My parents and I were witnesses to the huge demonstration along Chang-an Boulevard and Tiananmen Square in Peking in mid October 1976. Demonstrations that welcomed the downfall of the “Gang of Four”. And the downfall of the "G4" led to the opening up of China and the remarkable transformation of its society and place in the world.
You may recall that Mao Tse-tung (“Mao Zedong” in Pinyin) died on September 9th 1976. Immediately after his death there was a fierce battle for control of China. The leftists wanted to keep China along the socialist path set by Mao, centrally controlled and “self-reliant” – ie, to keep it the closed society it had been till then. These leftists were led by a group who came to be known as the Gang of Four: Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife), Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen. Leading those against the leftists was Deng Xiaoping, who had been “purged” in April that year (the second or third of his career “purgings”).
The Gang of Four were arrested on 6th October 1976 and shortly thereafter there were national celebrations to welcome the arrest. In Peking the major demonstration was in mid October (I can’t remember the exact date and can’t find it online). That’s what we witnessed and took part in.
I was new in Peking, sent there in early September 1976 by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (Australia’s FCO), for the first of two years’ full-time study of Mandarin at the Peking Languages Institute and Peking University. My parents were visiting us (my then wife and me).
We were staying at the Peking Hotel, which is still there and still called the “Peking” Hotel, right on Tiananmen Square. We had rooms overlooking Chang-an Boulevard and the square to our right (immediately south-west of the hotel).
We awoke to hear sounds outside. Opening the window, we saw crowds as far as the eye could see to east and west and filling the huge square: millions of people, by later estimates. There were happy people waving flags, letting off firecrackers, crashing cymbals, pounding drums on flatbed trucks and tricycles.
We went outside to get a closer look. We were warmly welcomed by the crowds, who seemed genuinely happy, even deliriously so. We were given little paper flags to wave. They had hand-written Chinese characters on them. I had only just started my study, so I didn’t know what the flags said, but later we had them translated for us and they were variations on the theme of “down with the Gang of Four”, and “down with the Jiang, Zhang, Yao, Wen clique”, some with crudely drawn pictures of the “gang”, and crosses through them.
A word on “Gang of Four”, the phrase: at the time, the translation into English “Gang of four” was not immediate. The Chinese phrase is 四人帮, (Si Ren Bang in Pinyin; “Sir wren bung” phonetically), which is literally “four person gang”, or “four person clique”, or similar. It was some time, some days, if I recall, before the western press settled on “Gang of Four” as the preferred term, and it has, of course, now become part of English lexicon. [check out Google images for "gang of four" to see just how much there is, including a number of bands with the name].
Deng Xiaoping was officially brought back to power some two years later, though he was certainly behind the scenes in all that led up to the arrest of the G4 and the aftermath. It was Deng who set China on a new path, to lead it to its present status as a major world power and major player in the international economic scene. There are concerns about what China terms its “peaceful rise”, but there can hardly be any argument that we’re better off with a China we have now than the one we may have had under the G4 – witness North Korea as to what happens under that type of leftist extreme isolationism.
It was Deng who settled the course of China onto a “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, ie, a pragmatic China: he coined some memorable phrases: “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice” (to move China away from rigid socialist ideology), “Seek truth from facts” (ditto), “To get rich is glorious” (Adam Smith would've loved him!).
For the place where I now live, Hong Kong, he came up with the famous formulation of “One country, two systems”, which paved the way for the agreement on Hong Kong with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and which has worked rather well for us since the handover in 1997.
There may be some “retrospective determinists”, who might claim that China would have gone this way in any case (ie: “this is the way China is, so this is the way it must have become”). I don’t think so. If the G4 had prevailed, China could have proceeded along the same path it had to that time, just as North Korea has continued along its own ruinous path. That would have been to the great cost of many hundreds of millions of people. In China alone, the World Bank has estimated that China’s economic rise has brought over 500 million people out of poverty. It has, on any fair balance, been a stabilizing force in the recent financial crises: the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the current GFC.
What we have seen in China in the last 30+ years is unprecedented in world history. It all started with the arrest of the Gang of Four, which was welcomed by the crowds in the streets of Peking we witnessed from our hotel window and then walked down to join, waving our flags to celebrate the downfall of the Gang, thirty three years ago.
(PS: my wife I met some 14 years ago in China. Turns out she was there at the demo too. She was a high-school student in Peking. She remembers the day well. They were driven to Tiananmen to take part in the demos, and though not given much info about it, knew enough of the basics to know that it was good news for China, the beginning of opening up. Had we met that day, however, we would not have been able to talk as she knew no English then and I had only just started my Chinese. My mother (88) is currently visiting us in Hong Kong and also remembers the day well)