Zhang Chunqiao: Symbol of Unchecked Political Power


2005.05.11
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Beijing, late 1966. A poster illustrates how to deal with 'enemies of the people' during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Photo: AFP/Jean Vincent

HONG KONG—The recent death of extreme left-wing thinker Zhang Chunqiao, one of the Gang of Four who took most of the blame for China's bloody and chaotic Cultural Revolution (1966-76), has highlighted a damaging political legacy still at work in the current regime, analysts say.

Zhang's death at the age of 88 from cancer was reported several weeks late by China's official Xinhua news agency, which described him as "one of the culprits of the Lin Biao and Jiang Qing Counterrevolutionary Clique."

Zhang, who was instrumental in giving Mao the opportunity to regain a political foothold in Shanghai following his loss of influence after the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-59), was handed a death sentence by a special tribunal of the Supreme People's Court in January 1981.

The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, and Zhang had been released on medical parole since 1998, the agency said.

"There's no doubt that Zhang Chunqiao was the spirit of the Cultural Revolution," U.S.-based researcher for the China Information Center Chen Guide said during a panel discussion on RFA's Mandarin service.

"The damage that his thinking did to China was incalculable and unprecedented. He took his thinking to more extremes of logic than anyone else in the political scene at the time," Chen said.

Song Yongyi, librarian and China scholar at California State University, said Zhang's death should spark reflection on the continuing legacy of the Cultural Revolution in contemporary Chinese politics.

Extreme left-wing theory gives pause

"Zhang Chunqiao can teach us about the damage that has been done to democracy by such extreme left-wing thinking," he told RFA reporter Shen Hua. "I think everyone would do well to reflect on that."

Commentators have described Zhang as an extreme left-winger who was writing his way toward a total exercise of state power in essays as early as the 1950s.

"If you look at Zhang's essays during the 1950s and 60s, he was emerging as someone whose thinking on the issue of political power and law was already going in the direction of total authoritarianism," Song said. "He was the true inheritor of Mao Zedong Thought."

At the time that Zhang was Shanghai Party secretary and head of the Propaganda Department, he allowed the city to be used by Mao as a base from which to launch the Cultural Revolution.

"He provided the locus for Jiang Qing's cultural conferences, for the six Revolutionary Model Operas, for the Revolution Through Peking Opera.... All these things were done in secret using Shanghai as a base. So he had a very big impact. And Shanghai was the model which showed Mao how his political theories might work in practice," Song told RFA.

He said the length of time taken to report Zhang's death, and the dated language of the announcement, were indicators of a Party still uneasy with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution.

Cultural Revolution legacy still an uneasy one

"The main thing is that [the]launch of the Cultural Revolution should make us reflect very deeply on the history of 40 years ago, and how that affects the Party's legality and legitimacy today," Song said.

"Because the Cultural Revolution wasn't just a question of Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, and the May 16 conspiracy. It was also something which happened throughout the entire Party. And the illegitimacy of Party rule in the wake of the Cultural Revolution has been denied," he added.

"The problem isn't with Zhang Chunqiao as an individual...probably, nor even with the Gang of Four, but it's a problem inherent in the Chinese social system."

Original reporting in Mandarin by Shen Hua. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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