Obituary讣告Zhang Chunqiao 张春桥
May 19th 2005
From The Economist print editionZhang Chunqiao, a member of the Gang of Four, died on April 21st, aged 88
IT TOOK almost three weeks for China’s state news agency to announce the death of Zhang Chunqiao. When it came, a mere four sentences described his career as “one of the culprits of the Lin Bao and Jiang Qing Counter-revolutionary Clique”. And that, indeed, was how most Chinese had last seen him, at his televised show-trial in 1981. Manacled, rumpled, with his spectacles askew, he had looked both pathetic and desperate. And no wonder. With the other members of the Gang of Four, Mao Zedong’s chief henchmen (only one of whom now survives), he had faced charges of ultimate responsibility for the persecution of 729,511 people, and the deaths of 34,800 of them, during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.
Mr Zhang, though prickly, had been a witty and articulate public speaker, with a disarming habit—in the middle of rants against “capitalist-roaders” and “bourgeois remnants”—of fishing cigarettes out of his pocket and lighting up. At his trial, he acquired the habit of silence. He did not respond when the judge harangued him, would look at none of the evidence against him, and pretended to go to sleep. Sentenced to death, he said nothing. When the sentence was commuted to 18 years, rumour had it that he never spoke a word in jail and lost the power of speech. He was released in 1998, but no one knew where he had gone to live. Small wonder, then, that his death was murmured of in 1991, 1994 and 1996, and that many Chinese were shocked to find that he still survived.
Suppressing words, either written or spoken, had formed the base of his career. As deputy head of the Cultural Revolution Group, from 1966 onwards, his role was to purge the party ranks of artists and intellectuals, creating instead “new-born things” that would be worthy of the revolution. Intellectuals were sent to work in the fields to clear their minds of bourgeois notions. As head of the Revolutionary Committee in Shanghai Mr Zhang used the Red Guards, ruthless gangs of students and workers, to burn books.
Having purged these “poisonous weeds” (a favourite phrase), Mr Zhang thrust in his own ideas. Even in a Maoist context, these were often extreme. He imagined a China completely free of hierarchies, employers, wage systems, private property and even government. In 1958, Mao himself implicitly criticised his demand for the abolition of wages. One remark for which he is still remembered, “Socialist weeds are more fragrant than capitalist grain”, summed up his recklessness. He showed more enthusiasm than most, too, for the bowdlerising of the Beijing Opera under Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, the leader of the Gang. Her masterwork, “Spark Amid the Reeds”, underwent ten rewrites by Mr Zhang to make it into a thing of revolutionary glory.
His most daring idea concerned Shanghai itself. In 1967 he sought to turn China’s most westernised, industrialised city into a version of the Paris commune of 1870-71. The bureaucrats were kicked out, and the masses took over the government. Their slogan was “overthrow everything”. Unfortunately, dissident elements turned off the water and the power, and the city ground almost to a halt. Mao summoned Mr Zhang to Beijing and reined him back. Most painful of all, he condemned his efforts as “reactionary”.
The iron broom “铁扫帚”
Like many an iconoclast, Mr Zhang’s roots lay in the things he despised. His family were landlords and intellectuals in Shandong province, and he went to a good school. He joined the Chinese League of Left-Wing Writers as a teenager, objecting to the regime of Chiang Kai-shek, and was a communist by 1940, when he was 23. His commitment to the cause was solid by 1949, when he followed the victorious communist army into Shanghai.
Unswerving though he seemed, he occasionally doubted that China’s revolution could be as swift and total as he hoped. His most famous article, “On Exercising All-Round Dictatorship over the Bourgeoisie” (1975), admitted that the abolition of private property, money and material incentives could take a little time. He hoped, however, that the “fortified villages” held by the bourgeoisie would be swept away, one by one, by the “iron broom of the proletariat”. Deng Xiaoping’s proposals to increase exports he scorned as “nation-selling capitulationism”.
By then, though he had risen to second vice-premier, Mr Zhang could feel the forces of reaction closing in. In a rare candid note, written that February, he admitted that he thought he might be beheaded “at any time”. In fact the denouement happened in October 1976, when an elite unit of the People’s Liberation Army arrested him, Madame Mao, and the two others who made up the “Gang of Four”, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen.
Mao was then a month dead. His star burned bright for two more years, then waned. By 1980, Mr Zhang and the others were scapegoats for his enormities. They were scapegoats, too, for the millions of Chinese who had helped to drive out neighbours, or chastise intellectuals, or hound local bureaucrats from office in the fervid days of Maoist upheaval. Mr Zhang’s guilty silence in court was not only his, but theirs. It is a silence that China still finds exceedingly hard to break.