On this day in 1976, following the death of Chairman Mao in September, China’s new leader, Hua Guofeng, decisively marked a political shift with the arrest of the Gang of Four. Comprised of Jian Qing, who was their leader and Mao’s widow, Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen and Yao Wenyuan, the Gang of Four, all prominent advocates of the Cultural Revolution, had risen to become high-ranking officials in the Communist Party.
Mao’s death on 9 September 1976, almost 27 years after the Communist Revolution and the founding of the People’s Republic of China, resulted in a power struggle pitting the radical Gang of Four against Hua Guofeng and Mao’s political rival, the reformist Deng Xiaoping. The powerful Gang of Four advocated the continuity of the policies and wishes of Chairman Mao. They had risen to power in the early years of the Cultural Revolution and exercised considerable influence over the media and educational system. Hua was neither a radical nor a reformist, and was seen by many as a compromise. He arrested the Gang of Four, who were subsequently expelled from the Communist Party.
Hua’s chairmanship was short-lived and power passed to Mao’s great rival Deng Xiaoping. In 1980 the Gang of Four, charged with subverting the government, endured a highly publicized show trial. All four were found guilty–only the defiant Jiang arguing her case. Both she and Zhang were sentenced to death–although these sentences were later reduced to life imprisonment. Wang was also sentenced to life imprisonment, and Yao received a twenty-year sentence. All were subsequently released and have since died–Jiang is thought to have committed suicide.
The arrest of the Gang of Four was seen by many at the time as a sign of a new China after decades of Mao. Deng Xiaoping was China’s most powerful person, from the time he took over from Hua to the late 1990s. He helped open China by introducing cultural exchanges along with elements of a free market economy, and allowed for foreign investment. The story of the Gang of Four, along with that of the Cultural Revolution, is still largely being written today as China and the rest of the world witness its incredible transformation.
Credit: © Henri Bureau/Sygma/Corbis
Caption: A propaganda poster depicts the Gang of Four—with human heads and animal bodies—being impaled. Photo taken in Guilin, China in 1976.