Liberal Democrat or fanatical Maoist, the Communist Party now treats its defeated political opponents alike. This week the party released the last imprisoned member of the Gang of Four, Yao Wenyuan , but placed him under house detention while imprisoning democracy activist Liu Xiaobo , who had been under house arrest. At the same time, it prepared to put former student leader Wang Dan on trial although he has already been in prison for over a year. All this takes place in tandem with further efforts to normalise China's legal system. This month China announced that the National People's Congress is preparing to abolish the catch-all law against 'counter-revolutionary crimes' under which most political prisoners have been condemned since 1949. And on the front page of the People's Daily, President Jiang Zemin urged his officials to become more familiar with the country's laws. 'We must ensure that laws are abided by, laws are enforced strictly and those who break the law are punished, so that various undertakings will grow along the orbit of the socialist legal system,' President Jiang said. Yet the past week's events show that no amount of changes to the laws will protect individuals from the wrath of the party. Even if it is no longer a crime to be against the revolution, few officials will entertain the illusion for an instant that anything has changed about the way Chinese politics are conducted over the past 50 years. As a common Chinese saying puts it - 'Success is all that determines whether one is hailed as a bandit or a king.' The humiliation meted out to political losers, whatever their former rank, is evident from the list of those now in various forms of detention, legal or otherwise. They include former Communist Party chief, Zhao Ziyang , seven years under house arrest; his secretary Bao Tong who was released from a five-year prison sentence this year but immediately placed under another form of arrest; and Wang Xizhe first jailed for co-authoring the famous 1974 wall poster 'On Socialist Democracy and the Legal System' and who was sentenced in 1982 to 13 years in jail for 'counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement'. This week he was again seized. Besides them, the police also sentenced literary critic Liu Xiaobo , who went on hunger strike on Tiananmen Square in 1989 and who last year signed a petition urging the party to show more tolerance towards political dissent. Without a trial, he has just been ordered to spend three years doing 'reform through labour', a form of punishment handed out by administrative decision when the authorities do not wish to bother with a trial. Among others recently punished under this administrative measure are 75-year-old Zeng Jingmu, a bishop in the underground Catholic Church who has already spent 23 years in prison. Neither Zeng's seniority protected him, nor has the youth of Wang Dan, now 26, who was listed among the 10 most wanted student leaders after the democracy movement was crushed in 1989. Wang Dan has been held incommunicado since May 1995 without being charged and is expected to be sentenced, for counter-revolutionary crimes, to seven years in prison. He is probably being detained in the Qincheng prison, the same prison, perhaps in the same cell block, where Yao Wenyuan spent his 20-year prison sentence. Yao was arrested in 1976 when Mao's bodyguard, Wang Dongxing, and a top army leader, Ye Jianying, staged a palace coup by arresting the so-called Gang of Four just after Mao's death. Qincheng prison is a compound built in the arm of a hill, an hour's drive outside Beijing close to the tourist route visiting the Qing tombs and the Great Wall. When Yao was tipped as a potential successor to Mao during the early 1970s, he was a senior member of the committee which consigned Mao's enemies to lengthy periods of imprisonment and torture. About 700 top officials were imprisoned there, including ultra-leftists Chen Boda and Wang Li. They were kept in solitary confinement and fed hallucinogenic drugs in order to help them confess. This was a practice apparently introduced by Soviet experts and used on a number of Western party members like Anna-Louise Strong and American Sydney Rittenberg in the 1940s. Under the influence of one such drug, Wang Li hallucinated hearing Mao's voice coming out over the loudspeaker declaring that he was a counter-revolutionary and would immediately be executed. In response Wang Li would shout out 'Long Live Chairman Mao' and sing the Internationale. Whether Yao Wenyuan in turn underwent the same treatment in Qincheng may never be known, since he is unlikely ever to be allowed to speak, but writer Dai Qing recalls seeing him in Qincheng when she was imprisoned for 10 months after 1989. 