The Tiananmen Incident of 1976
In the last year of his life, Mao looked back and claimed two great achievements: conquering China and launching the Cultural Revolution.1 The first could never be denied him. The second could. Mao's new campaign to avert a reversal of verdicts on the Cultural Revolution was his last chance to preserve that legacy. His rapidly declining health foreclosed any other.
In mid-1974, grumbling mightily, Mao had finally agreed to be examined by specialists: by ophthalmologists, because cataracts had made him blind, and by neurologists, because his speech had become virtually unintelligible. But he rejected the results and refused treatment. The fact that Zhou Enlai had to have repeated operations for his cancer confirmed Mao in the belief that doctors simply could not cure people. In late January 1975, a four-day medical examination of the CCP Chairman found that he "had cataracts, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, coronary heart disease, pulmonary heart disease, an infection in the lower half of both lungs, three bullae in his left lung, bedsores on his left hip, and a shortage of oxygen in his blood (anoxia). He also had a slight fever and a severe cough."2 In February 1975, Zhou left his hospital bed to chair a special meeting of the Politburo to hear the doctors' reports and discuss treatments for Mao.
The easy part was to deal with Mao's eyes. With the Politburo's agreement, the doctors experimented on forty elderly peasant men, too poor to afford the cataract operations they needed. Half of them underwent a less invasive traditional treatment; the other half underwent the more aggressive Western-style surgery. When Mao was handed a report on the experiment, he opted for the traditional method as safer, speedier, and less painful. A year after the original diagnosis, Mao's right eye was operated on, and soon he could read official documents with the help of glasses.
The difficult, indeed terminal, issue was that the neurologists had diagnosed Mao as having, not Parkinson's disease as at first thought, but Lou Gehrig's dis-