The Gang of Four

gang of four
Members of the Gang of Four in photographs taken after their arrest

The ‘Gang of Four’ was a radical faction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Its members were aligned with Mao Zedong and conducted press and propaganda campaigns on his behalf. The Gang of Four wielded influence during the Cultural Revolution and became particularly dominant during the early and mid-1970s. They fell from grace after the death of Mao and were subsequently arrested, tried and imprisoned.

Members

The most notable member of the Gang of Four was Jiang Qing, Mao’s third wife. A former actress, Jiang held no official post in the government but had been involved in cultural activities and productions.

The other members of the quartet were long-standing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen. All were loyal to Mao and ultra-leftist in their political leanings.

Several other party members were aligned with the Gang of Four and acted in concert with them. Chen Boda, Mao Zedong’s leading speechwriter and editor, is often mentioned as affiliated with the quartet.

Origins

All four members held fairly minor positions until the mid-1960s. The onset of the Cultural Revolution saw them elevated to positions of influence. Three joined Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution Small Group’ committee in 1966.

As the Cultural Revolution intensified, so did their relative importance. Though not yet known by this name, the Gang of Four came to wield considerable influence over decisions pertaining to culture, academia, education, student discipline and some aspects of party policy.

The four radicals were also involved in running interference for Mao, orchestrating propaganda campaigns and unfavourable press coverage or commentary about his political and economic rivals.

Activities

At the tenth CCP Congress in August 1973, Mao elevated the Gang of Four into the Politburo. Wang Hongwen was also elevated to the vice-chairmanship of the Central Committee, effectively making him China’s third most powerful politician behind Mao and Zhou Enlai.

Now ensconced in the Politburo, the Gang of Four began to align and collaborate. While they never gained the upper hand over either government or party, between 1973 and 1975 Jiang, Wang, Yao and Zhang exercised near-total control of the press and publications.

A ‘Criticise Confucius’ campaign was launched in late 1973, largely overseen by Jiang Qing. Over time, Mao’s rivals and enemies were incorporated into this campaign, associated with Confucianism and subjected to criticism. The most notable of these targets were the late Lin Biao, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.

Relationship with Mao

Historians have long debated the connections between Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four. Their function, it seems, was to act as political and ideological watchdogs for Mao. They rose to prominence during the Cultural Revolution and were elevated into the Politburo at Mao’s behest.

The Chairman’s public behaviour toward the group was inconsistent, however. In 1974, he made some strong criticisms of the four and their actions, suggesting they “keep lecturing people at every opportunity” without really understanding socialist theory. It was actually Mao who first used the term sirenbang (‘Gang of Four’) during one of his criticisms.

While Mao was regularly critical of the Gang of Four during 1974-75, he took no action against them, nor did he permit their actions to be debated within the Politburo. His criticisms, it seems, were empty words and the Gang was allowed to retain its power and authority.

Fatal errors

In January 1976, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai died after a long battle with cancer. At this point, the Gang of Four made a fatal mistake: it restricted public acts of mourning for Zhou and prevented the state-run media from reporting on the people’s grief. The group also maintained its attacks on Zhou’s vice-premier, Deng Xiaoping.

Zhou Enlai was widely respected so the masses were outraged by these restrictions on mourning. In April, crowds ignored the prohibition on public assembly and gathered in large numbers in Tiananmen Square carrying flowers and poems. There were also placards attacking the Gang of Four, even criticising Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

Facing what some believed was a brewing revolution, the Central Committee sent in the police to disperse the mourners. Many were beaten and driven away, while some carrying placards were arrested and executed. Deng Xiaoping was linked with the Tiananmen ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and for a second time removed from office and purged from the CCP.

Fall from grace

Mao himself died in September 1976, leaving the Gang of Four exposed to their enemies and rivals. They maintained their control over the press and propaganda for another month, urging continued to loyalty to Mao’s principles (an attempt to retain their own authority).

It was to no avail. The new premier, Hua Guofeng, was unsympathetic to the Gang of Four and wanted them out of the way. After securing the support of the military, Hua moved against them. On October 6th, the Gang of Four, their supporters and acolytes in the state press and propaganda department were arrested.

The group was detained and given a show trial in 1981. Only Jiang Qing protested her innocence, famously saying that “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite”.

Jiang, Zhang and Wang received life sentences while Yao was given 20 years in prison. Jiang took her own life in 1991, while in hospital receiving treatment for cancer. Her suicide note was a final attack on the ‘revisionism’ of Deng Xiaoping.

A historian’s view:
“Unquestionably, the Gang of Four was at least tacitly supported by Mao in its various activities. Jiang’s most important qualification in exercising power was that she was Mao’s wife. To an extent, the gang served as an instrument for Mao to realise his radical vision of ‘permanent revolution’ as a form of national development, yet in the process the gang also used Mao to enhance its own position and influence. Together this ‘gang of five’ created a decade of destruction and terror in China.”
Wang Ke-wen

gang of four

1. The Gang of Four was a clique of radicals associated with Mao Zedong that gained significant power during the Cultural Revolution.

2. The Gang was comprised of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan. All were ultra-leftists loyal to Mao.

3. Between 1966 and 1975, the Gang of Four exercised dominance over the press and propaganda, attacking Mao’s political enemies and rivals.

4. In 1973 they were elevated to the Politburo where they continued their attacks. They were often criticised by Mao but retained their roles.

5. The Gang’s actions following the death of Zhou Enlai led to the Tiananmen Incident. When Mao died in September 1976, they were quickly arrested and purged from the party.

Citation information
Title: “The ‘Gang of Four'”
Authors: Glenn Kucha, Jennifer Llewellyn
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/chineserevolution/gang-of-four/
Date published: September 9, 2019
Date accessed: September 21, 2021
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