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?

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