Liu Shaoqi was head of state of the People’s Republic of China from 1959–68 and was considered, by many, to be Mao’s heir. One of the outstanding leaders of Communist China, he fell from office in 1968 in circumstances that have still not been fully explained. His death, in 1969, was not made public until 11 years later.
Liu was born to a family of rich peasants in Hunan province in 1889–the exact date of birth is not certain. He received a degree of education unusual for a peasant in those days and by the time he was 30 was involved in politics, joining the Socialist Youth League.
In 1920 Liu went to Moscow to study and joined the new Chinese Communist Party while he was learning about Communism firsthand in Russia. This time spent abroad made Liu one of the few Chinese leaders of his generation with any real experience of the outside world. Returning to China in 1922 he gained a party post in his native Hunan province and became active in labour leadership.
When the Nationalists turned on the Communists in 1927, Liu went underground. In the same year he was elected to the party’s Central Committee. Joining Mao Zedong’s forces in western China in the 1930s, Liu became a member of the Politburo, but he left the Long March to work in Beijing against the Japanese invaders. After being in charge of the (underground) party in North China and then in Central China, he returned to Mao’s side. A series of lectures, How to be a good Communist, increased his influence and by the time China emerged from the Second World War, Liu was firmly established as one of the most powerful men in the Communist Party, of which he had become the official spokesman.
Upon the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on 1 Oct. 1949, Liu was appointed deputy premier and a deputy leader of the party. His experience as a student in Moscow stood Liu in good stead as China’s chief negotiator with the Soviet Union and his labour leadership made him an obvious choice to promote industrialisation. It fell to Liu to outline the Great Leap Forward that was intended to boost China’s industries. By the mid-1950s Liu was clearly Mao’s heir and in 1959 succeeded him as head of state (Chairman of the State Council).
As head of state Liu made many visits abroad. But in 1968, during the Cultural Revolution, he fell from power. It seems likely that Liu, the pragmatist, was opposed to the wilder excesses of the student Red Guards, the instruments of Mao’s new revolution. What was perceived as the extravagant lifestyle of Liu’s wife, Wang Guangmei, also attracted adverse comment. In Oct. 1968, Liu lost his post and party positions. At the same time his Politburo ally Deng Xiaoping was purged.
Purged from the Communist Party, Liu Shaoqi disappeared from view. Rumours of his death spread in 1974 but the party did not announce that the former head of state had died on 12 Nov. 1969 in Henan province until 1980. In the same year, the party—led in fact if not in name by Deng Xiaoping—completely rehabilitated Liu, acknowledging the important part he played in the establishment of Communist China.