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The dog-eat-dog politics of China has changed little

The tragedy of Jiang Qing casts an eerie light on Deng Xiaoping's China. Mao's widow seemed Deng's opposite _ leftist, bored with economics, the Maid Marian of Mao's Cultural Revolution, which unseated Deng. Yet politics in Beijing, a drama of networks and nepotism and maneuver, hasn't changed much from Jiang to Deng. The villains and heroes swap places, but the script of dog-eat-dog struggle endures.

Jiang did indeed "persecute opponents," as charged at her trial in 1980. Her lifestyle indeed was filled with such extravagances as fur-covered toilet seats, pet monkeys, liquid from eight boiled chickens each day to treat her hair.

But as for the most serious charge of "usurping power," she did only what Deng and others have done in China's 42 years of communist dictatorship.

The distinction between legal and illegal methods of political struggle does not exist in China, under Deng any more than under Mao. Political failure is still equated with crime.

The student leaders of the Tiananmen Square movement of 1989 were declared "counter-revolutionaries," just as Jiang was called a counter-revolutionary after Mao died in 1976 _ and again in this week's announcement of her May 14 suicide.

The vilification of Jiang was a classic case of communists' rewriting history to legitimize a current order. To blacken the reputation of her Gang of Four was to construct the image of a government that would rescue China from a horrible past.

Having practiced the technique on Jiang, Deng rewrote the history of Tiananmen with the same pen. If you resist Deng you are a counter-revolutionary _ just as Deng was called a counter-revolutionary for resisting Mao.

Jiang's defiance at her trial may have been her greatest contribution to China. She was not a very good communist, for her deepest cause was herself. At communist show trials you are supposed to grovel before the party. Jiang did not.

"Deng is a fascist," she shouted. "I was Mao's dog. Whomever he told me to bite I bit."

She destroyed the credibility of Deng's explanation for the Cultural Revolution _ crimes by Jiang and her Gang of Four _ by making it clear that she followed Mao and the party line.

The drama of Jiang Qing's life was more personal than political. She was born poor; class struggle meant revenge and communism meant power. The former Shanghai actress, seeking vindication in a man's world, was neither heroine nor villain, but at different times the beneficiary and victim of a system in which truth and power are monopolized by male dictators.

The key to understanding China's cycle of evil and failure, from the Gang of Four, to Mao, to the system that Mao built, lies in the absence of free elections. When legitimacy is lacking, it has to be manufactured _ Deng does it just as Jiang did _ by ideological attacks on the fallen. Conflict still is handled not as an institutionalized balancing of diverse opinions and interests, but as mythology. The loser is a criminal and no method of succession exists, in 1991 any more than in 1976, other than raw power struggles.

Personal grudges and family feuds continue to make playthings of issues. Children pay for the sins of their parents or line their pockets from the use of their parents' high office.

Just as Jiang was arrested a month after Mao died, some lieutenants who cluster around Deng are likely to fall when the 87-year-old patriarch dies.

One day, after China's democrats come out of prison and exile and enter the halls of government, today's Prime Minister Li Peng might plaintively say to a court, "I was Deng's dog. What he said to bite, I bit."

Ross Terrill, a China scholar, is author of the biographies Madam Mao and Mao.