'Every day a guard would lead the prisoners to exercise in a small courtyard but we were never allowed to see the others. One day, the jailer pushed me back and at the same time I saw a figure in front, apparently turning back because had forgotten something. He was a little old man dressed in grey with a bent back. The jailer asked me if I had seen anything, but I said no,' Dai recalled. Later on, her guard (who was grateful for her denial) said she had glimpsed Yao Wenyuan and that all the members of the Gang of Four were imprisoned there. Since his days in power, Yao had apparently lost a lot of weight and if, as seems likely, he had spent all those years in solitary confinement in a cell about six square metres in size, he is probably no longer entirely sane. Chinese sources have said Yao was in fact released two years ago on medical grounds and had spent his time studying Chinese history. Whatever the case, he will remain under a lighter form of imprisonment for the rest of his life. Four years after his arrest, Yao was put on trial together with nine others, including Chen Boda, who by that time had already been in Qincheng prison for nearly a decade. The express purpose was to demonstrate that the new regime, unlike that of Yao, acted in accordance with the constitution. Yao was tried for political crimes, for his 'counter-revolutionary activities', so evidence was produced showing how he plotted against other leaders like Zhou Enlai and not for ordering the inhumane treatment of his victims which in many instances led to death. Alone among the Gang of Four, he confessed his guilt and got off relatively lightly, but in doing so he lost face by demonstrating that unlike Jiang Qing he was a time-server, not even loyal to his own proclaimed beliefs. 'He just climbed to the top as a tool of the dictator; in another age he would have followed a different master,' Dai Qing said. 'But I still think he must be considered a political prisoner.' Yao's father had been a well-known poet, a Shanghai publisher and friend of writer Lu Xun. His son used his family pedigree and literary talents to become the 'poisoned pen' of Mao, writing many of the most venomous editorials in the People's Daily such as the one calling for the eradication of all 'ghosts and monsters', meaning Mao's enemies. Since the 1980 trial of the Gang of Four, Mao's widow has been the only political prisoner to have enjoyed the privilege of conducting her own defence in public. Jiang Qing rounded on her accusers and declared that she only did what Mao told her to do. 'I was Mao's dog and bit whomever he told me to bite,' she said. Her defiant defence, which was even shown on television, won her a degree of respect even though she was widely hated. Since then none of those tried and imprisoned, whether dissident Wei Jingsheng or senior party official Bao Tong have been permitted the luxury of publicly defending themselves in or outside the courtroom. Wang Dan, whose trial is expected next week, is unlikely to fare any better. Although he, too, can employ a defence lawyer, the verdict will have been reached beforehand as it was with Wei Jingsheng, with whom he has been accused of conspiring against the government. The party pleads that, at this stage, 'stability' is the country's highest priority, not free speech. Yet there seems a growing element of vindictiveness in the hounding of men who have already spent time in jail and who to all appearances represent a spent force. Even so, human rights groups continue to report that political prisoners are regularly tortured. Yet the political momentum which carried Wang Dan to prominence has dissipated. Seven years after the Tiananmen demonstration, political activism has reached its lowest ebb in nearly two decades, and it is hard to conceive of any circumstances under which it poses a genuine challenge to power. So strong does the party's security apparatus feel that it increasingly does not see the need to resort to legal trials. So that veteran activist Liu Nianchun , first imprisoned for his role in the 1979 Democracy Wall Movement, was recently also being given a three-year reform through labour sentence, accused of 'slandering the government' and 'accepting legal aid from human rights organisations abroad'. This was because together with Wang Dan, in 1955, he had drafted a petition. Writing petitions now appears to be ground for imprisonment. The ruthlessly malevolence shown to defeated opponents has changed least of all. This July a court in Beijing's Chaoyang district refused to accept the appeal of Liu Nianchun because it was written with a ball point pen. And in Wei Jingsheng's prison, the authorities have reportedly set out to deprive him of sleep, of books, of the freedom to write, of heating and even of the medicines he needs.