Sentencing the 'gang of four' -- and inching toward the rule of law?

The sentencing of Mao Tse-tung's widow, Jiang qing, and her codefendants concludes a court process that can be cautiously welcomed as a step toward establishing the rule of law in China. Through building on the positive elements in the case, China's communist rulers can combat the divisiveness and cynicism that some see rising from the episode. Furthering the rule of law can enhance China's internal stability as it confronts not only new economic challenges but a forthcoming public reassessment of Mao, who was once, like Stalin, beyond criticism.

The sentence themselves constituted an advance in the sense that they were applied to "crimes" rather than "attitudes," though the "counterrevolutionary" label on some of the crimes is still vague enough to allow abuses. The death sentence for treason on central figure Jiang Qing was suspended for two years, reportedly meaning a future of solitary confinement and hard labor. Thus the court kept her from martyrdom while leaving no doubt of its grave view of her offenses during the brutal decade of the Cultural Revolution.

As for the long trial, with all its shortcomings in terms of Western justice, consider the alternatives: Jiang Qing's "gang of four" and their associates could have been summarily executed, forced to languish in prison indefinitely without prosecution, or been part of a meaningless mass purge trial. The trial that did take place was better.

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To be sure, it came as a curious refocusing on ideological matters when the domestic and foreign public had been concentrating on China's economic outreach for two years. Not since the communist revolution three decades ago have Chinese politics been dependent on economics as they are now. With the raised expectations of the Chinese people, and the commitments to economic advance by their leaders, the test for politics is becoming not ideology but effectiveness.

Then, too, in China, whenever leading figures are brought down, there is a divisive effect involving hundreds or thousands associated with them all down the line. Add the members of the younger generation who have no patience with ideological talk.

The result is that some see the trial, with its television and other media coverage, turning out to be potentially counterproductive. In other words, the political nature of it might undermine the beginnings of the rule of law. Some might take Jiang Qing's declarations of innocence and denunciations of the judges as more credible than the legal system finding her guilty. Also, her invocations of Mao in her defense could complicate the forthcoming official review of Mao's record by raising questions other than those the present government is already believed to be preparing.

But such negative possibilities could be countered by government and party officials hewing to the rule of law they promise and the people yearn for. It should be remembered that the decline of Chairman Hua Guofeng's power is due not only to his having been Mao's man now that Mao's own image is fading; it is also due to reaction against Hua's originally getting his post through disregard of law.

Wrongdoing by officials in the past was customarily dealt with extralegally, and they were tempted to consider themselves beyond the law. The trial underscored a warning to all officials that in the future they are to be held accountable for their conduct.

As many people considerably west of China know, a legal framework is no guarantee of accountability without individuals of integrity. But the framework is essential to the democracy pledged to the Chinese somewhere down the road.

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