Righting Mao’s Wrongs

Fifty years after Chairman Mao Zedong launched his mass persecution of China’s intelligentsia, the victims, in a different world and a different China, want a public apology and financial compensation. But, terrified of revisiting its history, the Communist Party will not apologise or pay any compensation. It wants the anniversary of the persecution to pass unreported and unnoticed.

Mao launched his famed Hundred Flowers Campaign in February of 1957, calling on intellectuals to “let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” It was a call that the newly socialist nation’s intellectuals answered with a vengeance by going after the Communist Party fang and claw. It didn’t take long for Mao and the party to realize he had seriously miscalculated, and he almost immediately launched a new anti-rightist campaign against as many as 500,000 to 1 million scholars, writers, artists and officials – out of five million people then classified as intellectuals.

As an example of the virulence with which intellectuals lashed out at the communist system in 1957 after Mao launched the Hundred Flowers campaign, this passage, by China scholar John S. Jackson gives some of the flavor:

“Criticism was especially rampant on college campuses, where students published posters denouncing the party and calling for a re-examination of capitalist and democratic doctrines. If these attacks were cause for concern among lower party ranks, sentiments were soon emerging which must have alarmed Mao himself. The anonymous author of a June 2 wall poster at Qinghua University joined many other scholars in castigating both the party and its chairman:

“We have given our blood, sweat, toil and precious lives to defend not the people but the bureaucratic organs and bureaucrats who oppress the people and live off the fat of the land. They are a group of fascists who employ foul means, twist the truth, band together in evil adventure, and ignore the people's wish for peace both at home and abroad ... In Yan'an was Chairman Mao, who had two dishes plus soup for every meal, having a hard time? Were the peasants, who had nothing to eat but bitter vegetables, enjoying the good life? Everyone was told that Chairman Mao was leading a hard and simple life. That son of a bitch! A million shames on him! ... Our pens can never defeat Mao Zedong's Party guards and his imperial army. When he wants to kill you, he doesn't have to do it himself. He can mobilize your wife and children to denounce you and then kill you with their own hands! Is this a rational society? This is class struggle, Mao Zedong style! (Qtd. in Benton and Hunter 101).

Such accusations of Mao's deception and brutality were by no means uncommon during that first week of June. With their appearance, the Party quickly moved to contain and halt the experiment. The college campuses had been Mao's main source of hope for China's leap toward industrial vitality. To find that there was such widespread dissidence among this first generation of the People's Republic undoubtedly presented a shock to Chairman Mao and the CCP (MacFarquhar, Hundred Flowers 12).”

The first wave of attacks began in July. By the end of the year, some 300,000 people had been labeled rightists and punished with public disgrace, prison, internal exile or loss of their jobs. The pictures remain etched indelibly on the public consciousness today – of men and women dragged out of their homes and offices and publicly humiliated with placards hung around their necks as they were forced to confess to imaginary sins and transgressions. Many died in miserable conditions. The victims included Zhu Rongji, who was exiled for four years although he was later rehabilitated and served as vice premier from 1991-1998 and premier from 1998 to 2003. The writer Ding Ling, formerly acclaimed as an exemplary writer of Socialist realism, was censured and imprisoned. Like Zhu, Ding was later rehabilitated.

The anniversary is finally ending the total silence that has blanketed the period. Since the end of December, more than 1,500 of the victims and their descendants have dared to speak out. They collected and signed a petition which they have sent to the Communist Party Central Committee, the State Council and the National People’s Congress, demanding the ‘rehabilitation’ of the movement and its victims and material and psychological compensation for them and their children. Some promised to use the money not for themselves but to set up a China Democracy Fund, to promote the development of human rights and democracy.

“The 50th anniversary of the anti-rightist movement represents an excellent opportunity for the party to reflect on its history,” Du Guang told the Chinese media. A ‘rightist’ in 1957, Du was in 1979 appointed deputy chief of the theory department of the Central Party School and chairman of the Institute for the Reform of the Political System.

“Morally and economically, the authorities should make the necessary apology and pay compensation, to draw a line under this historical mistake, caused by the purges during a period of class struggle, and implement political democratization,” he said.

Yan Zhufu who was a third year physics student at Beijing University when he was labelled a rightist in 1957, has kept up an angry campaign for redress, telling the Chinese media she had been petitioning the university since 1995 for an apology and compensation, in vain. This year she sent a letter to its president, saying she would donate the money to a university fund for outstanding but poor students.

The rightists and their descendants, however, appear to be running into a Communist Party that feels itself increasingly under threat as the machinery of information starts to slip from its grasp. Restiveness on the part of journalists and bloggers on the Internet are being met with stiff resistance.

