China to try 'gang of four,' tiptoeing around Mao link

Four years after her downfall, Mao Tse-tung's widow, Jiang Qing, will stand trial with nine alleged co-conspirators in a case with explosive political implications.

Can Jing Qing and her cohorts be tried, found guilty, and sentenced without besmirching the memory of Chairman Mao, founder of the People's Republic of China?

China's present leaders -- party Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping, Premier Zhao Ziyang, and party Secretary General Hu Yaobang -- apparently are confident that the answer is yes. Otherwise they would not be scheduling the trial at this time.

But among the cadres of the Communist Party as a whole, particularly senior cadres, there must be anxious concern mingled with recognition that without this trial the cause of democratization and economic modernization will never be secure.

The long-awaited announcement that the trial is imminent took the form of a proposal to the National People's Congress By the procurator general, Huang Huoqing. The National People's Congress (NPC) is China's legislature, and Mr. Huang asked its standing committee Sept. 27 to approve the establishment of a special court and a special procurator's office to judge the "Lin Biao-Jiang Qing counter-revolutionary group."

The Chinese leadership has thus explicitly linked Jiang Qing and her "gang of four" to Lin Biao, killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1971 while allegedly attempting to flee to the Soviet Union after the failure of a coup d'etat and a plot to kill Chairman Mao. Of the 10 to be tried, four are Jiang Qing and her associates, the fifth is Chen Boda, purged in 1970, and the remaining five are generals associated with Lin Biao.

They will be tried on four counts: (1) sedition and conspiracy to overthrow the political power of the proletarian dictatorship; (2) frame-up and persecution of party and state leaders and usurpation of party leadership and state power; (3) persecution and oppression of cadres and the masses of the people, and the practice of a fascist dictatorship; (4) plotting to murder Chairman Mao and engineering a counter-revolutionary armed rebellion.

The fourth count has until now been thought to relate particularly to Lin Biao. If Jiang Qing's involvement in this plot can be proved, the prosecution's task of keeping Chairman Mao's memory clean will be easier. The group is being accused, not of ideological or political errors, but of crimes in the legal sense.

No charge, if it sticks, is more convincing than murder. Chairman Mao, meanwhile, is admitted to have committed serious political mistakes, but certainly no crimes.

As Mr. Deng told Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, "I promise you that the trial of the 'gang of four' will not soil Chairman Mao's memory at all. Of course, it will help to demonstrate some of his responsibilities, for instance that he used the 'gang of four,' but nothing more. The crimes committed by them are so many and so evident that we do not need to implicate Chairman Mao to prove them."

Mr. Deng's interview with Miss Fallaci (in the Washington Post Aug. 31) is widely being studied within the Chinese Communist Party now as an indication of the leadership's thinking on the extent of Mao's responsibility for the 10-year turmoil known as the Cultural Revolution brought about by the "gang of four."

Mr. Huang's report to the NPC standing committed said that others implicated in the Jiang Qing and Lin Biao cases would be tried in lesser courts, including military ones. There is as yet no word as to whether the trial will be open. Great care, however, will be taken to demonstrate that it is real and not merely a political show.

The expectation is that the NPC standing committee will approve Mr. Huang's report and that the special court will be established early in October.

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