The life and times of one of Communist China’s most powerful men.
Kang Sheng (1899-1975) was for a period after 1966 one of the most powerful figures in the Chinese government. His life and career have a number of established points (e.g. when he was appointed to certain positions) but he lived during a period of incredible secrecy within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and, in its aftermath, considerable and understandable bitterness about the roles of various individuals.
Consequently, it is necessary to take some care when ascribing to him personal motivations or limitations. For example, he is perhaps best known for his role late in life as an associate with Jiang Ching, Madame Mao, on whose behalf he may have helped to edit her political record to prevent an earlier confession to the Kuomintang from stopping her marriage to Chairman Mao Zedong.
Some have written of him that he also was responsible for procuring young women for Mao for sexual purposes (Mao was very keen to ensure his longevity and it is a commonly expressed Chinese belief that sexual activity with younger partners can result in the transfer of vital life energy from the younger to the older partner). This is the position taken by Anchee Min in her novel “Becoming Madame Mao,” for example.
From an ideological perspective, Kang Sheng was perhaps most strongly influenced by his sojourn in the Soviet Union and his knowledge of and ability to wield the methods developed by organs of the Soviet state. These methods were employed in his campaign for “land reform” during the Chinese Civil War period and the concomitant murder of landowners as a result. He identified Pol Pot as the true revolutionary of Cambodia and, hence, was at least partly responsible for Chinese support of the Khmer Rouge rather than Prince Norodom Sihanouk, with of course disastrous consequences.
The support for ideological purity with scant regard for human life was further exhibited during the Cultural Revolution. This movement was aimed at destroying the cultural heritage of China, on the basis that it had led to “backwards” and “non-revolutionary” sentiments among so many Chinese people. It was deemed necessary to drive out all such sentiments from society and this required the persecution of the professional classes and anyone else who could be accused of holding opposing views. The campaign was led by the Red Guards, whose youth and rage lent them with what seems to have been almost demonic energy.
Chairman Mao himself appears to have sat out lengthy periods of the Cultural Revolution, thereby withholding either his pleasure or his condemnation of the unfolding events. That the leading role was taken by Jiang Ching, his wife, was taken by some to indicate Mao’s support but he was too evasive for this. Had Kang Sheng not died in 1975, he would have been likely to have been purged as Madame Mao and the so-called Gang of Four were the following year, the year in which his preferred candidate Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia: Year Zero.