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Obituary: Wang Zhen

Wang Zhen, politician, born Liuyang Hunan 1908, joined Chinese Communist Party 1927, Senior Political Commissar 1932, Deputy Chief of General Staff 1955, Agriculture Minister 1956, Vice-Premier 1975, Member Politburo 1978, Vice-Chairman Central Advisory Committee 1985-87, Vice-President of China 1988-93, died Canton 12 March 1993. WHEN Chinese students launched their ill-fated protest movement in the spring of 1989, one of their leaders told reporters that it was Wang Zhen, more than anyone, who typified the sort of outdated, dictatorial and xenophobic attitudes that they wanted removed from China's government. Forty years after the founding of Mao Tse-tung's New China, the octogenarian vice-president had become the epitome of the Maoist old guard. The reformist regime of Deng Xiaoping had abandoned most of the late Chairman's policies and was promising a rejuvenation of the entire leadership. But Wang and other members of the 'eight immortals' - even if they no longer held the formal leading positions of power - had continued to cling to their hallowed ideas and to direct their younger proteges from 'behind the curtain'.

As things turned out, Tiananmen brought Wang a new political lease of life. He was a prominent member of the coalition of hardliners who emerged from the shadows quaking in horror at the students' audacity and proceeded to win the power struggle that had briefly paralysed the leadership. Wang's active support of the army's brutal suppression of the protests was soon apparent. He was shown on television watching the mopping-up activities in the square immediately after the massacre, on the morning of 4 June. And he told martial-law troops afterwards to continue to deal 'telling blows' to the 'small handful of counter-revolutionary ruffians' without mercy. He even suggested that 'all bourgeois-liberal intellectuals' be sent into permanent exile in Xinjiang.

Wang Zhen was eminently qualified to assume his self-appointed role as guardian of Mao's revolution. He was born in 1908 in the southern province of Hunan - where Mao himself was born - and started out as an assistant in a railway station master's office. He took part in the Long March of the mid-1930s, when the Communists retreated across China under attack from the Nationalists, and became an army commander. After the Communist victory in 1949, Wang Zhen led his army to the far western, mainly Muslim region of Xinjiang to extend the 'liberated' area of China by a further three-quarters of a million square miles. This was something for which many local residents have never forgiven him, especially in view of his later tough control and Han Chinese colonisation of the region as head of the Xinjiang military area command.

Wang carried the uneasy distinction of being the only senior leader in Deng's reformist China of the 1980s not to have been purged in the leftist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Years later, in 1986, he took the first moves to unseat the liberal-minded party general secretary, Hu Yaobang, who had done much to overturn the disastrous legacy of the Cultural Revolution and to reinstate its victims. (The ostensible reason for Hu's dismissal was that he had been too soft in dealing with student demonstrators - and it was Hu's death that sparked off the larger student protests of 1989.)

The imperious manner in which he had acted against Hu led to Wang being humiliatingly stripped of his post as head of the central party school when the pendulum once again swung back towards the reformists in 1987. But after a lifetime of battlefield commands, Wang remained, in his largely ceremonial post of Vice-President, a powerful spokesman for the People's Liberation Army - as well as for remnant Maoists and Long March veterans in general. 'He who has won the world has the right to rule the world,' he said to justify the Long Marchers' hold on to power. Wang was a strong believer not only in the party's old revolutionary values but also in its inherent 'Chineseness'. One of his best-known works was called: 'Study history, display patriotic spirit.'

As an old crony of Deng, Wang Zhen was useful as a lightning-rod for hardline opinion and as a hit- man who could be brought in when the paramount leader wanted to suppress moves for political liberalisation while maintaining a reasonably clean image himself. Despite being a firm believer in central planning, ideological education and a strictly limited flow of foreign ideas, Wang still managed to show support for some aspects of Deng's economic reforms. He expressed praise for the southern coast's 'special economic zones', for instance - though this may have had something to do with his alleged fondness for spending his winters in a luxurious villa in one such zone, Zhuhai, with a huge entourage. His sons also did well out of the reforms, with one - Wang Jun - tipped to become head of CITIC, China's leading capitalist-style company.

Wang's health had been poor for some time. A couple of years ago, he pledged to donate his eyes to medical science after his death: he is said to have barged into a Politburo session and demanded that everyone present sign a simliar pledge, if they wanted to prove they were true Marxists. Wang was duly praised in his official obituary notice yesterday as a 'staunch Marxist' and a 'great proletarian revolutionary'. His death came just three days before the start of a session of China's parliament that was to announce his retirement as Vice-President. China's students and intellectuals may well be thinking gleefully that the mere idea of being finally retired was just too much for this crustiest of the old guard to bear.

(Photograph omitted)