China, where totalitarianism works

Daniel Drezner has been watching the coverage of the current show trials in Iran, and points out that they are not working very well in cowing the population, and suggests that in the television age show trials do not work, as it is harder to control the images that people get of the trials. He asks “can show trials ever cement an authoritarian government’s legitimacy?” In comments someone suggests the trials of the Gang of Four, which I think is an interesting idea.

The trials of the Gang of Four were seen on film by Chinese people, although not on television by most I would assume. I think the real difference  is that the medium is not really the message here. Stalin, I believe, did not broadcast his entire show trials on radio, but rather news items about them (or so I assume). Likewise Chinese people (I assume) saw the trials as heavily edited newsreels. The trials themselves did run off track a bit, most famously when Jiang Qing, who was being accused of plotting the Cultural Revolution without Mao’s knowledge said that she was “Chairman Mao’s dog, whoever he said to bite I bit.” (我是主席的一条狗,主席要我咬谁就咬谁) Chinese people, of course, did not hear this. I don’t think the problem is so much video vs. audio but the sheer bulk of what you want to show people.  A trial is a major thing with hours and hours of testimony. Stage managing a huge reality show like that is hard, particularly when you are not trying to generate sympathy for the accused, given that the trial itself is set up to make the accuesed look helpless before the power of the state.

Even more important than medium, however, is context. I assume Stalin’s show trials were effective in convincing people that they really, really did not what to get on Stalin’s bad side, but they were only one of many things that did this. The trials of the Gang of Four were intended (I think) to convince Chinese people that the CR was really over and to shift blame from Mao and the CCP as a whole to the safely dead or imprisioned. They did this, but the trials, which started in 1980, were the end rather than the beginning of this effort.

1977 Poster criticizing Gang of Four. From Stepan Landsberger
1977 poster criticizing Gang of Four. From Stepan Landsberger

The Iranian trials seem to be isolated attempts to convince the Iranian people that the protesters were bad people and that the state is still in control. I don’t think show trials alone can do that, but they are a useful part of authoritarian political theater if used properly.


  1. who will be interested in writings like this? Out-casts that made their way outside china, still licking the wounds from 70’s? Or some loyal buddies?

  2. But aren’t all trials in all countries ‘show’ trials? Trial in a court is the only time when an opportunity to hear evidence rather than hearsay and media speculations and distortion is available. Take the Sadam Hussein trial or the impeachment hearing of Bill Clinton, are they both not ‘show’ trials?

  3. There’s a difference between a public hearing and a propoganda event with a predetermined outcome.

    I might actually argue that the trial of Saddam Hussein was a show trial (whereas the trial of Milosevic was much more realistic).

  4. Show trials are an attempt at forcing ostracism
    onto a person who breaks one or two social norms within a
    governmental or societal system. Saddam’s show trial was against his
    use of genocide within an international law
    and new Iraqi law. Plus, the US needed the trial
    to show that Iraq was capable of being
    sovereign in matters of international law
    in that country. Bill Clinton’s impeachment was to show
    two different views, one was against adultery, the other was
    to go against perjury.

  5. No analogy at all as far as I can see – I don’t think the CR created any general crisis of legitimacy for the regime so can’t see how that would be the purpose of the trial of the Gang of Four. In a period when governance broke down and open armed conflict broke out in various locations across the nation, there were very few attempts to overthrow the regime (outside of isolated examples in national minority areas AFAIK, where obviously the externally imposed regime never had much legitimacy to begin with) as the entire conflict was about what form socialism should take, not whether it was the right path for China.
    It did of course shake the faith of various intellectuals and Party bureaucrats and I would suppose if the trial was to show anything to anyone, it was to reassure Party and state functionaries that they would no longer be subject to the arbitrary political attacks of the preceding decade.

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