The suspended death sentence pronounced on Mao Tse-tung's widow, Jiang Qing, is more lenient than many Chinese expected or thought she deserved. Shouting revolutionary slogans, she was dragged from the Peking court after the Jan. 25 verdict.
But it was this sort of defiance during the "gang of four" trial, and particularly Jiang Qing's unrepentant attitude toward witnesses who had been mistreated on her orders or whose close relatives had died because of such mistreatment, that outraged many Chinese who avidly followed excerpts from the trial on television.
One intellectual, now a leading editor, who had himself been mistreated during the Cultural Revolution, confessed that he lost his cool, detached attitude as he watched Jiang Qing's performance and thought she should be given the death sentence. (A suspended death sentence, which is a peculiarly Chinese practice, means in effect that the criminal will never actually be executed.)
Perhaps more important, neither the trial nor the sentence settles the crucial question of the extent to which Chairman Mao himself was responsible for the Cultural Revolution's 10 years of turmoil (1966-76). Throughout her trial, Jiang Qing repeatedly stressed that she acted on the direct orders of Chairman Mao and of the party's Central Committee, which in those days was controlled by the gang of four, with herself as ringleader.
The question of Mao's role is expected to be the subject of an important report to be delivered at the Chinese Communist Party's Twelfth Congress, to be convened during the first half of this year.
The man considered the brains behind the gang of four, former Shanghai mayor and Deputy Premier Zhang Chunqiao, was also given a suspended death sentence.
During the trial, he and Jiang Qing were the two defendants who showed defiance rather than repentance. Jiang Qing shouted pejorative remarks at witnesses and judges. Her forcible removal from the court after the sentencing was the third time she had been ejected. Mr. Zhang remained contemptuously silent from the reading of the indictment to the pronouncing of the sentence.
The other two members of the gang of four recanted and were given lighter sentences -- life imprisonment for Wang Hongwen, former vice-chairman of the party, and 20 years for Yao Wenyuan, the gang's chief polemicist.
Western reporters were not allowed to attend the trial, and many considered that it was a show trial, with prosecutors and most defendants reading prearranged scripts, and the judges with their verdicts already determined before the trial began.
Certainly the trial had these aspects. But from a Chinese viewpoint, particularly the viewpoint of the those who suffered the rough and ready justice of the Cultural Revolution years, the prerogatives allowed Jiang Qing and her codefendants seemed about as much as, or perhaps even somewhat more than, they were willing to tolerate.
Special correspondent Tony Walker reports from Peking:
The "gang of four" were arrested on Oct. 6, 1976, just weeks after Mao Tse-tung's death. The four were not seen again in public until they were brought before a Peking court late last year. After their Jan. 25 sentencing they will probably not be seen in public again for many years, if at all. There is no appeal against the court's sentences.
Members of the gang were accused of a variety of crimes, including persecuting thousands of officials to death, among them Liu Shaoqi, China's former head of state. The indictment alleged the four had brought "untold disasters to our country and nation."
Also sentenced Jan. 25 were the six associates of Lin Biao, the former defense minister who was killed in a plane crash while trying to escape China in 1971 after an abortive coup attempt. The associates were sentenced to 16 to 18 years, but they will be released earlier, having already spend 10 years in prison.
Chen Boda, the former personal assistant to Chairman Mao, who was allegedly involved with the both the gang of four and Lin Biao, was sentenced to 18 years in jail.
Under Chinese law, Jiang Qing could be executed after serving two years of her suspended death sentence if she doesn't repent. But it seems most unlikely that the death penalty would be enforced, whatever her demeanor in captivity.
The decision not to execute Mao's widow was apparently a compromise. Some Chinese officials who suffered during the Cultural Revolution are believed to have urged she be shot; others, including party Vice-chairman Deng Xiaoping, counseled against execution.
After the hearings, the sentencing was almost anticlimactic. The judgment, official Chinese reports said, pointed out Jiang Qing was a "principal culprit" who acted as "ringleader" in counterrevolutionary activities.
The other "principal culprit," Zhang Chunqiao, was accused of collaborating with Jiang Qing in promoting counterrevolution. "During the decade of turmoil, Zhang Chunqiao caused extremely grave harm to the state and the people," the judgment said.
Among the charges specifically leveled against Jiang Qing was that she personally ordered the interrogation and torture of officials in her attempt to expose Wang Guangmei, Liu Shaoqui's widow, as a spy for the American Central Intelligence Agency.
Mao's widow was also accused of terrorizing colleagues from her days as a actress in Shanghai who may have revealed details about what the prosecution suggested was a lurid past. The trial lasted some five weeks.The 35 judges deliberated for about a month before sentencing; there was apparent disagreement in the Politburo about penalties.