etcetera | Obituaries Electronic Telegraph
Saturday 16 November 1996
Issue 542

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Wang Li

WANG LI, who has died aged 77, gave enthusiastic support to the Cultural Revolution with fire-breathing speeches, only to fall victim to it himself.

Under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung, and with the ideological direction of commissars like Wang, the Chinese people were encouraged to wage war on their own government.

Wang was a member of the Cultural Revolution Group of the Communist Party's Central Committee, charged with day-to-day leadership of the movement. Its deputy leader, and the architect of Wang's downfall, was Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, one of the later disgraced Gang of Four.

Wang Li was born at Jiangsu in 1918 into a prosperous family. He joined the Communist Party in 1939 and rose to become head of the party's propaganda department and editor of the theoretical journal Red Flag.

In February 1966, Mao convened a meeting of what was to become the Cultural Revolution Group. Within months, the group was orchestrating a popular movement against any individuals or institutions that seemed to be standing in the way of the Party's complete domination of Chinese cultural and political life.

"It would be a mistake", wrote Jack Chen in his memoir of the Cultural Revolution, "to imagine that Wang Li and others were real revolutionaries, motivated by real revolutionary idealism. These men were careerists who used the Party as their vehicle to power."

Wang was a central figure in the Wuhan incident, which determined the outcome of the Cultural Revolution. In February 1967, youthful Red Guards went on the rampage in Wuhan, an industrial city on the Yangtse river, demanding that the city become "hugely chaotic, especially chaotic, deeply chaotic, and thoroughly chaotic".

Seeing the situation spin out of control around the country, and the Chinese economy spiralling downward, Mao sought to rein in the Red Guards' fervour, and order was restored temporarily in Wuhan.

In April, however, after Wang oversaw the publication in the People's Daily of an editorial supporting the Red Guards in Wuhan, and Madame Mao proclaimed that Wuhan was due for a "storming", the city again erupted, this time into armed conflict between factions led by Red Guards and others backed by a local warlord.

In July, Wang and public security minister Xie Fuzhi, were sent to Wuhan to mediate, though their sympathies plainly lay with the Red Guards. As soon as they arrived, the two disobeyed the Prime Minister Zhou Enlai's order not to appear in public. Wang gave a rousing speech to the insurrectionists.

Wang and Xie spent the next few days meeting both sides. Predictably, they ended by expressing support for the "pro-Maoist" Red Guards. This provoked an uprising by the local army division, which kidnapped Wang and took him to military headquarters outside the city where he was beaten. For three days, people paraded in the streets chanting "Down with Wang Li."

Wang was smuggled out of Wuhan, and flown to Beijing, where, with his leg in plaster, he was given a hero's welcome by tens of thousands of people, and a crowd of Red Guards headed by Jiang Qing.

As a consequence of the Wuhan incident, a campaign was launched against "capitalist roaders" in the army. Wang helped draft virulent editorials against them in Red Flag.

By the summer of 1967, Wang was riding high, whipping up revolutionary chaos in his speeches. He was one of three backers of a month-long demonstration in the Forbidden City, during which thousands demanded the appearance of the former head of state Liu Shaoqi to perform the ritual of public self-criticism. That same summer, Wang exhorted Red Guards to storm the Foreign Ministry. Later, in a demonstration against the treatment of workers in Hong Kong, the British mission was set on fire.

With his wife's encouragment, Mao now withdrew his support for this "ultra-Leftist" approach. Jiang Qing denounced Wang and others as a clique of conspirators.

As a result, Mao ordered Wang's arrest. Wang was described in propaganda as a "chameleon" and a "crawling insect". He spent the next 15 years in prison.

He was released in 1982, and wrote abject letters from his flat in Shanghai, appealing for official rehabilitation. He never received it.

He and his wife Wang Pingshu had a daughter.


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