He had not been executed in the literal sense. But his death was the mere bodily consequence of an Orwellian civic annihilation: the onetime President of China, fallen to unperson. Like the Man in the Iron Mask, his identity was secret from his own guards (and later from the crematorium workers who disposed of the remains); his own children did not learn of his death until 1972.
A Communist revolutionary from student days in the early 1920s, Liu was among the first to publicly turn against Mao’s Great Leap Forward. In 1959 Liu succeeded Mao as President of the People’s Republic of China, and led the walkback from the Great Leap’s destructive stab at modernization.
A years-long factional struggle within the Chinese Communist Party would ensue, pitting Maoists against a more reform-minded clique.
Liu and the reformers got the worst of it in the 1960s. Mao and Maoists seized power back in the 1966 Cultural Revolution, and purged Liu as a “capitalist roader” — “China’s Khrushchev” ran one denunciation.
The renegade, hidden traitor and scab Liu Shaoqi and other sham Marxists and political swindlers … dished up the theory of taking the electronics industry as the center … They also said, “The development of a modern electronics industry will bring about a leap forward in our industry, and it will be a starting point for a new industrial revolution in the history of China.” This is a reactionary principle for opposing the principle of taking steel as the key link.*
Liu endured months of frightful public harassment leading up to his September 1967 arrest: there were episodes when Mao’s “Red Guards” broke into his official residence and even plastered Liu’s own walls with anti-Liu placards,** as well as “struggling against” campaigns with mobs of anti-Liu demonstrators hurling abuse while Liu was made to stand in a pose of contrition. The formal allegations, for whatever such things are worth, were that Liu worked as a World War II traitor for the Americans, Japanese, and/or nationalists.†
Liu was badly mistreated in custody, possibly as a way to kill him off extrajudicially or just for the sadistic pleasure of bringing one who once stood so high to the depths of literally wallowing in his own shit. By summer 1968 Liu was suffering from pneumonia, cankered with bedsores, and could only be fed through a nasal tube. His neglectful medical care gradually wasted him to death.
Mao himself died in 1976. A reformist and onetime Liu ally, Deng Xiaoping, eventually emerged as China’s post-Mao leader. Soon thereafter the Chinese Communist Party officially rehabilitated Liu and declared several of his writings, so recently forbidden, to be “Marxist works of great significance.” He has remained an official hero, and political martyr, ever since.
* 1971 salvo quoted in Lowell Dittmer, “Death and Transfiguration: Liu Shaoqi’s Rehabilitation and Contemporary Chinese Politics,” The Journal of Asian Studies, May 1981.
** “The Kuomintang vilified me for years but never used such language,” recalled Liu’s wife — who survived a decade in prison herself after her husband’s fall.
† Mao’s widow would later admit that thousands of people were detailed to comb through the records of the Japanese occupation in search of anything prejudicial to Liu.