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Chinese intellectuals' ordeal: the anti-rightist campaign of 1957 revisited.

In the summer of 1957, a political storm swept across urban China. In the so-called Anti-Rightist Campaign, more than 550,000 Chinese citizens became targets of a state-sponsored inquisition. For criticizing the Communist Party and the government, these people received the label "Rightists" and consequently paid a heavy price. The so-called Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957 was a pivotal event in the history of the People's Republic of China. It was also a watershed event in the history of the Chinese Communist Movement. Fifty-one years later, students of modern Chinese history are still asking questions about the savage persecution of Chinese intellectuals in that fateful year.

From Rectification to Persecution--At first sight, the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957 seems to have resulted from an effort of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), especially its Chairman Mao Zedong, to invite constructive criticism from the country's intellectuals. A close examination of the events in 1957 reveals, however, that this massive inquisition not only stemmed from the fast-changing political situation in China and the rest of the world, but from the complex dynamics of the Chinese revolution.

In April 1956, at a meeting of top communist officials, Mao announced a seemingly liberal policy toward China's intelligentsia. In his speech, Mao described the relationship between the CCP and intellectuals as one of "long-term coexistence" and "mutual supervision." Such a gesture was probably motivated by Mao's desire for greater political control, especially to secure the allegiance of the country's educated population. Mao's words sounded both comforting and encouraging to Chinese intellectuals who, after having experienced the political regimentation of the early 1950s, took Mao's words as a sign of some political relaxation.

In early 1957, Mao began talking about a rectification campaign that would let "a hundred flowers blossom," meaning that it would open a door for intellectual debate and even criticism of the Communist Party and the government. There is evidence that the origins of the rectification campaign lay in Mao's displeasure about the growing bureaucratic tendency in the new government and resistance among the top CCP leaders to his overzealous plan for rapid economic growth and social transformation. The proposed rectification was in effect Mao's tactic for regaining control over the decision-making process in the government. At several meetings of CCP leaders, he urged his colleagues to embrace criticism from outside the party and named bureaucratism, sectarianism and subjectivism in the government as the targets. Mao was also apparently concerned about what was happening in the international communist movement. At the Russian Communist Party's Twentieth Congress in January-February, 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev openly denounced Stalin, which was followed by anti-government riots in Poland in June and the Hungarian Uprising in October. Rectification was thus also intended to immunize the Chinese Communist Party from events similar to those in Eastern Europe. Pushed by Mao, the CCP's central committee announced the Rectification in the spring of 1957 and invited criticism from intellectuals, including members of China's eight small political parties.

Within very short time, the rectification campaign was getting out of control. Thousands of letters poured into the office of Premier Zhou Enlai, and hundreds of thousands of big-character posters carrying criticisms covered the walls on college campuses. Intellectuals not only complained about the work style of party members and officials, but, in some cases, questioned the legitimacy of the communist state. In some cities, students took to the streets to protest the government's wrongdoings and even asked the Communist Party to step down. Mao was caught by surprise and was apparently furious. On May 15, he circulated an article titled "The Situation is Changing" among CCP officials. In his writing, Mao labeled outspoken intellectuals "Rightists" and called their criticisms "wanton attacks" on the party and the socialist system. On June 8, Mao unleashed his counteroffensive. An editorial titled "Why Is This Happening?" in the Peoples Daily, the official organ of the CCP, fired the first volley on the critics. Mao then wrote two more editorials for the People's Daily, "Recent Bourgeois Orientation of Wenhuibao" and "Wenhuibao's, Bourgeois Orientation Should be Denounced," (1) in both of which Mao characterized the criticism of the CCP as a hostile attack intended to overthrow the Communist Party.

What followed was a nationwide assault on intellectuals who may or may not have openly criticized the Communist Party. The Anti-Rightist Campaign lasted for six months (not including the makeup phase in 1958 when more people were branded Rightists). By mid-1958, over half a million Chinese citizens, most of them well educated, had become Rightists. The CCP claimed a thorough victory in its battle for ideological control. The Rightists were discredited, silenced and punished. Mao was thus in a position to launch another gigantic campaign aimed at creating an economic miracle. (2)

Who Became Rightists?--Who, then, were branded Rightists in 1957? Whereas circumstances varied from one person to another in the summer of 1957, victims of the Anti-Rightist Campaign can be roughly put into four categories.

