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Memo to mother: Look east and learn

These are turbulent times. Since two years ago, you have carried out a hectic shift on the political front. It has been a dramatic couple of years and the results of this enterprise are self-evident. Having kept to the margins of politics for so long, you decided it was time to take to the political ring. I don’t know what motivated you but the haste and method by which the entrance has been transacted has captured the nation’s attention — and beyond.


Far be it for me to discourage or advise — both of which are beyond me — I have been intrigued by the uncanny similarities between your story, and the story of another woman in a land far away from home, albeit of many years ago. I thought I would share it for it might be instructive. For some time now, our government has taken pride in its Look East policy, adopted when a bitter winter set in between Zimbabwe and the Western countries, hitherto our friends — at least since the euphoric days of independence. There is, therefore, some consistency, in that the story I share comes from our much-loved friends in the east. The events I describe are not current. I have had to dig a little into history.

Some 40 years ago in China, there lived a beautiful woman who grew up in modest conditions and became an actress before marrying one of the most powerful and well-known figures in world history. Her name was Jiang Qing and the husband was Chairman Mao, the all-powerful leader of the Chinese Communist Party. Chairman Mao had commanded the Chinese Communist Revolution, making a triumphal entry into Beijing in 1949 and declaring the People’s Republic of China over which he became the patriarch. Chairman Mao was the original sole centre of power — a strong-man who ruled China with an iron fist. Jiang Qing was wife number three and much younger — with 21 years between them, the age-gap was large. They even started living together before Chairman Mao had divorced his second wife. All this must sound very familiar!

Between 1966 and 1976, Chairman Mao presided over the infamous Cultural Revolution, a terrible era, but this period also marked the rise in power and prominence of his young wife, Jiang Qing. She quickly assumed immense powers, becoming a high priest of the Cultural Revolution. In this enterprise of accumulation and abuse of power, Jiang Qing was aided by three key allies. Together, they became known as the Gang of Four.

This clique — the Gang of Four — benefitted from their proximity to Chairman Mao, from whom they rented power and influence and in whose name they purported to speak. They were responsible for implementing harsh policies and the persecution of their more moderate rivals in the party and government. They were adept at manipulating the media for propaganda purposes and they used their power to rise both within the party and government, often at the expense of their rivals. One of their prominent victims was Deng Xiaoping, who ironically, would later become the leader of China who ushered the country into the modern era.

Like our own president today, Chairman Mao had to deal with fierce power struggles between rival factions in his party, in his case between the radicals led by the Gang of Four and the pragmatists and moderates, who included Deng Xiaoping. Twice Deng Xiaoping was purged from the party, courtesy of the Gang of Four’s machinations. Chairman Mao’s efforts to keep the balance of power between the rivals were unsuccessful. The Gang of Four prevailed, presenting themselves as the most loyal and faithful defenders of Chairman Mao and his policies, and painting rivals negatively. That they had the powerful Chairman’s wife on their side was obviously an unlimited advantage. The aggressive Jiang Qing humiliated and abused her opponents at huge political rallies. Again, all this must sound very familiar, too!

As Chairman Mao got increasingly frail due to old age and ill-health, Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four became more powerful and dominant. But sadly in September 1976, Chairman Mao died and this became the major turning point, both for China and for Jiang Qing, together with her fellow Gang of Four members. A coalition of political and military leaders purged the Gang of Four in October 1976, shortly after the death of Chairman Mao. They had long resented the Gang of Four and once Mao was gone, their power vanished, too. Deng Xiaoping, who had twice been purged by the Gang of Four, returned to his powerful roles in 1977, later creating the economic architecture for China’s present-day success-story.

Jiang Qing and her gang on the other hand, were captured and jailed. They were later tried for crimes they had committed during the terrible period of the Cultural Revolution. Jiang Qing was given a suspended death sentence, which was later reduced to life imprisonment. Her fellow Gang of Four members were also jailed. In early June 1991, the Chinese Government announced that she had committed suicide in prison, nearly a month earlier.

Sad story, indeed, but one that bears poignant lessons. Jiang Qing became very powerful during Chairman Mao’s later years in power, but she forgot that she was wearing borrowed robes. Her power was dependent upon her husband, but only as long as he lived. Chairman Mao was respected and feared by those around him, and it is this power that Jiang Qing enjoyed. But instead of appreciating its temporary character, she allowed power to get to her head. She abused it, left a trail of destruction and made plenty of enemies along the way. She was probably advised, wrongly as it turned out, that she could build her own power-base, one that was independent of her husband, and that this power could outlive him.

Not everyone around Chairman Mao approved of her conduct, but they probably held back out of respect for and fear of their long-standing leader who was in the twilight of his career. But the resentment and lack of trust grew. The wounded men would later come back to haunt her.  As soon as Chairman Mao was out of the way, they came after her and she spent her last years a prisoner, without freedom, without power and miserable. Writing her obituary in 1991, the New York Times noted, “Few people have been so hated in modern Chinese history, and after her fall she became a symbol of the excesses and brutality of the Cultural Revolution. When her trial was televised each night at the end of 1980, most of the nation was delighted and riveted by the spectacle of Ms. Jiang in the dock …”

It sounds like a fictional story, but it is real. This is the story of Jiang Qing, the wife of a powerful leader who rented power from her husband but forgot that borrowed power has a limited shelf life. Along with her allies in the Gang of Four, she misused and abused her power, made many enemies and exposed herself after the death of her husband. It is often said that we must learn from history, but if we must learn from the mistakes of history, it should not be in order to make similar ones, but to avoid them.

Like Jiang Qing, you’re married to a very powerful man, who is respected and feared by those around him. Like Jiang Qing, your original station was humble, but you have become very powerful. But as Jiang Qing discovered — because essentially this power is rented— it is temporary and is unlikely to outlive the husband. One can make progress in politics and achieve power without necessarily building a huge reservoir of resentment or creating too many enemies.

I leave it here for now.
l Dr Magaisa is a Zimbabwean academic at the University of Kent in the UK. This article first appeared on his blog at Magaisa can be reached at

One Response to Memo to mother: Look east and learn

  1. viola gwena February 28, 2016 at 9:07 pm #

    Well reseaechd.magaisa.good advice.nt only to Grace,bt to ngwena also.he must be ready for whats cming for him to change zanu n lead it as expected.evryone in zanu is looking up to him now,for way forwad.

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