Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

China’s “gang of 4” trial highlights crimes during Cultural Revolution


First Published: Unity, Vol. 3, No. 23, December 5-18, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The current trial of the “gang of four” and six followers of the former Minister of Defense Lin Biao taking place in Beijing is a dramatic and serious effort on the part of China’s leaders to redress the wrongs of the Cultural Revolution and see that the widespread persecution of people that took place during the upheaval will never happen again.

The trial has also displayed the stress the Chinese are placing on socialist law and procedure that have developed over the past several years.

Crimes committed 1966-1976

After four to ten years in prison, the defendants are being tried for crimes committed during the period of 1966 to 1976. The followers of Lin Biao were arrested after an attempted military coup in 1971, while the “gang of four” were high government and party leaders who rose to prominence by attacking veteran leaders during the Cultural Revolution. They were arrested in 1976.

Because the activities of the two groups were interrelated, their trials are being handled simultaneously, but in different sessions. The ten are accused of 48 specific indictments, the four main ones being:

framing and persecuting party and state leaders and plotting to overthrow the political power of the dictatorship of the proletariat;
persecuting and suppressing large numbers of cadre and ordinary people;
plotting to assassinate Chairman Mao Zedong and stage an armed counterrevolutionary coup d’etat; and
plotting an armed rebellion in Shanghai.

Within these charges the ten are being held responsible for persecuting 727,420 people and the deaths of 34,274 of those. Virtually every leading member of the party was targeted by the two groups including Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and Zhu De.

The Chinese have made it clear that the ten defendants are on trial for their activities and not for their ideas, although the extreme ultra-leftism promoted by the ten is being completely rejected in China today. In his September report to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (China’s legislative body), Huang Huoqing, head of the Supreme People’s Procurate (the equivalent to the attorney general) clearly stated that the prosecution of the two groups involves only their counterrevolutionary crimes which violated the Criminal Law and does not include their errors in political line.

This is an important distinction since a number of people held ultra-left ideas for various periods during the Cultural Revolution. Today these people are seen as having made political mistakes, but not having committed crimes. In contrast, the Lin Biao group and the “gang of four” during the Cultural Revolution viciously persecuted as criminals those with differing political views.

Following legal procedures

Overall the proceedings have been marked by a careful attention to following the letter of the law as laid out in the Criminal Code that went into effect last January.

Soon after the enactment of the code, the Chinese began proceedings that have now culminated in the current trial. In April, the investigation of the two groups was taken up by the Ministry of Public Security. Following this, especially appointed members of the Supreme People’s Procurate reviewed the material and developed specific charges against the ten.

In reference to this process Huang Huoqing also reported that, “We lay stress on evidence and do not readily believe confessions. We base ourselves on facts and use the law as our criterion. In the criminal proceedings against Lin Biao, Jiang Qing and their followers, we based ourselves on ascertained and verified original material evidence such as dossiers, letters, diaries, notes, records and tape recordings.” All of the accused furthermore were also shown the indictments prior to the trial and offered defense counsel.

This careful process is in contrast to the widespread abuses of state power during the Cultural Revolution when there was no legal code nor procedures, and forced confessions, fabricated charges and political persecution were commonplace.

The trial of the four is taking place under a special tribunal consisting of 35 judges and headed by the vice-president of the Supreme People’s Court. A special military court is overseeing the charges against the former military men.

The trial itself is not open to the foreign press as a number of state matters are being revealed. However, 800 observers from throughout China are witnessing the proceedings. The trial is expected to last through December before a verdict is rendered.

Not a trial of Mao

Though some Western correspondents have billed the trial as a posthumous indictment of Mao, the Chinese have firmly stated that this isn’t the case. Chinese leaders including Deng Xiaoping and Hua Guofeng maintain that while Mao as chairman of the party bears responsibility for some of the political mistakes made around the Cultural Revolution, the acts of the Lin Biao group and the “gang of four” are of a completely different nature. In fact one of the main charges is that the Lin Biao group tried to kill Mao himself. It is also well-known that Mao on a number of occasions condemned the violence and persecutions that took place during the Cultural Revolution and criticized the “gang.”

The extraordinary trial now taking place is thus serving a dual purpose: For one, by trying the key people responsible for the abuses, the trial is the culmination of redressing the wrongs of the Cultural Revolution years. Secondly, the trial itself is a commitment to socialist law and procedures. The message is clear: the destruction, anarchy, violation of basic rights and power-grabbing that characterized the Cultural Revolution will not happen again.