Deng Xiaoping and Problematic Reforms of China’s Legal System


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

When a conflict arose in the opinions of Deng’s coalition leaders, he found himself in the middle of this intense crossfire. He wavered and was ambivalent in his own views. He didn’t want to curtail the free speech he had endorsed in China’s legal system. Still, he grew increasingly impatient with the provocative envelope-pushing tactics of political activists like Fu Yuehua and Wei Jingsheng.

A statue of Deng Xiaoping.
Deng’s tolerance reached its limit after Wei’s accusation. (Image: chanwangrong/Shutterstock)

Deng’s Tolerance Had Limits

Toward the end of March, Wei Jingsheng decided to test the limits of Deng’s tolerance by publishing a biting critique of China’s new paramount leader. Entitled, Do We Want Democracy or a New Dictatorship? Wei accused Deng Xiaoping of shedding his mask as a protector of democracy, betraying the people’s trust, and becoming a “dictatorial fascist” in the mold of the recently deposed ultra-leftists.

Wei’s insolence was the final straw. Deng was outraged, he gave a speech where he drew a firm, clear line in the sand. Reviving Mao’s controversial six criteria for distinguishing “fragrant flowers” from “poisonous weeds,” Deng distilled Mao’s six criteria down to just four, which he now called the “four cardinal principles.”

Henceforth, said Deng, the only words and actions that would be deemed politically acceptable were those that upheld socialism, upheld the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, upheld the people’s democratic dictatorship, and upheld Marxism, Leninism, and the thought of Mao Zedong.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Wei Jingsheng’s Arrest

As soon as Deng expressed his support for the hard-line, Beijing police arrested Wei Jingsheng. Ironically, the circumstances of Wei’s detention, which began in April of 1979, clearly violated the country’s new criminal procedure law, which had been adopted just a month earlier specifically designed to prevent arbitrary abuses of police and judicial authority. 

Yet, in contradiction to the new law code, no formal charges were leveled against Wei; he was not given access to legal counsel, and he was held incommunicado for six months. It was a shaky start, to say the least, for the Chinese government’s newfound commitment to strengthen socialist legality. When push came to shove, party power still trumped legal procedure.

When Wei Jingsheng was finally brought to trial in October of 1979. He was found guilty of the crimes of “counterrevolutionary incitement” and conveying “official secrets” to a foreign journalist, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Learn more about the great leap forward, 1958-1960.

Deng Coalition’s Differences

By the end of 1979, the Chinese Democracy Movement had been effectively silenced, and the petitioners’ movement had been stifled. Deng’s coalition was now split right down the middle, with its more progressive members, generally, the younger ones, supporting greater political openness and tolerance. 

Older, more orthodox Communist cadres emphasized the vital importance of party discipline and the “four cardinal principles.” It was a fissure that would resurface and deepen many times in the 1980s. 

The Trial of the Gang of Four

After languishing in prison for four long years, members of the Gang finally stood in the dock in October 1980. Mountains of evidence were collected, and 24 special prosecutors were assigned to argue the government’s case in a special court presided over by 35 judges. 

The 20,000-word indictment against the four Shanghai radicals took more than two hours for the court clerk to read aloud, almost as long as Wei Jingsheng’s entire trial. Because the trial of the Gang was such a high-profile test of the regime’s commitment to socialist legality, strict observance of legal norms—in particular, the standard of due process—was deemed essential. 

For the most part, it must be said, the proceedings adhered relatively closely to the letter, if not always the spirit, of the new criminal codes. At the heart of the indictment of the four defrocked radicals was their alleged responsibility for the deaths of 34,800 people and the persecution, imprisonment, and torture of 726,000 others.

Learn more about the disruption in Mao’s Socialist vision.

Not All Four Cooperated with China’s Legal System

An image of Jiang Qing.
Jiang Qing refused to admit guilt in her trial. (Image: Anefo/Public domain)

Three of the four Gang members were represented in court by defense attorneys. Having agreed in advance to cooperate with government prosecutors, the three readily admitted their crimes and threw themselves at the mercy of the court. But the fourth defendant in the trial steadfastly refused to admit guilt. To the bitter end, Jiang Qing alone remained contemptuous of the entire proceeding. 

Refusing the offer of a state-appointed lawyer, she argued her own case. She curtly dismissed prosecution allegations that she had been the ringleader of ultra-left and cleverly shifted ultimate responsibility onto Mao himself: “I was Chairman Mao’s lapdog,” she said. “When Chairman asked me to bite, I bit.” Denouncing prosecution witnesses as traitors, Jiang Qing derided the court and challenged its very legitimacy. However, the outcome of the trial was never in doubt. The government had invested too much of its own credibility in assuring a “correct” verdict.

After a post-trial delay of several weeks, Jiang Qing and her principal co-defendant, the former Shanghai Party boss Zhang Chunqiao, were sentenced to death but with their execution stayed for a period of two years. The two remaining members of Jiang Qing’s Shanghai Clique, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen, were sentenced to 20 years and life in prison, respectively.

Common Questions about Deng Xiaoping and Problematic Reforms of China’s Legal System

Q: What was the last straw that resulted in Wei Jingsheng’s arrest?

Wei’s criticism of Deng was testing the limits of Deng’s tolerance. After Wei’s biting article, Deng decided not to tolerate such criticism anymore. This ultimately resulted in Wei’s arrest which wasn’t entirely legal according to the new criminal code in China’s legal system.

Q: Was Wei Jingsheng’s arrest done through a legal procedure?

Although China’s legal system was changing its criminal codes, the arrest of Wei was unprecedented. No legal reason for the arrest was provided, and he couldn’t communicate with anyone for six months.

Q: How did the trial of the Gang of Four end?

China’s legal system ensured that the legal process was set to the highest standards they could achieve. But in the end, the outcome was as planned. Jiang and Zhang received capital punishment, while Yao was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Wang was sentenced to prison for life.

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