became instrumental in bringing Mao back to power and propagating his unique brand of Communism as well as the personality cult that was advanced in the mid-1960s.
The border dispute with India proved to be a useful distraction from the power struggle and an issue that would either silence Mao’s rivals and critics or bring them back them into the fold. And that helps explain why the final preparations for a war with India began in early 1962. Lin Biao was put in charge of the operation and that alliance between Mao and his loyal de facto chief of the PLA made the attack on India possible. With China’s ultimate victory in the war, Mao’s ultra-leftist line had won in China; whatever critical voices that were left in the Party after all the purges fell silent.