First, there were people like Zhang Bojun and Luo Longji, representatives of China's small democratic parties, especially Zhongguo Minzhu Tongmeng (abbr. Minmeng, or Democratic Alliance of China). Zhang was the first vice chairman of the Minmeng and Minister of Communication in the new government. Luo, a returned student from the United States, was vice chairman of the Minmeng and Minister of Forestry. These people had received professional training in fields such as political science, law, economics and sociology. They saw the seeming relaxation in 1957 as an opportunity to promote democracy and expand their own democratic parties. It never occurred to them that their words and actions would be interpreted as a conspiracy to overthrow the CCP and the socialist state. Zhang Bojun, for example, proposed the idea of a political planning institute, an agent that would help the Communist Party to move toward a modern ruling party and help China develop a multi-party political democracy. Luo, a vocal critic of the Guomindang, the CCP's predecessor, questioned the legality of the political campaigns in the early 1950s and called for redress of the excessiveness in them. (3)

The second group of Rightists came from the rank and file of the CCP. Most of these people joined the CCP during the Japanese War or civil war. As insiders, these people were well aware of the growing problems in the CCP and the government. As members of the political establishment, they did not have an independent ideology but, rather, tended to have an idealistic view of the revolution. They openly criticized the signs of moral degeneration in the CCP and tried to bring the party's attention to the grievances of the Chinese people. Wang Meng, a young member of the CCP and writer, criticized the moral decay in the party in a short story titled "The Young Man New in the Organizational Department." Other prominent Rightists within the party, such as Feng Xuefeng, Ding Ling, and Ai Qing, were unhappy about the CCP's increasing intervention in literature and art and the politicization of their fields. As CCP members, these people were also likely to become victims of the factionalism inside the party, which was intensified in the 1957 campaign. Ding Ling, for example, received the Rightist label because of the personal animosity between her and Zhou Yang, her boss and chief of the CCP propaganda department.

The third group of Rightists consisted of college and even high school students. Enthusiastic but naive, these young people called for democracy and freedom of speech in Chinese society as well as on college campuses. At Beijing University, vocal students attacked the totalitarian orientation of the CCP as a threat to a socialist society. They urged the government to establish the rule of law and expand democracy. These students tended to be the most idealistic elements on college campus and most loyal to the new state. Some, like Lin Zhao, a student at Beijing University and one of the most outspoken critics of the CCP in 1957, even participated in the land reform of the early 1950s, during which she witnessed the violent liquidation of the landlord class in rural China and experienced qualms of conscience. She nevertheless adhered to her faith in a socialist democracy in the face of growing political tyranny.

The fourth group of Rightists was made up of scholars and scientists, many of whom had studied in the West and were leaders in their respective fields. These people were concerned about the lack of professionalism in the new government and growing encroachment of the party upon their professions. Professor Huang Wanli at Qinghua University, for example, opposed the construction of the Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River for its possible long-term environmental damage. Huang was branded a Rightist because the project was designed by Soviet engineers and, at the height of the Sino-Soviet alliance, even indirect criticism of the Soviet Union was a crime.

It is worth noting, however, that the vast majority of the 1957 Rightists were ordinary government officials and school teachers. These people were relatively well informed and interested in politics. They were punished because of their honest opinions about the problems in their own work places. A significant number of victims in the campaign were produced by the factional snuggle within the CCP. Some scholars received the Rightist label because they defended their colleagues who were under fire during the crackdown. Some people got into trouble even for things totally unrelated to the rectification. Others were labeled Rightists to fulfill the Rightist "quota" in their work units.

Consequences of being a Rightist were invariably grave although punishment varied significantly. Most Rightists lost their jobs, had their salaries reduced or were subject to forced labor. Mao personally ordered Rightists to receive laodong jiaoyang, meaning reform through "supervised labor." In theory it differed from laodong gaizao [reform through forced labor] in that the Rightists were not treated as criminals, and unlike convicts, they still received a salary from the state. In reality, many Rightists received extremely harsh treatment on farms in remote areas and never returned to their families. Moreover, while ordinary criminals had a specified prison term, the length of punishment for a Rightist was not definite. More than half of the 550,000 Rightists were sent to labor campus, farms, and mines in remote areas. Even though some of them were later rehabilitated, the political stigma continued to stay with them. Their relatives suffered also in a heavily charged political atmosphere. Their children were subject to political discrimination in matters ranging from education to employment. Direct and indirect victims of the Anti-Rightist Campaign thus numbered as many as three million.

