By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
Political tensions in Beijing ratcheted sharply upward again in the first half of 1976. In early January, Zhou Enlai died of bladder cancer. This left Deng in a precarious position, as the Gang of Four took advantage of the deteriorating health of Mao to try and gain power. But when Mao died, the fortunes of Jiang Qing took a downturn.
No Mourning for Zhou
Immediately after Zhou’s death on January 8, 1976, Jiang Qing and her associates put out a notice banning all public displays of grief or mourning for the deceased premier. Fearful of a wave of sympathy and a resulting anti-leftist backlash, they sought to prevent any public gatherings. Zhou’s many admirers were deeply resentful of this crude attempt to silence them, and so they bided their time.
Three months later their opportunity came. On the eve of the annual Qingming Festival—a day set aside for sweeping and decorating ancestral graves—thousands of mourners defied the ban on public grieving. Converging on the Heroes’ Monument at the center of Tiananmen Square, they placed hundreds of funeral wreaths at the base of the massive obelisk there. Dozens of memorial poems were pasted up on all four sides of the monument’s balustrades, celebrating Zhou’s life and mourning his death.
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Criticism of Jiang Qing
But not all the poems were somber elegies to Zhou Enlai. Some were bitter, emotional diatribes. A few brave souls dared to point the finger of guilt at Jiang Qing and her fellow leftists.
Alarmed by such sentiments, and by the outpouring of public affection for the late Premier Zhou, Jiang Qing and her associates dispatched a convoy of over 100 trucks, under cover of darkness, to remove the wreaths, poems, and posters on the evening of April 5.
The next morning, large crowds showed up at Tiananmen Square to angrily protest the surreptitious removal of the wreaths. At that point Jiang Qing called in teams of club-wielding paramilitary “workers’ militias” to forcibly disperse the demonstrators. In the ensuing melee, dozens of protesters were beaten, and hundreds were arrested.
Leftists Meet Mao
Sensing an opportunity to turn this unexpected rioting to their political advantage, the leftists sought, and were granted, an urgent audience with Chairman Mao. By this time, April 6, 1976, Mao was near death and was living in virtual seclusion. Not even his own wife could get in to see him without permission.
At their late night audience with the chairman, the leftists put forward their own highly skewed version of the events of the previous 36 hours. They described the laying of wreaths and poems in Tiananmen Square as a counterrevolutionary incident.
They accused Deng Xiaoping of personally stage-managing the entire event, from the placing of the wreaths and poems to the rioting that followed their removal. It was, they alleged, a vicious attempt by Deng to discredit both the Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao himself.
Learn more about Mao’s legendary ruthlessness.
By that time, Mao was in the final stages of terminal illness, and it’s doubtful that he was capable of rationally evaluating the information being fed to him.
Predisposed to believe that conspirators were out to sabotage him, a severely enfeebled Chairman Mao listened to his wife’s distorted version of the events in Tiananmen Square. When she finished, he slowly affixed his initials to a document she had prepared, ordering Deng Xiaoping to be struck down yet again. The next day, April 7, 1976, Deng was dismissed from all of his posts, both inside and outside the party. Jiang Qing was ecstatic.
The Fall of Jiang Qing
But her jubilation was short-lived. Jiang had risen to power by cultivating a loyal following among youthful Red Guards and revolutionary rebels. But as the “moon” to Mao’s “sun”, she shined entirely in the chairman’s reflected light.
From the mid-1960s to the mid-’70s, her marital connection to “the Great Helmsman” enabled the “Shanghai Clique” to become the guiding force behind the radical excesses of the Cultural Revolution.
And though she was widely despised by leading officials at the highest levels of the party and government, as the chairman’s wife, she was beyond criticism. But that was before Mao died. Once the chairman’s flame was extinguished, Jiang Qing’s reflected glow quickly dimmed. Widely reviled for her role in spreading terror and anarchy during the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing soon found herself politically isolated, without powerful patrons or protectors.
Learn more about the rise of Hua Guofeng, Mao’s successor.
Mao Era Comes to an End
Less than a month after Mao’s death in early September 1976, a coalition of moderate Chinese military and political leaders, many of them survivors of Red Guard persecution, placed Jiang Qing under arrest, along with three other leading members of her Shanghai Clique. Collectively, the quartet of radicals were now openly reviled as the Gang of Four.
The term Gang of Four had been coined by Mao Zedong himself. Since the early 1970s Mao had grown increasingly impatient with his wife’s political scheming. On one occasion, in 1974, Mao warned his ambitious wife and her three radical colleagues to cease their intrigues and conspiracies, and to stop acting like a Gang of Four.
With the arrest of the four radicals, the Mao Zedong era came to a jolting end. But the surprises did not end there. Three more years would elapse before the question of the succession to Chairman Mao would finally be resolved.
Common Questions about the Death of Mao and the End of Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four
Immediately after Zhou’s death, Jiang Qing’s followers put out a notice banning all public displays of grief or mourning for him. Fearful of a wave of sympathy and a resulting anti-leftist backlash, they sought to prevent any public gatherings.
The Gang of Four represented to an ailing Mao that Deng Xiaoping had personally orchestrated the protests in Tiananmen, and even that Deng was trying to discredit Mao. As a result, Mao signed a document removing Deng from all posts.
After Mao’s death, Jiang Qing and her Gang of Four were arrested on the orders of a coalition of moderate Chinese military and political leaders.