Yao Wenyuan

Last of the Gang of Four
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Yao Wenyuan, journalist and political activist: born Shanghai, China 1931; married (two daughters); died Shanghai 23 December 2005.

The death of Yao Wenyuan, the last surviving member of the notorious Gang of Four, the fanatical group of Maoists who spearheaded the Cultural Revolution in China, is an uncomfortable reminder of a period of history that the Chinese authorities would prefer to forget. The Cultural Revolution ran from 1966 to 1976 and is believed to have resulted in the deaths of millions of people, while bringing misery and hardship to tens of millions more.

Dubbed the "killer with a pen", Yao was the most junior member of the Gang of Four and its propagandist. Along with the other members of the Gang - Mao Zedong's fourth wife Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao and Wang Hongwen - Yao helped unleash a reign of terror on China. But after Mao's death, the Gang's fall from grace was swift and Yao was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Originally conceived by Chairman Mao as a way of purging the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of his more moderate political rivals like Liu Shao-Chi and Mao's eventual successor Deng Xiaoping, the Cultural Revolution soon spiralled out of control and became an attack on anyone or anything perceived as being "counter-revolutionary". It split families down the middle, as children were encouraged to denounce their parents, while students revolted against their teachers and workers turned on their party bosses.

Millions of young people took to the streets calling themselves "Red Guards" and tens of thousands of officials, academics and intellectuals were branded "class enemies", "bourgeois running dogs" and "capitalist roaders" and sent to their deaths, or to prisons and labour camps in the countryside for "re-education". The Cultural Revolution caused untold damage to the economy, shut down China's cultural life and was so destructive that even the CCP now refers to it as "the decade of chaos".

It was Yao who provided the spark for what was the most momentous and turbulent period in Chinese history since the 1949 Communist takeover. A native of Shanghai, Yao joined the CCP at the age of 17 and by November 1965 was the Shanghai editor of the Liberation Army Daily newspaper and a member of a group calling itself "Proletarian Writers for Purity". His rise to notoriety began when he was asked by Jiang Qing to pen an attack on a play written by the Vice-Mayor of Beijing, Wu Han.

Wu's play, "The Dismissal of Hai Rui", was an account of how an honest official in the Ming Dynasty stood up to a capricious Emperor. Ironically, it had been written in 1961 at the prompting of Mao himself, after he had suggested that people could learn from Hai Rui. But by 1965, the play was seen by Jiang and other Mao loyalists as a coded criticism of Mao's rule.

Yao's 10,000-word attack on the play appeared on 10 November and within weeks had been reprinted in the People's Daily, the official paper of the CCP. It started a fierce debate about who supported Mao and who opposed him in cultural circles. The article's impact was later acknowledged by Mao himself, who stated, "The start of our Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution should be dated from Comrade Yao Wenyuan's criticism of 'The Dismissal of Hai Rui'."

Thereafter, Yao's rise was swift. In April 1969, he was rewarded for his loyalty to Mao with a seat on the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the ruling Politburo, and appointed the CCP's propaganda chief. He never wavered in his support for the Cultural Revolution. As late as March 1975, Yao was still publishing pieces in the People's Daily about the threat posed by the "newly emerging bourgeois class".

Mao's death on 9 September 1976 signalled the end for the Gang of Four. One month later, they were arrested. When they were put on trial in 1980, Yao was accused of trying to gain power by persecuting officials and members of the public and he confessed to falsifying the evidence that led to Deng Xiaoping, who became China's leader in 1977, being purged in 1967.

A portly, balding figure, Yao appeared terrified throughout the televised trial and, unlike Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao, he expressed repentance for what he had done. But the evidence against him was damning. One of his diary entries read, "Why can't we shoot a few counter-revolutionary elements? After all, dictatorship is not like embracing flowers."

Sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1981, Yao served his time in Qincheng Prison outside Beijing. Released in October 1996, he returned to Shanghai to live with his wife, with whom he reportedly had two daughters. He spent his last years studying Chinese history and wrote a memoir of the Cultural Revolution that he was barred by the CCP from publishing.

David Eimer

I am one of the very few Westerners actually to have met, in the flesh, the sinister Yao Wenyuan - albeit that my interview lasted little longer than 15 minutes, writes Tam Dalyell. I had procured the invitation for the Scottish Council for Development and Industry to send a trade delegation - the first from Britain for many years - to China in November 1971. So they invited me to go with them.

I went to my party leader, Harold Wilson, hoping that he would give me an introduction to his friend Chou En-Lai. "No," said Wilson. " What I will do is to ask Chou En-Lai if he will arrange for you to see some of your own contemporaries, the future leadership of China, because I would like to know what the people of the Cultural Revolution are all about." So, when the delegation was in Shanghai, I got a summons to see the Mayor.

The encounter took the form of my being ushered into a large office; enter Yao Wenyuan, flanked by some scowling men. He launched forthwith into, so far as I could understand it through a trembling interpreter, a harangue about how foreigners like me should apologise for the Boxer rebellion, the opium wars, and the many insults heaped on the Chinese people by the English. Then I was somewhat unceremoniously bundled out of the office. I had hardly got a word in edgeways and certainly there was no sign whatsoever of the Chinese courtesy of a cup of tea, which the delegation had been given everywhere else.

When Lord Clydesmuir, leader of the SCDI delegation, asked me how I had got on, I said Yao was "ghastly". A week later, in Beijing, Clydesmuir told me that some of his business contacts had furtively told him that Yao was terrible, and crueller than any emperor. Jum Wen Chin, then head of the US and European Department of the Chinese Foreign Office, simply grimaced at the mention of Yao. When I reported back to Harold Wilson, he replied, " I am not astonished", because of the same reaction from senior officials of the Foreign Office.

A few months ago, and a third of a century later, as Rector of Edinburgh University I was one of the hosts of Zhou Ji, the current Chinese Minister of Education and his delegation. I recounted my experience to one of the senior officials of his entourage, who had been born and brought up in Shanghai. "Yes," he said laconically, "you met the most evil man of the 20th century in China."