Mao Tse-tung's widow, Jiang Qing, who virtually ruled China during the calamitous Cultural Revolution in the name of her late husband, was sentenced to death today, but her execution was suspended for two years pending good behavior.
Under Chinese law, if Jiang, 67, cooperates with autorities during that period her sentence could be lightened to life imprisonment. But the state retains the right to execute her at any time.
The sentence apparently represents a compromise among China's top leaders who are believed to have been split for nearly a month over the question of executing Jiang, who was convicted along with nine fellow radicals for persecuting hundreds of thousands of people and plotting to seize power during the Cultural Revolution.
The suspended death penalty, announced this morning by the special court that presided over the 39-day trail ending last month, was apparently designed to preserve unity at the top of the party among those demanding the death sentence and others arguing that the widow of Communist China's founding father should not go before the firing squad.
Sources said that among those arguing for clemency was Communist Party Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping, China's top leader and a former rival of Mao.
Jiang, who was evicted from the courtroom several times for blurting out radical slogans and dared the judges to execute her publicly in Peking's Tian An Men Square next to her late husband's mausoleum, insisted on her innocence throughout the trial, claiming she merely was following the orders of Mao and the late Chinese premier Chou En-lai.
Virtually an entire political generation was brought to the dock in what presumed to a Nuremberg-style tribunal. Despite the court's foregone conclusion of guilt and the absence of legal protections by Western standards, the trial was an attempt by China's new leaders to show that justice should be administered in a more orderly fashion than the vigilante roundups and imprisonments of the Cultural Revolution.
As a public show, the trial was served up in short, carefully edited television segments that are believed to have been first screened by ruling Politburo members. Court sessions were attended by 600 specially selected observers.
The trial was divided into two courts: One aired charges against the five former military leaders accused of plotting to assassinate Mao in 1971 and stage a coup; the other was reserved for Jiang and other political leaders of the Cultural Revolution charged with persecuting officials and citizens and plotting to usurp power.
In the military court, the five former top officers readily admitted to the charges against them. The sentences given to them today were 18 years in prison for Huang Yongsheng, Army chief of general staff, 17 years for Wu Faxian, Air Force commander-in-chief, 17 years for Li Zuopeng, Navy political commissar, 18 years for Jiang Tengjiao, Air Force political commissar, and 16 years for Qui Huizuo, head of the Army's general logisitics department.
In the second tribunal witnesses paraded through the courtroom testifying how their homes had been ransacked and how they suffered persecution at the hands of Jiang or her four codefendents -- onetime Politburo members Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, Wang Hongwen and Chen Boda.
Of the other civilian defendents Wang Hongwen received the harshest sentence, life imprisonment. Yao Wenyuan was given an 18-year prison term while Chen Boda was sentenced to 16 years.
Until their apperance at the trial that opened last Nov. 20, Chen and the five military men had not been seen in public for nearly a decade, and some had been thought dead.
Except for Jiang's unbowed resistance and Zhang's uncompromising silence, the trial offered few suprises. Chen, Mao's personal secretary, Wang, the second-ranking party offical, and Yao, a radical publicist, all conceded guilt.
Most of the drama centered on Jiang, the poised, raven-haired first lady of the Cultural Revolution who continually angered the judges with her unvarnished radical slogans, scathing attacks on the bench and witnesses and disregard for court etiquette.
The spectacle was nonetheless received well by a Chinese public hungry for revenge. Large crowds gathered around the few commnunity television sets, and the official press frequently carried letters by outraged viewers urging death for the defendents.
As examples of persecution allegedly ordered by Mao's widow, prosecutors presented photographs of the badly swollen and punctured corpse of a minister of coal mining said to have been tortured to death. The also called forth writers who languished in prison because they had crossed Jiang.
In one especially grisly segment, a tape recording was played of a 67-year -old professor wailing and groaning while radical interrogators demanded that he incriminate the wife of Liu Shaoqi, then China's head of state, as an American spy.
Throughout the hearings, Jiang interuppted witnesses with insulting cross-examinations -- calling several of her former victims "bastards and traitors" -- and yelled back at judges trying to silence her, referring to them once as "fascists" and agents for the Chinese nationalists.
To one of her several warnings that her courtroom histrionics were unacceptable and could cost her a stiffer sentence, she replied, "Just ask the monkey king to give me more heads to cut off," referring to the hero of a classical tale who created monkeys with the wave of a magic wand.