The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has allowed public access to the grave of Jiang Qing, former member of the Gang of Four and widow of late supreme leader Mao Zedong, ahead of its centenary on July 1.
“This was sent to me by a friend mainland China, and I am forwarding it here,” former CCP Party School professor Cai Xia, who now lives in the United States, said via her Twitter account on April 5, the traditional grave-tending festival where people make long journeys to honor the dead.
She said the move was in contrast with the state security police detail that guarded the grave of late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, who fell from power after opposing the use of military force against unarmed civilians in 1989.
“People aren’t allowed to pay their respects at Zhao Ziyang’s grave, and yet Jiang Qing’s grave is open to the public,” Cai wrote. “The CCP is afraid of whom the public might admire most.”
For decades after late supreme leader Mao Zedong ushered in 10 years of mayhem and bloodshed with his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the CCP banned any commemorations of its key figures or events, and public debate on the era was limited to the official line.
Jiang, along with the rest of the “Gang of Four,” took much of the blame for the violence and turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). As late as 2015, security guards were posted at her grave in Beijing’s Futian Cemetery to prevent people from leaving offerings and tributes.
But since CCP general secretary Xi Jinping embarked on an unlimited second term in China’s top job, no such restrictions have been in place.
Chinese historian and author Gao Falin also tweeted on April 4: “Strange things are afoot in the capital: large numbers of people are paying their respects at the grave of Jiang Qing, and the government is allowing it to happen.”
“At Zhao Ziyang’s grave, there are several layers of [police] cordon preventing anyone from getting close,” Gao wrote.
Jiangsu-based rights activist Zhang Jianping said most of the visitors were “leftists,” supporters of a command economy, collective ownership and cradle-to-grave state support for individuals.
“There were a lot of leftists at the grave of Li Yunhe this Qing Ming,” Zhang said, using the birth name of Jiang Qing. “This is indicative of a divided society, not an open and pluralistic one.”
Beijing dissident Zha Jianguo said the majority of Chinese people don’t want a return to the Mao era, however.
“The majority of the people will be resistant to a return to the Mao era, including private entrepreneurs, the self-employed, and farmers on household responsibility leases,” Zha said.
“Most intellectuals and officials would be against it too, because many officials will be denounced as capitalist roaders, and because the entire pro-Deng Xiaoping [pro-economic reform] cohort would have to be eliminated [from public life],” he said.
Zha said there are three broad strands of political opinion in China: the Maoists, the Deng faction and the liberals.
“The Deng faction opposes both the Maoists and the liberals, but is more tolerant to the Maoists because they are all on the same page when it comes to the supremacy of party leadership,” he said.
“Zhao Ziyang’s performance in his later period classified him as a liberal [with the potential to accept political reform],” he said.
But he said the most powerful families in China’s political and financial elite are more likely to side with Maoists than liberals today.
“The upper echelons are a little bit more tolerant to the Maoists, and there is no tolerance at all for the liberals,” Zha said.
A decade of violence
What started as a campaign against “capitalist roader” officials in 1966 broadened into a decade of violence and repression, as students and workers formed squads of radical Red Guards, who killed hundreds of thousands in purges and bouts of street warfare.
Qualified professionals like teachers and doctors were locked up in “cow pens,” while schools and universities were closed and health services fell into disarray under the supervision of “revolutionaries.”
Jiang Qing presided over the inception of “revolutionary model operas,” the only form of entertainment available to China’s population from 1966 until Mao’s death and the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976.
They were available as theatrical performances, recordings and movies, and their songs were picked up and sung by ordinary people across China.
The CCP — which marks the centenary of its founding on July 1 — recently ordered compulsory screenings of several of the model operas in movie form, along with patriotic war movies and other propaganda works across China starting in April, to run throughout the rest of the year.
Movie theaters are required to show the films several times a week, while CCP organizations and government departments are required to “mobilize” people to attend.
“You can’t deploy government resources for propaganda purposes in a country,” Zhang Jianping said. “This will enable some very extreme ideas to emerge, and people will lose their ability to think clearly.”
“We should be stepping up reforms and opening up, so that people are increasingly exposed to more pluralistic societies,” he said. “That way, there’ll be less social conflict and less hate speech.”
In 1981, the arrest and trial of the Gang of Four for counterrevolutionary crimes brought people out onto the streets of Beijing in celebration, unleashing a wave of court cases and appeals against summary injustices and denunciations from the Cultural Revolution era.
An elite private conference in 2011 titled “Remembering the Smashing of the Gang of Four, 35 Years On” was convened by Hu Deping, son of late disgraced former premier Hu Yaobang, who was the political force behind many of the post-Cultural Revolution rehabilitation cases, and whose funeral sparked the 1989 student movement.
Sources said at the time that Maoist elements at the conference had used it to suggest a return to the Cultural Revolution as a way of cleansing the ruling party of corruption, possibly laying the groundwork for Xi Jinping’s widespread anti-corruption campaigns and subsequent moves towards sweeping censorship and control of everyday life.
Xi was vice president at the time, and took over as party chairman in November 2012. The National People’s Congress (NPC) removed the two-term limit from the offices of president and vice president in 2018, paving the way for Xi to rule indefinitely.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.