Yao Wenyuan, the last living member of the Gang of Four blamed for the chaos and political extremism of China's decade-long Cultural Revolution, has died, state media reported Friday. He was 74.
Yao died Dec. 23 of diabetes, the official New China News Agency said in a short dispatch. It did not say where he died or why his passing was not announced immediately.
Yao was the primary propagandist for the Gang of Four, which has come to personify the fanaticism of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution that left thousands dead and the nation's economy in shambles. Many observers say the arrest and imprisonment of the foursome decades ago allowed the Communist Party to avoid taking responsibility for the disastrous policies of its founding father, Chairman Mao Tse-tung.
"The Gang of Four was created as a symbol by the post-Mao leadership to pass off the burdens of the Cultural Revolution," said Andrew Nathan, a political scientist at Columbia University. "One reason the regime does not want to open discussions on the Cultural Revolution is it does lead back to Mao -- not just Mao the man but the single-party system that allowed the Cultural Revolution to happen."
To the relief of many party leaders, memories of that era are fading quickly among a new generation of Chinese that has grown up with American fast food and the Internet.
Even more hazy is their familiarity with the individuals behind the notorious clique, said Ye Yonglie, a Shanghai-based author who has written biographies on all four members of the group.
As Mao's wife, Jiang Qing wielded enormous power in the name of her husband. Wang Hongwen, the party vice chairman, was the ranking government official. Zhang Chunqiao was seen as the brains of the group. And Yao was known as the man with the golden pen.
With only a high school education, he eventually controlled the country's propaganda machinery, with which he used the printed word to whip China into a frenzy and attack anyone who strayed from the ultra-leftist politics of his associates.
Yao's most famous work was a 1965 critique bashing an opera written by the deputy mayor of Beijing. The critique was perceived as a declaration of war against those on the capitalist road and a curtain-raiser for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
Yao got the job because Jiang had been looking for a literary hit man but couldn't find a suitable candidate in Beijing. She found Yao in her power base in Shanghai, where he was working as a journalist for the Liberation Daily under Zhang, his mentor.
His image immortalized in political cartoons as the man with the round face and bald head, Yao would meet Jiang in the famous Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai, where they revised the key critique numerous times before it went to print. He would be seen arriving on his bicycle and wearing the green army sneakers popular at the time, according to Ye.
After the story hit newsstands, Yao became a nationally famous polemicist, earning him a spot in the inner circle of Jiang's political allies and later a post in the powerful Politburo.
Yao and the rest of the Gang of Four were arrested in a bloodless coup a month after Mao's death in 1976. They were charged with counterrevolutionary activities.
In 1981, a trial that riveted the nation delivered Yao a 20-year prison sentence, the lightest among the four. He was released in 1996.
Jiang, whose death sentence had been reduced to life in prison, apparently hanged herself in 1991 while on medical parole.
Wang, 58, died of liver cancer in a Beijing hospital in 1992. Zhang died of cancer last April at age 88.
Yao lived in obscurity after his release from prison. He is believed to have returned to Shanghai and to have occasionally written unpublished articles. According to Ye, Yao had kept a diary since he was 15 and continued writing into his prison years.
"In some ways Yao is a tragic figure," said Hu Xindou, a sociologist at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
"He was swept up by history, used by other people and probably could not resist the leaders who told him what to do. If he didn't do it, somebody else would have. This is not just one man's tragedy. It is the tragedy of a nation."