The trial of the "gang of four" headed by Mao Tsetung's widow, Jiang Qing, seems at this writing to be approaching its predetermined conclusion. The final phase of Miss Jiang's trial, the so-called court debate with the defendant speaking on her own behalf, began Dec. 24.
The nine other defendants have already concluded this phase. All that is left is the verdict and the sentencing. Jiang Qing -- willowy, black-haired, looking trim even in black trousers and Mao jacket -- remains the unquestioned star. A television report on her performance Dec. 24 was unexpectedly canceled, possibly because it needed to be carefully edited before being broadcast.
Miss Jiang frequently invoked the names of Chairman Mao, of Premier Chou En-lai, and of his successor, Hua Guofeng. These portions have not been shown to television viewers, but with over 800 spectators in the courtroom, news of the proceeding gets out in one way or another.
On one occasion Miss Jiang was forcibly ejected from the courtroom after arguing with her judges and indulging in an exchange of name-calling with a witness who said he had been imprisoned and tortured because of her "deliberate slander" of him as an enemy agent.
What television viewers have seen of Miss Jiang on trial does not seem to have enhanced her standing with them. She has been by turn arrogant and languid , petty and hot-tempered. But neither have judges nor prosecutors scored many points with the viewers. There is a feeling that the trial is a show, that the attempt is not to bring out all the facts relating to the roles Miss Jiang and her codefendants played during the so-called Cultural Revolution (1966-76) but to make a selection thereof.
As Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping and other leaders have said, Chairman Mao may have made mistakes during the Cultural Revolution, but Jiang Qing and her gang of four are guilty of "towering crimes." The effort to separate these two categories -- mistakes and crimes -- necessitates shutting Miss Jiang up whenever she tries to wrap herself in her late husband's mantle.
One of the principal crimes of which Miss Jiang is accused is of framing and persecuting the late chief of state, Liu Shaoqi, and his wife, Wang Guangmei. Unfortunately, at a certain period all of China's top leaders from Premier Chou to Vice-Premier Deng also repudiated Mr. Liu.
Yet the trial is not all show. China's present leaders are deeply committed to the proposition that the disorder and the lawlessness of the Cultural Revolution must never be repeated again. They want to establish a framework of law that will assure the stability and predictability of a China groping toward economic modernization and cooperation with the international community.
How far has the trial helped to demonstrate this purpose? Western observers feel that the intent is discernible, but that in practice there has been insufficient political courage to carry out the intent without fear or favor, and to let the chips fall where they may.