PEKING — Ten years ago, Jiang Qing was one of the most powerful people in China. She was not only the wife of Chairman Mao Tse-tung but also a leading member of the Communist Party Politburo. She dictated standards for Chinese culture and entertained such visitors as Richard M. Nixon and Imelda Marcos.
Now, at the age of 72, Jiang Qing spends her days in Qincheng Prison, near the imperial tombs of the Ming Dynasty northwest of Peking, serving a life sentence as a counterrevolutionary, reading newspapers and watching television.
According to a Chinese source, her meetings with visitors are tape-recorded, transcribed and circulated at Zhongnanhai, the complex in Peking where Chinese leaders live and work.
A couple of years ago, Li Na, the 45-year-old daughter of Mao and Jiang Qing, visited her mother in prison to say she had a new boyfriend.
"Does he know that your father was China's greatest revolutionary hero, and that your mother is the greatest counterrevolutionary?" Jiang Qing gibed.
In a sense, Mao's widow is lucky. Chinese officials have acknowledged that she is not required to wear prison clothing, and that she is given pork and fish to eat. She is allowed to remain near Peking.
By contrast, former human rights activist Wei Jingsheng is reportedly imprisoned in the Qaidam Pendi region of Qinghai province, China's version of Siberia and the site of its most notorious labor camps.
Wei, a young electrician and magazine editor, was China's most articulate and dedicated advocate for democracy during the 1978-79 period when the regime briefly tolerated political dissent and then suppressed it.
"Does (Chinese leader) Deng Xiaoping want democracy?" Wei once wrote. "The answer is no."
Wei, too, was convicted as a counterrevolutionary.
There could not be two more different persons than Jiang Qing and Wei Jingsheng. Yet, together they illustrate an important point about life in China 10 years after the death of Mao: The nature of the political system has not changed very much.
Although the past decade has brought about some substantial changes in daily and economic life, and in the leadership and the ideology of the Communist Party, the political structure set up under Mao remains largely in place.
Party Dominates Life
The party dominates all aspects of Chinese life. There are party officials or committees in every factory, every academic department, every neighborhood. Ordinary Chinese must seek approval for virtually every personal decision they make: to have a child, to get an apartment, to move to another city, to change jobs.
The controlling power within the party is held by a small group of leaders who command the support of party elders and the army. Opponents who pose a political threat to the leadership, whether fervent Maoists like Jiang Qing or human rights advocates like Wei Jingsheng, are locked up and silenced.
"China is not significantly more liberal politically than the Soviet Union yet," Harry Harding, a China scholar at the Brookings Institution, said not long ago in an interview.
Harding said that the important economic changes in China over the last seven years--such as its attempt to move away from central planning toward more reliance on market forces--have created the misperception that there has been some dramatic political liberalization as well since Mao's death.
Used Soviet Pattern
In 1949, under Mao, China's new Communist regime modeled party and government institutions on those of the Soviet Union. The political structure that was set up 37 years ago remains largely in place today. The Soviet influence can still be seen at every level of organization, from the Politburo and Central Committee at the top to the party's propaganda department to the Soviet-style system of academies and research institutes for scholars.
This year, as Tuesday's 10th anniversary of Mao's death approaches, Chinese leaders suddenly permitted some discussion about the possibility of reforming the political system.
For example, Tan Jian, a research fellow at the Academy of Social Sciences, told a national conference on government last June in Taiyuan that China's system of government "was a transplant of the Soviet model of the 1930s, which controlled economic and social affairs with commands from the central government."
This might be a good system, he said "for winning military and political victories, but it lacks flexibility and so does not suit the development of a modernized, socialist commodity economy."
So far, however, there has been only talk of political reform and no concrete change.
Last June, the party general secretary, Hu Yaobang, told a press conference in London that there are no political prisoners at all in China. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution 10 years ago, Hu said, "only those who have violated the law are imprisoned."
Dissidents Can Be Jailed
Under the law, however, a person who challenges the government or socialism can be labeled a counterrevolutionary and jailed as a criminal.