History on Trial

Mark Elvin

The carefully contrived piece of political theatre that opened in Peking in November, ran almost to the New Year, and ended off-stage in January with a wrangle between the producers over the dénouement, was altogether a tangle of paradoxes. The trial of the ten was a performance, scripted and rehearsed at a pre-trial session in the summer. But it was not sufficiently predictable to be entrusted to full public exposure. There were 800 court tickets, available to members of selected units. Everyone else had to depend on selective transcripts and edited film footage. The proceedings were thus, in a sense, both public and secret. What appeared to be one trial was also, in fact, two. For all practical purposes, the Lin Piao and Chiang Ch’ing factions appeared in two different courtrooms simultaneously. This was appropriate enough. By the late 1960s the two had become deadly rivals. But the prosecution maintained that all the accused formed part of a single, continuing Lin-Chiang conspiracy. Why the late Marshal Lin’s accomplices were belatedly drawn into the trial is not clear. They had languished nine years in jail since their leader’s unsuccessful coup and death. Would it have been too blatantly anti-Mao to try the Four on their own? Is that why the old man’s nephew, Yuan-hsin, has now been put in the dock separately? Or was the decision motivated by the desire to bring both the distinctive factions of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution before the bar of justice? To try, by implication, an entire era?

While the living were on trial, there was a parallel trial of the dead. The court and the People’s Daily gave brutal biographical treatment to figures such as the late K’ang Sheng, police boss, sadist, master-framer, a connoisseur who ransacked his victims’ homes for objects of aesthetic interest. Yet the chief historical actor in this miserable revolutionary chienlit – the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung – was mentioned as little as possible. The authorities wished to weaken Mao’s posthumous hold on China, but not to run the substantial political risk of trying to discredit him completely. It was a matter of appropriate dosage.

Government statements stressed the new supremacy of the law. To show former rulers as subject to the courts was undoubtedly a significant symbolic act. But justice was violated constantly in practice. In what country with respect for the rights of the accused would it be permitted to publish a picture, as a trial opened, of the defendants crowded into a coffin, with hammer and nails and lid conveniently to hand? The defendants do not seem to have had facilities to prepare their defence, nor the right to call witnesses on their behalf. It has been argued that by traditional Chinese standards, the observance of some of the forms of proper procedure is an advance. In imperial times, trials were mostly conducted by a single magistrate who acted as both prosecutor and judge; there was no concept of ‘the weight of the evidence’; confession was essential for conviction; and torture was routinely applied to suspects, and often to witnesses. Yet the legal system of the post-1911 Republic set itself much higher standards, even if they were not always observed. What is new in China is the use of legal procedures against persons of once exalted rank.

There is another paradox. Government propaganda has insisted that all judicial decisions were taken on the basis of ‘facts’ and ‘proofs’. But history has been misrepresented. The slippery terminology of totalitarian indictments has covered every page of the prosecution’s case. Many of the rules of evidence have been ignored. Brief examples are, respectively, the attempt by Prosecutor Chiang Wen to disassociate Mao from all of his wife’s criminal activities, the pivotal role of the word ‘counter-revolutionary’ (which does little more than label the loser in a power struggle), and such sleight-of-hand as the out-of-context citation of the number of telephone calls made by Chiang Ch’ing to Lin Piao and his wife as proof that the two groups were in cahoots. In surveying this shabby confusion, mere cynicism is probably misplaced. But one has to ask: which message is going home – the professions of principle or their breach in practice?

Had the authorities wanted, they could have had a simple, legal trial on a few selected charges, and been quite confident of conviction. There is no real doubt that the accused were guilty many times over of crimes such as torturing people to death, regardless of such macabre extras as Chiang Ch’ing’s obliging the former minister for coal to wear an iron hat weighing 30 kilograms, from which he succumbed. A sober and principled approach of this sort would have impressed the Chinese people as nothing else would. Teng decided otherwise, and tried to create a showpiece. But was the spectacle sufficiently spectacular? It is reported that after the first few days it held fewer TV viewers in China than Ha-li-sen’s Dare-to-Die Brigade, an imported American thriller, or the Korean serial Nameless Heroes.

