Foreshocks: Local Origins of Nanjing’s Qingming Demonstrations of 1976
The “Nanjing Incident” of late March 1976 was a precursor of, and according to some analysts a trigger for, the more famous Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 4-5 April. The two protests have widely been interpreted as spontaneous outpourings of dissent from Cultural Revolution radicalism, expressed through mourning for the recently deceased Premier Zhou Enlai. A closer look at the background to these demonstrations in Nanjing, however, reveals that the protests there occurred in the midst of, and in response to, a vigorous public offensive by former leaders of rebel factions to overthrow local civilian cadres for reversing Cultural Revolution policies. The outpouring of respect for Zhou—and criticism of Politburo radicals—mobilized enormous numbers of ordinary citizens into the city streets, far larger numbers than the rebel leaders were able to muster. This demonstrated beyond dispute the virtual disappearance of the popular support rebel leaders had briefly enjoyed a decade before. While the Nanjing protests were unanticipated by either the rebel leaders or the party officials they sought to overthrow, they were only the latest in a linked series of local political confrontations, and had a decisive impact on the national political scene.