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Zhang Chunqiao, 88; One of China’s Gang of Four Blamed for Cultural Revolution’s Evil

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Times Staff Writer

Zhang Chunqiao, a member of the Gang of Four blamed for many of the excesses of China’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution -- a period that saw the economy derailed, thousands of moderate party officials and intellectuals purged and the nation traumatized -- has died. He was 88.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported the news Tuesday, nearly three weeks after his April 21 death from cancer. China’s ruling Communist Party often underplays potentially embarrassing news, and the four-sentence obituary gave few details or any explanation for why the announcement was delayed.

Zhang was the most intellectually rigorous member of the Gang of Four, the group that directed much of the Cultural Revolution. Led by Jiang Qing, the wife of Communist Party founder Mao Zedong, the Gang of Four were arrested a month after Mao’s death in 1976 and charged with “counterrevolutionary activities.”

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But many historians say the group was a convenient scapegoat for Mao’s failed policies, which the Communist Party is still reluctant to probe too deeply out of fear that it will undermine its legitimacy.

“He wasn’t really one of the chief culprits of the Cultural Revolution. What he did do was implement and popularize many of the wacky ideas of Mao,” said Maochun Yu, a historian at the U.S. Naval Academy. “Without a clear assessment of Mao, who ultimately perpetrated many crimes in China, it’s very difficult to accurately assess Zhang Chunqiao.”

Despite the enormous changes in the last three decades, with the opening of the economy and the easing of party controls, most Chinese over the age of 40 retain strong, even searing, memories of the Cultural Revolution. During that era, bands of students known as Red Guards roamed the country destroying property, condemning people in “struggle sessions” and wreaking havoc. Neighbors denounced neighbors and family members were pitted against one another, resulting in untold deaths.

Wang Xinsheng, a professor at Peking University, was in elementary school when the Cultural Revolution started. As in many cases, his education was ended; he was forced to work in the countryside for three years and in a factory for two years. All around him, he said, people were losing their homes, their family members and their dignity.

“I remember I was in the factory when the news came that Zhang Chunqiao and the Gang of Four had been arrested,” Wang said.

“We were so excited, and ran into the street to celebrate. Not only did this mean the end of the Cultural Revolution. It was very exciting that there was someone to blame for everything. Now of course, that looks a bit simplistic.”

The Gang of Four were put on trial five years later in 1981 after Deng Xiaoping had consolidated his power and started China on a road toward reform and greater openness.

Yu of the Naval Academy, who was at a university in Tianjin at the time, recalls the excitement that spread through Chinese society as the court proceedings were televised. Though it was obvious to many that it was a show trial, it was highly unusual to see any top official face a judge.

“There was very little entertainment at the time -- only a few soccer games on television,” he said. “This was a very rare experience. It put a cloak of legality over the political struggle.” The court sentenced Zhang to death, later commuted to life in prison. According to Xinhua, he was released in 1998 on medical parole.

Mao’s wife, Jiang, also was handed a death sentence but died in prison in 1991, reportedly a suicide.

A third member, Wang Hongwen, died in 1992, and the fourth, Yao Wenyuan, was released in 1996 with no subsequent word since then on his status.

Zhang was born in 1917 and worked his way up the revolutionary ranks with skills that served him well, said Wenren Jiang, a political scientist at the University of Alberta. “He was sharp, very radical and politically sensitive,” Jiang said.

By 1966, he was the Communist Party secretary of Shanghai. It was a high-profile post that placed him firmly on the “Shanghai Gang” side of the constant jockeying for influence between Beijing and Shanghai.

That year, Mao, facing lingering criticism over his failed “Great Leap Forward” policies that saw 30 million Chinese die of starvation and worried about real or imaginary political rivals, launched the Cultural Revolution to cleanse China of “bourgeois influence.”

Zhang and Wang used their Shanghai base to establish a Shanghai Revolutionary Committee aimed at turning China’s most prosperous city into a showcase for radical Maoists. According to testimony at his 1981 trial, at one point 100,000 radicals led by Wang attacked a factory controlled by a rival faction and assaulted or kidnapped several hundred enemies.

As the Cultural Revolution whipped itself into a frenzy, various factions competed to appear ever more revolutionary in Mao’s eyes. He eventually sought to play off the Gang of Four against the growing influence of Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai, who favored a more pragmatic approach, though Deng prevailed after Mao’s death.

Zhang predicted China would suffer many changes under Deng’s approach, including labor exploitation, gambling, prostitution and a yawning rich-poor gap, said Jiang of the University of Alberta, much of which has come to pass as the inevitable cost of a more open policy.

“He probably died convinced he was right,” Jiang said.


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