Zhang Chunqiao

Propagandist of China's Gang of Four

Zhang Chunqiao, journalist, propagandist and politician: born Juye, China 1917; died Shanghai 21 April 2005.

Zhang Chunqiao is one of those now mostly forgotten figures who occasionally re-emerge like ghosts from China's historical fog to remind the world of the huge ideological distance the country has travelled since the days of Chairman Mao Zedong.

As a key member of the notorious Gang of Four, Zhang was once one of the most powerful men in China, tipped as a possible successor to the Chairman himself. He is remembered now by older Chinese mainly for his contemptuously defiant court appearances during the Gang's show trial in 1980, when he feigned sleep and refused to say one word in his defence.

During the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s, the ex-journalist and party propagandist helped orchestrate, with Mao's third wife Jiang Qing, an enormously destructive campaign against "counter-revolutionaries" which caused some 35,000 deaths, blighted millions of lives and which lives on today in China as a barely concealed mass psychological wound.

Mao launched the revolution in 1966 in a bid to shore up his faltering power-base and head off a leadership challenge from reformists, including Deng Xiaoping, the man who would replace him after his death. The challenge followed the disastrous Great Leap Forward when Mao's illogical plans for Soviet-style industrial expansion caused a famine that killed, by some estimates, 20 million Chinese.

By arming the young with a truncated political doctrine he had himself created and instructing them to challenge authority, Mao helped create a personality cult that quickly spun out of control. Schools and universities closed, work stopped and Mao's young Red Guards took to the streets with his Little Red Book, harassing and attacking anyone suspected of disloyalty to the Chairman. At the height of this madness, propaganda that Zhang helped create claimed that Mao - then a pensioner - had swum the Yangtse at a world-record speed; dozens of Red Guards died emulating his feat.

The revolution set China back years and Mao distanced himself from it, relying on his wife and party faithful like Zhang to use the revolution to force his enemies from government. Zhang proved equal to the task: an active Communist since the 1930s, he was a seasoned propagandist by the time of the Second World War, and after the Communists took power in 1949 he rose through the party hierarchy from his political base as director of party propaganda in Shanghai.

With Mao's wife Jiang and the other two members of the Gang of Four, Wang Hongwen and Yao Wenyuan, he helped orchestrate a political and artistic offensive against what they called "capitalist roaders" or an incipient bourgeoisie who they said were intent on reversing the gains of the revolution. In the midst of this chaos, he was one of the top party officials who met President Richard M. Nixon when he visited China on his groundbreaking trip in 1972.

As Mao's health waned, Zhang and other party leaders battled quietly for power and ultimately for what direction the world's most populous nation would take. A month after the Chairman died in September 1976, however, the Gang were arrested and marched to prison, a coup that effectively changed the course of Chinese history.

Zhang was quickly airbrushed from history after - in an irony he might not have appreciated - a huge propaganda campaign that blamed him and his three colleagues for the "excesses" of the Cultural Revolution; and a trial that sentenced him to death in 1981, later commuted to 18 years. He was released because of poor health in 1998 and spent the remainder of his life in enforced seclusion in Shanghai.

It is one measure of the lingering impact of the Cultural Revolutionary era that his death was not announced by Chinese state media until Tuesday, although he died on 21 April. Delays in official death notices are sometimes a sign of internal party debate about how to handle the news, and Beijing no doubt fears where any opening of those old wounds might lead.

Zhang's 1975 article "On Exercising All-Round Dictatorship over the Bourgeoisie" is still revered by a dwindling band of Maoists who believe that the death of Chairman Mao and the subsequent arrest of Zhang and his colleagues by "counter-revolutionaries" led by Deng opened the gates to capitalist restoration in China. The article, written at the height of his political self-confidence and still widely circulated on the internet, now reads like the obituary of Mao's China.

After a preamble that praises the workers for prevailing against the "bourgeois wind", the article concludes:

This infinitely bright future will surely continue to inspire growing numbers of awakened workers . . . and their vanguard, the Communists, to keep to the Party's basic line and persevere in exercising all-round dictatorship over the bourgeoisie . . . The fall of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and the victory of Communism are inevitable, certain and independent of man's will.

One can only imagine that as an old man in Shanghai, he watched the rise of China's new hyper-rich bourgeoisie with some unhappiness.

David McNeill