The year 1976 was not a happy year for Communist China. It began in January with the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, the urbane party grandee who held back the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. A few months later, in July, a severe earthquake hit the industrial city of Tangshan, killing 250,000 people, according to government estimates (the real figure was probably much higher).
That the year was the Dragon Year — a watershed moment according to the Chinese astrology — could not have been far from anyone’s mind, let alone that of the old man succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease behind the walls of the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao was 81 and he had been the leader of the Chinese Communist Party since 1943; now he had been reduced by his ailment to communicating by means of cryptic scrawls on notepads. (The only person who could decipher them was his nurse).
Mao made his last public appearance on May 27, 1976, when he met the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was a great admirer of Mao, emulating Chinese Communism with his own Islamic Socialism and Mao’s Little Red Books with a similar red book called “Bhutto speaks” and it was suspected that it was during this last meeting that Mao agreed to transfer 50 kg of uranium to Pakistan — an act that allowed Pakistan to develop its first nuclear weapons in the 1980s.
The photos from the meeting were last photos of Chairman Mao — and they made abundantly clear to everyone, including Mao, that he would not be alive much longer. Seeing them, Mao decided to end his public audiences altogether. By September, he was dead.