From Gang of Four to Bo Xilai: Reporting from China's 'show trials'

Covering the trial of Bo Xilai, a man once tipped to rise to the summit of Chinese politics, reminded me of the time I reported on a similarly explosive story in the early 1980s -- the trial of the so-called "Gang of Four" in China.

This notorious group was led by Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong's widow, and three of her ideological allies. A former movie starlet, Jiang Qing rose to the top tier of the Communist Party leadership thanks mainly to her close ties with the "Great Helmsman," the architect of the infamous Cultural Revolution, a campaign to enforce Communism that led to the persecution of millions of people.

Jiang Qing is brought into courtroom during the Gang of Four Trial in 1980. Photo:

But a month after Chairman Mao's death in 1976, the four, together with their associates, were arrested and charged with "heinous" crimes, including plotting to assassinate Mao and attempting to pull off an armed rebellion.

It took more than four years to bring them to trial. For China watchers, it was worth the wait. It turned out to be China's "trial of the century," replete with political intrigue, drama and endlessly memorable quotes.

"Attacking the Ghosts of Mao," read the headline of one of our Newsweek magazine stories published in January 1981. It was the first major story I covered as a foreign correspondent in China.

Controlled coverage

"Covered" is a misnomer. More than 600 people -- mostly government officials, representatives from the public, relatives of defendants and trusted Chinese reporters -- were allowed in court, by invitation only. Foreign journalists like me need not apply, I was told.

Nevertheless the trial turned into a huge story, covered extensively in and outside China.

At that stage, China was just emerging from the dark clouds of the totalitarian Maoist era. The political system was opaque and the media was severely controlled. To our surprise, however, the Chinese newspapers, radio and TV were saturated with "gavel to gavel" reports, as a fellow reporter put it.

The trial dragged on for nearly two months. We relied largely on officially vetted accounts and rare TV footage, aware the authorities had allowed extensive but filtered coverage not for the sake of transparency but to demonize the defendants and legitimize their incarceration.

I remember spending many nights watching CCTV's extensive excerpts of the court proceedings with Chinese friends and fellow reporters. We spent as much time parsing what actually took place inside the courtroom, then reached out to unofficial sources to find out what was actually left out of the official narrative.

Much like events in Jinan this week, the Gang of Four trial took a melodramatic turn as it winded down. During the televised coverage, the former actress feistily defended herself against charges of treason by claiming that everything she did had Mao's approval. "I was Chairman Mao's dog," Jiang Qing shouted at the panel of judges. "Whomever he told me to bite, I bit."

In her final speech, that lasted for about two hours, the 66 year old said she was "prepared to die" fighting for her husband and leader.

In early 1981, Madame Mao, as she became known, was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve, later commuted to life imprisonment. But several years later, she committed suicide while under house arrest.

Transparent or not?

Watching the Bo trial this week, I wondered what has changed and what has not since Jiang Qing's trial three decades ago.

"This was an open process for China, giving Bo the chance to challenge his accusers and present his own case so publicly," said David Zweig, a professor at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "It has been great drama. This is no Stalinist trial."

Bo Xilai stands on trial at a court in eastern China's Shandong province on Aug. 22, 2013. Photo: AP

True, the five-day trial turned out to be more interesting and substantive. I had expected a brief and heavily scripted political "show trial." But Bo the accused was given ample time to speak out and cross-examine adversarial witnesses. For that Bo himself credited and thanked court officials, especially the chief judge.

"The judge is a professional with a law degree, not like (Gang of Four trial chief judge) Jiang Hua, who was a Long March-era cadre," said Chinese film producer Li Weijia. "Also, Bo had defense lawyers, who I understand were picked by Bo and his family. This could not have happened during the trial of the Gang of Four."

The Chinese authorities hailed this as an "open and public trial," posting photos, video clips and excerpts from court transcripts on the court's Twitter-like Sina weibo account.

"It's a major breakthrough," claimed political analyst Victor Gao. "It demonstrates the government's eagerness to show they have nothing to hide from the public about the trial. It helps enhance transparency and may bode well for greater political reform and judiciary reform."

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