Further irony arises when we compare the political track-records of those who staged the trial and those who were its victims. Party Vice-Chairman Teng Hsiao-p’ing and his former associate the late President Liu Shaoch’i (destroyed by the Four) were in the past adept at framing people, especially intellectuals (of whom so much is now hoped), with loose charges of counter-revolutionary activity. It was probably they who created or extended the Anti-Rightist campaign in the later part of 1957, and so forced Mao to claim in retrospective self-justification that his permissive Hundred Flowers policy had been no more than a trap to trick the regime’s enemies into exposing themselves. There is an article in the People’s Daily of 19 January this year attributing this 1957 campaign simply to ‘certain reasons respecting the leadership’, a phrase so vague as to arouse attention immediately. It goes on to claim that the recently rehabilitated victims of false accusations at that time are not now taking a ‘personal’ view of their twenty years of suffering, but are working keenly for the ‘four modernisations’. Is this perhaps an unavowed answer to internal critics who have alleged that Teng has been guilty of some of the same offences for which he is now having Madame Mao tried?

Turning to the other side, many of Lin Piao’s views, expressed in the documents that we are told circulated among his faction before he attempted to seize power, are curiously like Teng’s. Lin spoke of Mao as ‘the most tyrannical ruler in Chinese history, following the way of Confucius and Mencius, with a Marxist-Leninist covering, and the methods of the [barbarous] First Emperor of Ch’in’. He termed the Chairman’s government ‘social-fascism’, and condemned the way he set everyone at everyone else’s throats, and raised favourites one day only to destroy them the next. This was the ‘running-horse lantern’ style of rule, his phrase referring to the traditional vaned lampshade that rotates as the hot air rises and makes a sequence of horses seem to gallop round. Mao ‘and his small band of tyrants’, said Lin (the endearing way in which here he referred to his alleged close associate Chiang Ch’ing being another of our apparent paradoxes), ‘not only provoke cadres to struggle against cadres, and the masses against the masses, but they incite the army to struggle against the army, and party members against party members.’ The central charge levelled by Teng against Chiang Ch’ing is that she and her cohorts ‘destroyed by false accusations’ many capable and deserving Party members. This is the first item in the list of 48 charges. One message of the trial to the CCP is surely meant to be: such internecine behaviour among the comrades is impermissible and must never be allowed to happen again. But one wonders if 1981 will see a series of lesser trials directed against the followers of the Four in the Party as Teng tries to reform and revitalise this sagging organisation of 38 million members? The threat might be a powerful weapon in the reformers’ hands.

Corruption in the Party and the Army has been one cause of China’s poor economic performance. The leading article in the People’s Daily of 16 January mentions such practices as the use of state channels for smuggling, and the selling by administrative personnel of planning contracts and supply entitlements (an ingenious resolution of the contradiction between a planned and a market economy). Worse things have also happened. The Army, for its part, occupies many of the pleasantest premises in China, including hotels and parts of academic institutions, from which it is proving difficult to dislodge. Officers are a privileged class. Putting senior members of the armed forces into the dock was undoubtedly meant as a warning to the PLA not to think of itself as immune to discipline. True to the traditional Chinese practice of discussing the present in terms of the past, the People’s Daily recently published parts of a letter written in 1929 by Ch’en I, under Chou En-lai’s guidance, telling the military to serve the Party’s political line and to keep close to the masses – something that is presumably not the case at the moment. Inspirational tales have appeared, like that of Hsu Ching-ming, a Party member who kept his Communist faith through undeserved condemnation and punishment until he was eventually rehabilitated. Calls to re-enthuse the young, to remember the spirit of wartime partisan resistance and to ‘warm up the hearts of the people’ are the small change of the official press. Hearts are, in fact, cold. The crisis of popular morale is in some ways worse than in the days of the Four, who offered, with their barbarity, at least the consolation of delusory dreams and Utopia. Another aspect of the trial has thus been the traditional CCP practice of ‘recalling the past and contrasting it with the present’, in order to make a not very happy today more tolerable by comparison with a repulsive yesterday.

