Law and Famous Trials

Gang of Four

What was the Gang of Four?

The Gang of Four was a group within China’s Communist Party that, under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung’s wife, Jiang Qing (1914–1991), 21 years his junior, carried out its own power-hungry agenda and plotted the takeover of the government from Chairman Mao (1893–1976).

A former stage and movie actress, Jiang was also an astute student of politics. In the late 1960s (at which time she had been married to Mao for some 30 years), she became associated with former army commander Lin Bao, and the pair conspired to stage a coup. In 1970, at a Communist Party conference, they announced that Lin had surpassed Mao as the leader of the people; one year later Lin and Jiang tried to overthrow Mao’s government. Failing, Lin fled the country (his plane was later shot down), and Jiang succeeded in covering up her involvement in the affair. But she continued her subversive activities, associating with three other members of the politburo (the chief executive and political committee of the Communist Party). In 1974 Mao publicly admonished his wife and her cohorts, Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan, and Zhang Chunquiao, to cease their power-seeking activities. In-fighting in the party had already resulted in Mao’s loss of influence. Two years later, on September 9, 1976, Mao died. The Gang of Four were arrested and thrown into prison. There they remained for years while the case against them was formulated, resulting in an indictment that consisted of 20,000 words.

Finally, on November 20, 1980, the Gang of Four, expanded to include six other conspirators, were put on trial—charged with counterrevolutionary acts, including sedition and conspiracy to overthrow the government, persecution of party and state leaders, suppression of the people, and plotting to assassinate Mao. During nearly six weeks of testimony, Jiang’s machinations were revealed to the 600 representatives who attended the trial, held in an air force auditorium in western Beijing, as well as to the Chinese press (foreign press was prohibited from attending). Her laundry list of malicious acts as ringleader of the Gang of Four included public humiliation and even torture of Communist Party rivals, execution of her personal enemies, inspiring the fear of the masses, and purging the arts of anything that did not carry a revolutionary theme. Jiang, while not denying many of these acts, insisted that she had all along acted at the behest of her husband, Mao. During the explosive testimony and presentation of evidence, which included tapes and documents substantiating the state’s case against Jiang, she made outbursts, was temporarily expelled from the courtroom, was dragged screaming from the courtroom twice, and even taunted her accusers into executing her, saying it would be “more glorious to have my head chopped off.”

In the end Jiang and one other conspirator were found guilty and sentenced to death (later commuted to life in prison), and the eight others were also found guilty and charged with sentences ranging from 16 years to life in prison. Jiang died on May 14, 1991, in what appeared to be a suicide.


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