Mao's Motives--What exactly happened in the summer of 1957? What caused the about turn of the CCP? What was exactly on Mao's mind? How could the Rectification Campaign have gone so wrong? The CCP's official explanation was marked by simple arbitrariness: In the summer of 1957, rightwing Chinese intellectuals staged a coup to overthrow the Communist government by taking advantage of the CCP's generosity. Based on this assessment, the CCP's counterattack was both necessary and justifiable. This position was so preposterous that even the post-Mao Chinese government found it necessary to discredit it by overturning over 99.9 percent of the Rightist cases.

A key issue of the 1957 campaign concerns the causes of the transition from the early rectification to the persecution of outspoken intellectuals. Scholars have tried to tell whether Mao Zedong intentionally led or misled the intellectuals into an ambush or the rectification, a well-meaning campaign, led to unanticipated results that necessitated the crush of dissent. The conspiracy thesis points to a premeditated plan on the part of Mao to solve the intellectual problem. One piece of evidence offered in support of this view is Mao's talk at a party leaders' meeting in January, 1957, in which he compared inviting criticism to baiting ants out of their holes. Yet later in the same year. Mao published his famous speech titled "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People" in which Mao called for genuine cooperation between the CCP and China's urban intelligentsia. Mao's speeches inside the CCP also suggest that he was aware of and unhappy about the educational deficiency of the CCP rank and file. Because of this, Mao wanted to establish a better working relationship with what he called the democratic personnel, i.e., China's minor political parties that were composed of well educated people. He seemed to have wanted to win the good will of the intellectuals through the rectification campaign. (4)

Yet Mao did harbor very strong suspicion toward the urban intelligentsia. Well before the crackdown, on January 18, 1957, at a meeting of provincial and municipal CCP secretaries, Mao made a speech in which he characterized the criticism of the party on college campuses as malicious. "They [Professors and students] did not speak out in the past. Now the rectification campaign gives them a chance and they are coming out in the open." Mao wanted his critics to "keep making mistakes, voice wrong opinions thereby exposing and isolating themselves." Later that month, Mao told the party secretaries to step back and allow liberals to openly oppose the CCP. "The more erroneous their opinions, the greater their mistakes, the better," Mao calculated, "because they will be more isolated and will educate the people by a setting a negative example." "In dealing with the liberals ... We'll counterattack, not attack first." (5) Thus, while Mao may not have conceived a comprehensive plan to round up political opposition among intellectuals, his approach was Machiavellian.

A more plausible explanation, on the other hand, focuses on the dynamics of the political situation in 1957. As a great strategist and cold autocrat, Mao simply changed the objectives of his rectification campaign when intellectuals' criticism went beyond his tolerance. He called the rectification campaign to gain a moral high ground in pushing forward his revolutionary agenda in social and economic development. Yet he was also ready to strike in the other direction at a moment's notice. In fact, he soon realized that the rebellious intellectuals posed a more immediate challenge to him and found that, by attacking intellectuals, he could achieve even greater control over the direction of the Chinese revolution. Adjusting tactics according to changing circumstances was indeed Mao's forte.

A Clash of Two Cultures--In retrospect, the reign of terror in 1957 went beyond even the machinations of Mao. It represented a clash of two principles, each couched in a cultural matrix. The Chinese Communist Movement was rooted in China's agrarian grievances and associated with international communism. For twenty-two years between 1927 and 1949, the CCP had been separated from urban China and had little connections with the West even after its military victory. The core of the CCP was composed of radical intellectuals who had limited knowledge of the modern world. None of the members of the CCP's politburo had a bachelor's degree. Deng Xiaoping, the CCP's secretary general and key figure in the crackdown, did not even graduate from Sun Yat-sen University in Moscow. (6) The rank and file of the communists came largely from rural masses and had even less understanding of the modern urban world. Apart from its nationalist credentials and its control of a huge army, the party had little capital in commanding the respect of the urban intelligentsia. The fury of Mao in 1957 and later years was understandable in light of the huge educational gap between the rulers and the subjects. Intellectuals' contemptuous remarks about Communist officials and demand for power-sharing must have been frightening and infuriating to many communists. (7) Thus the persecution of the intellectuals in 1957 resulted as much from China's new rulers' educational deficiency as from their radical ideology.