Reporters Sans Frontieres, an international press watchdog organization, reported at the end of 2006 that “Faced with burgeoning social unrest and journalists who are becoming much less compliant, the authorities, directed by President Hu Jintao, have been bringing the media to heel in the name of a ‘harmonious society’. The press is being forced into self-censorship, the Internet is filtered and foreign media very closely watched.”

In particular, the organization reported, “More journalists were handed down prison sentences in 2006. Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong reporter for a Singapore daily, was sentenced to five years for “espionage.” Zhao Yan, a researcher for the New York Times, was sentenced to three years for alleged “fraud.” In both cases they were convicted after shoddy trials with no defense witnesses, under political pressure and with no right to an appeal hearing.”

On January 11, the party’s answer to the intellectuals’ appeals came when a senior official of the State Publishing Bureau announced at a book fair in Beijing that eight books by seven authors were being banned because they dealt with sensitive topics that needed close supervision by the central government.

One of the eight was a book by Zhang Yihe about her father, Zhang Bojun, a prominent intellectual who was at the time the highest-ranking victim of the campaign. A senior political figure in the 1950s, Zhang was Minister of Communications and vice-chairman of the CPPCC, the country’s top advisory body. He was expelled from public life, imprisoned with his family and the family library of 10,000 books was destroyed.

His daughter didn’t take the ban lying down. She has issued three public statements, attacking the ban as illegal and unconstitutional. “Are rightists citizens of China? In today’s China, a rightist cannot speak and cannot write? The constitution should be rewritten to state clearly who has the right to write books and who has not.”

Her statements have aroused considerable interest and support abroad and on websites in China from those who believe that the bans are shameful in light of China’s growing wealth and sophistication. An official of the party’s United Front Department, however, told Zhang’s brother to pass on the message that she was retired and should stop writing altogether.

Zhang was one of more than 20 mainland authors prevented from attending the Asia-Pacific meeting of International PEN, the worldwide writers’ association, in Hong Kong in early February, held ironically in part to celebrate Chinese literature. More than 120 writers from the region attended the conference, but only 15 from the mainland.

One of the 15 was Gao Yu, a political journalist who served seven years in prison for ‘disclosing state secrets’. She told reporters at the conference that the political climate in Beijing had become ‘chilly’. “The banning of eight books shows the inharmoniousness in the so-called ‘harmonious society’ (President Hu Jintao’s campaign to create a fairer and more equal society).”

What drives the response of the government is the conviction that it must retain absolute authority and not open the Pandora’s Box of its history, which includes tragedies like the Great Famine of 1958-1961, in which 22-40 million people died, the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 and the military crackdown on student-led protest in Beijing in June 1989.

The responsibility for these events rests with leaders whom the government still holds in high esteem, including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who was one of the main architects of the anti-rightist movement. To investigate publicly the 1957 campaign would require an analysis of the roles played by Mao and Deng, whom the party presents as the two most important leaders of the post-1949 period. Both would emerge as people who ruined the careers, and sometimes the lives, of thousands of able and qualified people whose talents were badly needed by the young Communist state.

Zhu Rongji, for example, was labeled a rightist because, as an economist in a government department, he questioned the validity of official figures for grain production (data released later showed that he was correct to be skeptical). Like other departments, his office had been given a quota of ‘rightists’ to fill and could not find enough of them.

So Zhu was chosen and taken off to the countryside despite protesting protested his innocence and devotion to the party and the country. Later, he never spoke in public about his four lost years, out of loyalty to the party line of not criticizing the campaign.

If the party apologized for the anti-rightist movement and paid compensation, then victims of its other campaigns would demand a similar investigation and the same treatment.

But the party is taking its cues from Mikhail Gorbachev, the man blamed in Beijing for destroying the Soviet Communist Party. It was he who decided on the policy of ‘glasnost’ (transparency), including freedom of the press and allowing dissent.

As a result, according to the thinking in China’s politburo, Soviet citizens learned of communism’s historical mistakes. The result was a collapse of its authority and loss of public confidence, which led to the rise of non-Communist leaders, widespread public knowledge of Stalin’s atrocities and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The leaders in Beijing believe that calls in the west for media freedom, democratic elections and better human rights in China are part of an attempt to overthrow the Communist government by peaceful means.

Zhang Qinde, head of the policy and research department of the party’s Central Committee, called this pressure ‘a Trojan horse’ in a paper he wrote for leaders of the People’s Liberation Army at the end of 2006, , entitled “Recognising the Risks of Peaceful Revolutions in Recent Years’.

It attacked ‘a small number of capitalist free thinkers’ in China and abroad who represented the interests of the west in advocating the adoption of an entirely capitalist system and an end to socialism as it exists now.

These people are the Trojan Horse of the peaceful revolution,” he wrote.