Tan Zhenlin was one of the blunt-talking and quick-tempered Chinese Communist Party generals. He joined the CCP in 1926 and followed Mao Zedong into Jinggang Mountain in 1927 after the failed armed insurrection to establish the Red Base. After the Chinese Communist Party was forced to flee due to the Nationalist encirclement and began the so-called Long March, Tan Zhenlin was ordered to stay in the Soviet Union and continue the guerrilla war. During the war of resistance, he served as the commander and political commissar of the Sixth Division of the New Fourth Army. After the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, he served as Secretary of the CPC Zhejiang Provincial Committee, Chairman of the Provincial People’s Government, Political Commissar of the Provincial Military Region, Third Secretary of the East China Bureau, Deputy Secretary General of the CPC Central Committee, and Vice Premier of the State Council. However, such a high-ranking official who followed Mao and was not low in rank, cried out during the Cultural Revolution that he regretted joining the CCP and following Mao.
The “Three Undesirables” and the “February Backlash”
After the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Red Guards, with Mao’s connivance, beat, smashed, looted and burned innocent people. The disruption of social order and the impact on the leaders at all levels caused a large number of party leaders in the CCP to feel that their own situation was in danger and to feel discontent with Mao and the Cultural Revolution, especially with Jiang Qing and others who carried out Mao’s orders. This discontent eventually evolved into face-to-face questioning.
On February 14 and 16, 1967, the Politburo of the Central Committee held a meeting in Huairen Hall, convened by Zhou Enlai and attended by Chen Boda, Kang Sheng, Zhang Chunqiao, Xie Fuji, Chen Yi, Ye Jianying, Xu Qianqian, Nie Rongzhen, Li Xiannian, Tan Zhenlin and others. At the meeting on the 14th, Ye Jianying questioned Chen Boda, Kang Sheng, and Zhang Chunqiao as to why, after messing up the Party, the government, the factories, and the countryside, they had to mess up the army. Why did they change the name to Shanghai Commune without discussing it with the Politburo? The two sides argued and did not give in to each other.
On the 16th, Tan Zhenlin, then Vice Premier of the State Council, questioned Zhang Chunqiao why he was persecuting Chen Pi Xian, the Shanghai Party Secretary. Zhang Chunqiao replied, “The masses do not agree!” The enraged Tan Zhenlin said: “Your aim is to bring down all the old cadres. Forty years of old revolutionaries have ended up with broken families. This is the cruelest struggle in the history of the Party, more than any other time in history. If things go on like this, you guys do it, I quit, I won’t follow (referring to follow Mao Zedong closely), chop off my head, go to jail, expel from the Party, I will fight with you to the end!”
He also raised his voice and said, “I have made three mistakes in my life: first, I should not have lived until today; second, I should not have followed Mao Zedong in the revolution; third, I should not have joined the Chinese Communist Party.” After saying that, he brushed his sleeves and left.
Taking advantage of Tan Zhenlin’s words, Chen Yi, Ye Jianying, Nie Rongzhen, Li Xiannian and others also took the opportunity to criticize the rebel faction for fighting against the old cadres. This is the “four marshals” and “three old men” who were designated as the “February counter-current” at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, “the big fuss over Huairen Hall”.
Once again, he made a statement to Mao
After Jiang Qing told Mao about Tan Zhenlin’s words and the performance of other generals, Mao personally convened a meeting of the Politburo on Feb. 18 and went on a rampage, saying, “It’s impossible to deny the Cultural Revolution! The big fuss over Huai Ren Tang is to carry out a capitalist restoration and bring Liu and Deng to power. I can not go south with Lin Biao, and then go to Jinggang Mountain to play guerrilla. Chen Boda and Jiang Qing were shot, and Kang Sheng was charged. The Central Cultural Revolution Group was reorganized, with Chen Yi as its leader, Tan Zhenlin as its deputy leader, and Yu Qiu Li as a member, and if that was not enough, Wang Ming and Zhang Guotao would be invited back.
Tan Zhenlin interrupted Mao and said he was not at fault, and said again that he “should not have joined the party forty years earlier, should not have done the revolution with you, and should not have lived until 65 years old”. Mao left the meeting in anger. After that, Tan was ordered by Mao to “take leave to review”. In addition, the 12th Plenary Session of the 8th Central Committee held that year also criticized the “February Backlash”.
Tan Zhenlin made the same remark twice, obviously because he had been thinking about it for many days, not just on a whim.
Branded as a “Great Traitor”
According to the article “Tan Zhenlin in the February Controversy” in the issue of Literature and History Monthly (2008), on March 21, 1968, in the auditorium of the Beijing West Hotel, a group of members of a debriefing group from Jiangsu were waiting to be received by the leaders of the central government, with Zhou Enlai, Chen Boda, Kang Sheng, Jiang Qing, Yao Wenyuan and others in attendance. At the meeting, Jiang Qing announced an explosive message to the people: “We have solid evidence that Tan Zhenlin is a big traitor!” The next day, almost all of the Red Guard tabloids published the news that Tan Zhenlin was a big traitor.
Six days later, Jiang Qing and Kang Sheng again claimed that Tan Zhenlin was a traitor on the podium of the capital’s workers’ stadium. The slogans of “Down with the traitor Tan Zhenlin” came overwhelmingly, and a frenzy of struggle against the “Tan-type character” was set off all over the country.
It is said that Jiang Qing’s so-called evidence came from some people’s revelations. The material of the denunciation said that after the July 7 Incident, Tan Zhenlin became the vice chairman of the military political committee of western Fujian. On his way to Jinfeng to convey orders, he was detained overnight by the Kuomintang army and then released. It was also uncovered that when Tan Zhenlin was the deputy commander of the second detachment of the New Fourth Army, he set out from Longyan, Fujian, to report to the military headquarters of the New Fourth Army in Jiangxi. When passing through Ruijin, he was surrounded by the Huang Caiti Department of the Jiangxi Police General Security Force of the Kuomintang, and more than 100 people, including Tan Zhenlin, were disarmed and detained for about a week, at which point Tan betrayed the revolution ……
After the escape of Lin Biao in 1971, Mao changed his attitude towards the members of the “February counter-current”, and Tan wrote to Mao to admit his mistake. In 1975, he also became the vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
The author does not know whether Tan Zhenlin had betrayed the CCP before the establishment of the government, but Jiang Qing, who said he was a traitor, was publicly recognized as a traitor by the CCP after the Cultural Revolution, which is indeed an irony. Tan Zhenlin, who twice said he regretted joining the CCP and following Mao, was well aware of the cruelty of the CCP, because he himself had conspired with Xiang Ying to execute (with a large knife) Lin Ye and his wife, the former chief of staff of the 12th Red Army, on trumped-up charges during the expansion of the purge.
I guess when the same persecution fell on him, Tan Zhenlin realized what a foolish decision it was to follow the CCP and Mao. But it was easy to get into the boat of thieves, but hard to get out of it. Tan Zhenlin was still sitting in the boat of thieves until his death.