Moreover, the brutal reality of the Chinese revolution determined the absolute nature of the Communist power and Mao's complex and destructive mentality. Previously, during WWII and the Chinese civil war, Mao and his comrades had managed to convince many Chinese intellectuals that they were committed to a coalition government and political tolerance. What many intellectuals failed to realize was that democracy was impossible under a revolutionary party whose ascendancy was accompanied and made possible by the brutal tactics against both external and internal enemies. Well before coming to power, the Communists were looking for ways to deal with intellectuals. In 1947, when the tide of the Chinese civil war turned in favor of the Communists, Mao Zedong instructed his party to isolate the right-wing bourgeoisie after seizing power because it would be the greatest obstacle to the establishment of party dictatorship. The Communist state, in Mao's own words, was the people's democratic dictatorship. "Democracy" was limited to opinions acceptable to Mao while dictatorship could be exercised whenever Mao found it necessary. It was not because Mao and the CCP were unwilling to practice democracy; they were simply incapable of genuine democracy because it had never been a part of Mao's and the CCP's experience.

As an agrarian revolution, the Chinese Communist movement represented the mentality and aspirations of China's four hundred million peasants. The political ideal of Chinese peasantry was egalitarianism that was often characterized by a deeply ingrained jealousy toward the economic, social and intellectual elite. Such jealousy in China's rural proletariat had a very destructive nature, a quality that was intensified by the decay of social order in rural China and the growing gap between the village and the city in modern times. Neither the peasant class nor its representatives had the intellectual capacity to appreciate the plurality of the urban world. Rather, they often demonstrated an intense desire for a Utopia and propensity for violence.

China's small urban intelligentsia, in contrast to the Communists, represented the country's limited modernization. Representatives of this class had been immersed in the traditional Chinese culture but were largely western educated. They had not only a considerable amount of knowledge of the outside world but also expertise on modernization as well. A considerable number of these people also belonged to the eight small democratic parties including the Minmeng (Full name Zhongguo Minzhu Tongmeng or Democratic Alliance), Minjian (Full name Zhongguo Minzhu Jianguohui or Democratic Reconstruction Society), Jiusan Xueshe (September Third Society), Minge (Full name Zhongguo Guomindang Geming Weiyuanhui or Left wing Nationalist Party) and Zhigongdang (Full name Zhongguo Zhigongdang or Social Justice Party). None of these parties had a comprehensive political platform of its own. As allies of the CCP in the 1940s, every one of them had claimed allegiance to the new state in the 1950s. Between 1949 and 1957, the majority of intellectuals, despite their concern about the growing tyrannical orientation of the CCP, remained supportive of the new government and probably saw the radical policy and ignorance of the new rulers as a necessary evil.

Criticism from these intellectuals in the summer of 1957 was well meaning and constructive. Yang Zhaolong, a well-known jurist, for example, was concerned about the slow progress in the rule of law in China. Yang urged the government to speed up the making of the code of criminal law, the code of civil law and code of litigation. These codes would regulate China's legal system and help the government avoid unnecessary arrest, trials and incarceration. Scholars like Yang admonished the CCP that governing without clear legal rules would only diminish people's faith in the government while damaging the socialist democracy and rule of law. (8)

Many intellectuals were obviously troubled by the totalitarian quality of the communist state. The best expression of this concern was dangtianxia [the party's private domain] a term coined by Chu Anping, editor of Guangming Daily; the official newspaper of the Minmeng. Chu discussed this term openly at a symposium called by the Ministry of United Front on May 21, 1957, and criticized Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai for excluding the democratic parties from the decision-making process in the new government. He lamented the CCP's encroachment upon the public domain, saying that every work unit in China had a party boss, that every decision had to be approved by the party and that many party members were unqualified for their positions. Dangtianxia, Chu suggested, was the ultimate source of sectarianism in Chinese society. (9) For his audacious honesty, Chu was soon silenced as one of the worst models of anti-CCP elements.

Intellectuals' criticism of the CCP's one-party rule reflected their yearning for democracy and their desire to help China develop a multiparty parliamentary system. They were thus asking the country's new rulers to accept a system that was very alien to the latter's experience. To the intellecftials, democracy was an end in itself while to Mao, it was merely a means to achieve greater control. Power-sharing was the last thing Mao wanted. The new democracy that he had talked about in the 1940s was a scheme of political expediency from the outset and had become an empty shell by 1956. Deep in his heart, Mao was contemptuous of intellectuals and his anti-intellectualism was not only a manifestation of his personal ego but also of the Chinese communist movement's rural background and xenophobic mentality of China's peasantry.