Still another paradox: the trial has been the occasion for an outbreak of the Chinese equivalent of the British public’s Profumo-Thorpe syndrome: a mixture of self-satisfied moral outrage at the depravities of the fallen great coupled with a furtive, finger-lickin’ pleasure in every dirty detail. One Hong Kong magazine (Tang-tai) has had articles on Jade Phoenix Chang, the pretty little mistress of Mao in his declining years, and on Chiang Ch’ing’s lovers both male, like Great Brightness Ch’ien, and female, like Spring Clouds Yang, with whom she watched homoerotic films imported from Japan ‘for reference purposes’. The magazine’s subtitles have the nostalgic flavour of the improper novels of old imperial times. ‘Heroic feats in bed lead to promotion as second-in-command’ is a fair specimen. Tang-tai has also alleged moral indecency in Lin Piao’s family. His son Li-kuo is said to have been a ‘sex-wolf’ with a taste for nymphets. His wife had a ‘sexual-political’ association with four of the defendants in the dock. Li-kuo tape-recorded the sound of his mother making love to General Huang Yungsheng, and used the tape as blackmail to secure the general’s loyalty. Yalu River, a Manchurian monthly, has recently published a story, ‘The Great Sea shall serve as witness’, about a young man who drowned himself rather than be forced to marry Lin Tou-tou, the Marshal’s daughter. Defendant Ch’iu Hui-tso is at least said to have given accelerated promotion to the young officers whom he obliged to wed his mistresses after he had wearied of them.

We should not credulously accept all these scabrous allegations. Chinese have long made a habit of retailing such stories about unpopular fallen rulers. Of Tz’u-hsi, the Empress-Dowager who died in 1908, the following pleasant anecdote was once current. As her son, the T’ung-chih Emperor, grew up in the early 1870s, she saw the control of government beginning to pass from her hands. When the young man providently fell ill, she bribed the handsomest eunuchs in the Palace to minister remorselessly to his passion for la vice mandchoue. He died as the result of his exertions, his membrum half-rotted, and his mother, much relieved, appointed her infant nephew as the new emperor, so prolonging the regency. This broke the dynastic rule that each emperor should belong to a generation later than that of his predecessor. A high-minded censor committed suicide in protest, but Tz’u-hsi, with characteristic dry humour, gave the baby-emperor the reign-title of ‘Brilliant Succession’. A true story of T’ung-chih’s death, or a false one? I have no idea, but I have seen it printed in respectable classical Chinese.

Most Chinese tend to assume that behind the facade of moral rectitude they expect of their leaders there is a good deal of double-dealing, self-serving and sensual indulgence. In the case of Chiang Ch’ing, this public/private dualism, so often tacitly accepted, went beyond the bounds of the acceptable. Even as she proclaimed the slogan ‘Do not fear hardship, do not fear death,’ and sent her victims off to ‘labour-reform’ in the camps as a way of ‘touching people to their very souls’, she took her pleasure with the young actors and actresses of her revolutionary operas, or sprinkled a rose with water to photograph for her entranced American biographer, Professor Roxane Witke. Disgust with this sort of behaviour should not be mistaken for antifeminism (even if this also exists in some measure), as commentators like Dr Mirsky have tended to imply (Observer, 4 January).

Another particular feature of the Chinese scene is the political use of poems. Sometimes they have real poetic power, like Wang Weichou’s lines on two carved stone figures at the Ming tombs, published in the People’s Daily on 1 September 1980. This attack on the late Premier Chou-En-lai and General Yeh Chienying for their craven subservience to Mao caused fury among some top leaders and telephone calls to the editor, who is one of Teng Hsiao-p’ing’s cronies. On 12 January this year, the second of two poems called ‘Silent Remembrance’ spoke of ‘the fire of pain and the hope of anger’, concluding with a demand for a severe sentence on the defendants in the trial. A little earlier, on 30 December, ‘Mists on Mount Lu’ described the fogs that ‘suddenly blotted out the road ahead’, an obvious reference to the Lu-shan plenum of 1970 at which Lin Piao tried to have himself made President of China and effectively usurp power from Mao. Most recently, a piece of doggerel entitled ‘Hope’ has shown how the paper would like its readers to view the trial. History is invoked, both as a sort of ultimate saviour and as a witness to ‘ten years in which the Earth was soaked in bloody tears’.

