Wang Hongwen, the youngest member of the Gang of Four, always made as much as he could of his comparative youth in a country traditionally ruled by the aged. When he leapt to prominence in 1973 as the third most senior leader in China, behind the two ailing giants Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Premier Chou En- lai, he was only 39. Tall, self-assured and good-looking, he was picked as a symbol of three-tiered leadership comprising the old, the middle-aged and the young.
During the Gang of Four's show trial in 1980, Wang appealed for clemency on the grounds that he was 'too young to die'. In the event, all four were spared execution. But Wang's youth failed to save him from a sentence of life imprisonment. And although he outlived the nominal head of the gang - Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, who committed suicide last year - Wang now turns out to have predeceased his other two former colleagues (Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan). More to the point, he is also outlived by the 88- year-old Deng Xiaoping, whose rehabilitation he had frantically tried to block in the early 1970s. The continued rule of China by old men and the current policies under Deng of pragmatism and economic modernisation are the very antithesis of everything Wang stood for.
Wang's rise to power was as sudden as his fall. He was no more than a security guard at No 17 Cotton Mill in Shanghai when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1967. Wang seized the growing turmoil to carve out a role for himself as a rebellious young activist. He roused workers at his plant against the management and led groups of Red Guards in violent factional battles.
Shanghai was a key base for Jiang Qing and other radicals. Their stranglehold on the local Communist Party apparatus and the media enabled Mao to bypass the conservative bureaucracy in Peking, as he attempted to turn the country upside down and regain his own supremacy. Wang is said to have received a personal intercession from Mao after local officials branded him a counter- revolutionary and sentenced him to death.
Deng, one of the many veteran leaders hounded from office during the so-called '10 years of chaos', later said that Wang 'rose like a helicopter'. After scaling the heights of the Shanghai political establishment, Wang moved to centre-stage in 1973, as vice-chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. At the Tenth Party Congress that year he was pictured standing on Mao's right, apparently destined to succeed the Great Helmsman himself.
Within weeks of Mao's death in September 1976, however, Wang, Jiang Qing and the other two members of the 'Shanghai Mafia' were behind bars. They had depended heavily on Mao's influence and once he was gone they were easily outmanoeuvred by Deng and his fellow veterans. At their trial four years later, Jiang Qing screamed abuse at her captors, and must at least be given credit for her show of fierce loyalty to Mao and to his dream of a Utopian Communist society. But Wang, who grovellingly admitted inciting armed riots in Shanghai among other charges, appeared as the lightweight opportunist that he probably always had been.
In its brief dispatch announcing his death, the New China News Agency said that Wang - 'a principal culprit of the Lin Biao and Jiang Qing counter-revolutionary clique' - had died of a liver ailment. The unusual speed with which his death was announced shows there is no perceived danger of its causing political unrest, as has happened so often with Chinese leaders in the past. In the current climate of quasi-capitalism and the ever-more-open door, the very language used in the official announcement seems as archaic as the revolutionary radicalism whose dying spasms Wang and his colleagues represented.
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