Consequences--The Anti-Rightist Campaign proved extremely devastating to the Chinese nation as well as to Chinese liberalism. In 1956, China had only 42,000 college professors, 31,000 engineers and 63,600 technicians. Only 3.84 million people in China had received education beyond middle school. The college-educated population was indeed China's most precious asset. These professionals could have helped the communists establish a system that was more in nine with the modern world. Like intellectuals in many countries, they were the barometer in Chinese society. During the Anti-Rightist campaign, 14 percent of this group was branded enemies of the regime. This was not only a blow to the victims, but also a blow to the fortune of the nation. By suppressing and marginalizing intellectuals, Mao squandered his resources and political capital, forfeited his moral authority and would soon lose the Mandate of Heaven.

In retrospect, the series of political campaigns in the early 1950s enabled the CCP to achieve two interrelated goals: ideological dominance and total economic control. In the name of socialist revolution, the party monopolized speech and the press. Through the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, Mao and his supporters removed the challenge to the CCP's authority from liberal strongholds such as the Minmeng. By striking the Minmeng, the CCP also silenced the other seven democratic parties and, in fact, the entire Chinese intelligentsia. The 1957 inquisition opened the door for more radical domestic policies such as the Great Leap Forward of 195859 and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966-1976. The Maoist despotism would continue until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.

Through the 1950s, Mao and the CCP demonstrated their ability to mobilize the masses to defeat the educated elite. They were able to do so because Mao still commanded the loyalty of the majority of the Chinese population and his party had accumulated much political capital through its struggle for power. They were also assisted by the cold war atmosphere that they used dexterously to create public hysteria about the enemies from within. With the opposition outside the party totally crushed, the party seemed to be in a position to do anything it liked. In 1956, Mao's idea about China's economic and social transformation faced growing skepticism inside the CCP. Through the persecution of intellectuals, Mao silenced dissenting voices in his own party. Here lies the paradox of the Chinese Communist Movement: In the two decades after the Anti-Rightist Campaign, no other social group or political force could ever question the infallibility of Mao. Yet at the same time, no one was able to offer any good counsel to the power center. Thus Mao became increasingly imprisoned by his own megalomania and the Chinese revolution behaved like runaway train heading towards a cliff.

Peng Deng

High Point University


(1) Wenhuiba was a liberal newspaper published in Shanghai.

(2) In 1958, Mao started the disastrous Great Leap Forward.

(3) Zhang Yihe, Wangshi bingblt ruyan [Indelible memory] (Beijing: Renmin wenxue Press, 2004), pp. 48-49, 268-270.

(4) Mao Zedong, "Talk to a Conference of Party Member Cadres in Tianjin Municipality," pp. 275-296. Roderick MacFaquhar, Rimothy Check and Eugene Wu ed.. Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao: From the Hundred Flowers to the Great Leap Forward. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press 1989; Mao, "Talk at the Conference of Party Member Cadres of Shandong Provincial Organs," Ibid., 297-320.

(5) Mao: Mao Zedong Xuanji [Selected works] vol. 5 (Bejing: People's Press, 1977 ), pp. 334, 335, 338; also see Du Guang, "Fanyou yundong yu minzhu geming" [Anti-Rightist Campaign and the democratic revolution], Dangdai zhongguo yanjiu [Modern China studies], vol. 14. no. 3 (2007): 68.

(6) Maomao, Wode fuqin Deng Xiaoping [My father Deng Xiaoping] (Beijing: Zhongyang Wenxian Press, 1993),vol. 1.p. 152.

(7) Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese premier ousted in 1989, acknowledged his aversion to criticism in 1957 when he was an official in Guangdong province. See Li Su, "1949 zhihou: zhonggong lingxiu zhongsheng xiang" [CCP leaders after 1949], %3Farticleid=l7627.

(8) Shanghai Xinwen ribao [Shanghai News Daily]. May 9, 1957; also see Zhu Zheng. Zhongguo xiandai zhishi fenzi de xiaoshi [Disappearance of intellectuals in modern China], Modern China Studies, vol. 14, no. 3 (2007): 86.

(9) Zhang Yihe. Wangshi bingbu ru van. pp. 48-50.
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Title Annotation:Focus Issue and Teaching Forum: Asia in World History
Author:Deng, Peng
Publication:World History Bulletin
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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