Come, Past and Future, listen at our sides
And hear how ignorance and tyranny
Coupled together and conceived disaster.

So much for the style and circumstances of the trial. Its legal fabric has been threadbare. The vapid quality of the prosecution’s arguments can only be conveyed by fairly lengthy quotation. Here is Chief Prosecutor Chiang Wen rebutting Chiang Ch’ing’s defence that she acted under orders:

If we summarise the entirety of the arguments offered in defence by the accused Chiang Ch’ing they amount to attacking the trial by this court as ‘using a sword dance as a cover for attempted assassination’ [of Mao]. In point of fact, Chiang Ch’ing has interchanged black and white. She has ‘mixed fishes’ eyes with pearls’, stating that her counter-revolutionary activities were carried out on behalf of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, in accordance with his instructions, vainly hoping thereby to shift her counter-revolutionary guilt to the person of Chairman Mao, as a means of covering over her counter-revolutionary crimes of severely harming the State and the People and escaping the criminal responsibility that by law she should bear. I shall now adduce several facts so as to lay bare Chiang Ch’ing’s lies and deceitful arguments.– You, Chiang Ch’ing, made use of various occasions at the time of the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ to ruin by false accusations, either through schemes or by direct naming, a large number of Party, Government and Army cadres and ordinary people, laying against them undeserved charges that they were ‘rebels’, ‘spies’ and ‘counter-revolutionaries’, indiscriminately arresting the guiltless, fabricating false evidence, and arranging unjust verdicts. Surely this is not something that Chairman Mao told you, Chiang Ch’ing, to do?

The entire rebuttal consists of the italicised rhetorical question. The difficult question of distinguishing principals from accomplices is avoided. As Chiang Ch’ing said to her accusers: ‘When you beat the dog, you should look at his master’s face.’ Other important relevant problems were also sidestepped. For example, to what extent should individuals be held guilty of acts committed by a party or government of which they are a member? Chiang Ch’ing contended correctly that the arrest of President Liu Shao-ch’i was ‘decided on by the Party Centre’. On what principles should her guilt, if any, have been judged? Again, how far were the consequences of her actions foreseen and intended? In contrast to Nuremberg, there was no attempt in Peking to develop a coherent set of answers to these and related difficulties.

For what will the Great Trial be eventually remembered? Above all, I think, for the explicit, official acknowledgment that for at least ten years a large part of the Chinese political system was barbaric, mendacious, unprincipled, and superstitious (as in its fostering of the worship of icons and idols of Mao and its punishing of those who broke the taboos associated with them). Equally, it has been shown in official documents that this system engendered a seemingly irresistible and all-devouring paranoia. In 1968, K’ang Sheng told Chiang Ch’ing that 71 per cent of the members of the Party’s central committee were rebels, spies, traitors, or of doubtful political views. In a political witch-hunt in Inner Mongolia in 1969, K’ang and Hsieh Fuchih are said to have ‘oppressed’ over a third of a million people, of whom over 16,000 died. The same pair accused the former police boss Lo Jui-ch’ing (whose real crime was creating the labour-camp system in the 1950s) of heading ‘an underground black Public Security organisation’. In 1968, Marshal Chu Te, founder of the Red Army, was alleged by Hsieh to be the secretary of a new ‘Chinese (Marxist-Leninist) Communist Party’. Ch’en I was, he said, the Defence Minister, and they were preparing an armed uprising and had offered their collaboration to Chiang Kai-shek. This was McCarthyism, Peking-style.

The unforgiving ferocity of the political struggle also engendered extreme actions. When Lin Piao realised that Mao had turned against him, and was taking steps to destroy him, he tried in self-defence to have the Chairman assassinated. In comparable fashion, when the Gang of Four were faced with political extinction, they tried to organise an armed rising in a number of cities. Seen in historical perspective, the old, deep-rooted political culture of China took in this period a terrible revenge on those who had set out too confidently half a century earlier to destroy it. It returned like the mutation of an old disease that has become more virulent than ever. At the heart of the sickness was, and is, the substitution of pretence for reality. The present rulers have a reputation for pragmatism, but whether or not the trial of the ten marks an improvement in the patient’s condition is a question delicately poised.