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Mao's Widow Jiang Qing, Radical Leader, Dead at 77

June 05, 1991|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — Jiang Qing, widow of Mao Tse-tung and fiery leader of radical leftists during China's chaotic Cultural Revolution, committed suicide at home last month, the government announced Tuesday.

Jiang, 77, nearly achieved supreme power in 1976 while Chairman Mao lay on his deathbed. But she was arrested by political rivals just one month after his death and never regained real freedom.

In recent years, according to Western press reports, Jiang lived under house arrest at the suburban Beijing villa of Li Na, 51, her daughter by Mao. Until her death, Chinese officials always denied that she had been released from prison. In its terse announcement of her suicide, the official New China News Agency said Tuesday that she "had remained out of custody and obtained medical treatment" since 1984.

The Chinese news agency gave no motive or details on her suicide. But Jiang was widely believed to have suffered from throat cancer for several years. Time magazine, in a Monday report based on unidentified sources, said Jiang hanged herself and that a desire to avoid further suffering from her cancer may have been the motive.

Jiang died May 14, the New China News Agency said. The government may have wished to avoid announcing her death during the tense period preceding the June 3-4 second anniversary of the bloody crackdown on the Tian An Men Square pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. Release of the news Tuesday evening appeared timed primarily to respond to the Time magazine report.

Jiang Qing (pronounced Jeeahng Ching) was last seen in public Jan. 25, 1981, when a show trial ended and she was removed screaming from a Beijing courtroom, shouting revolutionary slogans and cursing her judges and China's current leaders as "fascists, renegades, traitors."

At her trial, Jiang and nine others were charged with framing and persecuting 729,511 people during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, including 34,800 who died. She was accused of involvement in an attempted military coup in 1971 and of plotting an armed rebellion in 1976. She was given a suspended death sentence, later commuted to life imprisonment.

The most famous of Jiang's co-defendants were Zhang Chunqiao, whom she had hoped to make premier; Yao Wenyuan, a Communist Party polemicist, and Wang Hongwen, a former Shanghai textile-mill worker who was elevated to party vice chairman. Together, they made up the infamous "Gang of Four." China's present leaders, unwilling to undermine their own legitimacy by attacking Mao's legacy too severely, have sought to blame these four radical leaders for most of the violence of the Cultural Revolution.

At her trial, however, a defiant and unrepentant Jiang pinned all the blame--or credit--for the Cultural Revolution squarely on Mao.

"I was Chairman Mao's dog," she told the court. "Whoever he told me to bite, I bit."

The Cultural Revolution was in fact launched by Mao himself, as part of a struggle for power with party rivals including China's senior leader today, Deng Xiaoping, 86, whom Jiang once vilified as an "international capitalist agent." But Jiang also played a key role.

Mao gave her little direct support when she began her drive for power in the early 1960s. Her first ally was Lin Piao, the defense minister, who made her the army's cultural commissar. She began promoting "revolutionary operas" intended to glorify and educate workers and peasants, rather than simply entertain.

It was only several years later, as Mao struggled with other leaders over the country's future course, that he seized upon Jiang's radical cultural policies as a weapon against his rivals. Soon Jiang exercised immense influence over millions of youthful Red Guards, who roamed the country attacking Mao's real and supposed enemies.

"The Cultural Revolution was always really more about power than about culture or even ideology," a writer who was one of the first purge victims said shortly before Jiang's 1980 show trial. "That moved Jiang Qing from literature and the arts, where she was wrong but had experience, into the center of an intense power struggle where she could wield words like big clubs and clobber everyone who she felt opposed her. For a paranoid like Jiang Qing, this was a dream of vengeance come true."

Virtually all of China's most respected writers, composers, actors and artists were purged. Many were sent to the countryside to work with peasants.

Cultural Revolution victims of Mao and Jiang included not only political opponents and China's intellectual and artistic elite but also those Jiang felt had hindered her acting career in Shanghai 30 years before and those who had opposed her marriage to Mao.

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