OBITUARY : Peng Zhen

James Miles
Wednesday 30 April 1997 23:02

In February 1979, Chinese dissidents circulated an unofficial journal including an article calling for the newly rehabilitated ex-mayor of Peking, Peng Zhen, to be given work in the legal field. The article called him upright and outspoken, a dauntless man who would do nothing against his conscience.

At the time of his death, however, he was remembered more by Peking liberals as a die-hard conservative who helped China rebuild its legal system after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, but who saw the law as a tool of dictatorship rather than of democracy.

Peng was once one of the most powerful men in China, tipped by some observers as a potential successor to Chairman Mao. Yet, although he remained an influential figure long after his retirement in the late 1980s, his death will probably have little impact on the balance of power. Its main significance is that China is now even closer to the day when its leaders will no longer feel obliged to heed the wishes of veterans like Peng who were key figures back in the Communist Party's infancy.

Peng was born in a rural area of northern Shanxi Province in 1902, nine years before the collapse of China's last imperial dynasty. He joined the Communist Party at the age of 21, two years after its founding. China was then in ferment. Young people like Peng were growing disillusioned with the weakness and corruption of the new government. Despite his peasant origins, Peng's early career in the party was devoted to urban areas. He led anti-government protests among workers and students in several cities of northern China until his arrest in 1929.

During his six years in jail, Peng - according to official accounts - remained devoted to the party cause. He organised several hunger strikes and even set up a party branch while behind bars. Such experiences, however, appeared not to inspire any sympathy in his later life for student and worker activists imprisoned for their involvement in anti-government unrest in the 1970s and 1980s.

After his release, Peng secured high positions in the underground party. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, Peng took a leading role in planning guerrilla resistance in the north. Four years later, he joined Mao Tse- tung and the party's other top leaders at their hideout in the caves of Yanan. One of his main jobs was to supervise the indoctrination of aspiring party cadres in "Mao Tse-tung Thought". Shortly before the Japanese surrender in 1945, Peng was promoted to the Politburo.

Peng's importance in the party leadership was evident in his appointment as Peking's first Communist Party chief after the city's "liberation" from nationalist forces in 1949. Two years later, he was given the mayorship as well.

The reason why dissidents in the late 1970s saw Peng as the potential saviour of the country's shattered legal system was because of his extensive work in that area in the early years of Communist rule, including the drafting of the country's first criminal code, which was eventually adopted in 1979. Ironically, however, Peng showed little inclination to tolerate outspoken criticism of the party. He is believed to have been sceptical about Mao's brief toleration of open debate in 1957, and played an important role in the purge of intellectuals that followed.

Peng's relationship with Mao must have soured after the disastrous Great Leap Forward, which led to the death by starvation of millions of people in the early 1960s. Peng sided with Deng Xiaoping in blaming Mao for the famine, a move that almost certainly led to Mao's decision to purge him at the outset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Peng Zhen was the first top-ranking victim of the upheaval. Deng and other critics of Mao's policies followed.

Peng spent the Cultural Revolution in the countryside, living among peasants, chopping his own firewood and drawing his own water. As with other victims of Mao's excesses, his misfortunes boosted his popular standing enormously. Hundreds of friends and admirers turned out to greet him at Peking airport in 1978, two years after Mao's death, when he was allowed to return from his exile.

The wishes of the dissident author that Peng return to legal work were quickly realised. From 1979, he played a major role in establishing a legal system and promulgating a new Constitution that reflected the more reform-oriented policies of China's new strongman, Deng Xiaoping. In 1983, he was made head of the country's rubber stamp parliament, the National People's Congress. He retired in 1988.

In 1989, Peng displayed his true instincts by firmly supporting the decision to unleash the Chinese army on unarmed demonstrators in Peking. He expressed fears that, if the unrest was allowed to continue, China would be plunged into a new Cultural Revolution-style upheaval. He said that promoting "bourgeois liberalisation" - as the party describes Western political views - was unconstitutional.

Despite his advanced years and lack of any formal title, Peng remained a significant force in politics at least until the early 1990s. He remained worried about the impact of "bourgeois liberal" thinking in China, but according to his official biography "highly appraised" Deng's decision to speed up the pace of economic reform in early 1992.

Peng Zhen, politician: born Quwo County, Shanxi Province, China 12 October 1902; married (four sons, one daughter); died Peking 26 April 1997.

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