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1.04  Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1954 – 56)

6 March 2018

Despite the success of the Socialist Transformation by 1956, inherent defects of the centrally planned system modelled after the Soviet’s system soon began to emerge.


In early 1956, when summarizing the work of the first few years in the First Five-Year Plan in preparation for the Eighth National Congress of the CCP, scheduled for August 1956, Chinese leaders heard reports on the work of thirty-four ministries and commissions and a few provinces and municipalities. From these reports, a number of issues of overall importance were identified, including the proportional relationship among agriculture, light industry, and heavy industry; the relationship between industry in the coastal regions and industry in the interior; the scale and speed of the national defense industry; the distribution of rights, responsibilities, and interests among the state, collectives, and individuals; the relationship between the central government and local governments; and the question of whether and how to learn from the Soviet Union in the future, among others.[1]


The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of CCP (CCCCP) boiled these issues down to ten major relationships after repeated discussions which Mao illustrated in his April 1956 “On the Ten Major Relationships” speech at the Political Bureau. He summarized the defects of the system as over-centralization of power in the central authorities resulting in too little flexibility on the ground. To address the problems, the party leaders decided that in addition to launching a rectification campaign (整风运动) in 1957 against bureaucratism (官僚主义), factionalism (宗派主义) and subjectivism (主观主义) within the party, reforms of administrative decentralizations involving delegation of power from the central to governments at lower levels and to enterprises would be carried out in 1958.


Meanwhile, with the completion of collectivization of agriculture at the end of 1955, CCP was on the verge of launching a new push in industrialization. Given the complexity of the tasks, it decided to turn to the intellectuals and professionals for help. An article in the Kuang-ming Daily (光明日报) on 3 December 1955 exhorted the intellectuals, particularly those of high standing in learning and technological accomplishment, to make greater contributions to society. Few responded.


In January 1956, during the CCP's central committee conference on the problems of intellectuals, Premier Zhou Enlai proposed that, to arouse their enthusiasm, intellectuals to be given more authority; their views were to be respected; and their professional research, valued. Moreover, they should be rewarded with greater monetary incentives, improved work conditions, and a more rational system of promotion.[2] His suggestion was supported in March 1956 by Liu Shaoqi, the anointed successor of Mao. By April 1956, the debate attracted the interest of Mao who then threw his support behind the idea.


Mao launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign (百花运动) in May 1956, spinning the slogan "Let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend” (百花齐放、百家争鸣简称双百方针).[3] Notably, the campaign was not only to grant intellectuals a degree of freedom in order to gain their cooperation and improve their skills. It was also an attempt to elicit constructive criticism to improve the bureaucracy and increase its efficiency. For Mao, it was a return to Yanan approach of reforming the bureaucracy and a reflection of his concern with bureaucratic privilege.


With encouragements from the top, scientists and engineers began to voice up. In addition to questioning the competence of Party cadres to direct science and technology, they also called for less interference by unskilled cadres, less time at political meetings, less Soviet academic dominance, and more access to Western publications. Various academic disciplines also initiated significant debates. In economics, for example, a number of Western-oriented economists questioned the relevance of Marxist economic theories to China asserting that the conditions and backgrounds at the time of the classical Marxist writings were fundamental different from the present.


One group of intellectuals who had been the most outspoken in the past but were now more hesitant to express their views was the writers. They were held back by fear of being trapped in a possible shift in Party policy, an experience that had plagued writers more than any other intellectuals. But by mid-1956 when the younger and more incisive writers started to speak, they forthrightly criticized the bureaucracy and its dogmatism of the state.[4] Their works depicted idealistic, resourceful young people, committed to Communist ideals, who battled apathetic, inefficient, cautious bureaucrats in order to improve the well-being of society. It was also implied in the stories they wrote that the Party bureaucracy had acquired so much power that even the most idealistic and courageous critics could make little dent.


Not all within the government welcome the criticisms from the intellectuals and professionals. The Party bureaucracy, in particular, regarded the relaxation as a threat to political and ideological unity. Party cadres were also afraid that preferential treatment of intellectuals would lead to the emergence of a privileged class with an undesirable sense of superiority. Even more important, Party cadres considered the criticisms a challenge to their own entrenched positions in the ruling system and were resolved to defend their positions.


In early 1957, led by the deputy director of the Propaganda Department of the People's Liberation Army, cadres' resistance to the Hundred Flowers was expressed publicly in an article in the People's Daily (人民日报). The fact that the cadres’ criticism appeared in the Party's official mouthpiece suggests that it had the support of some members of the top leadership. In other words, the top leadership was not unison in the support of the campaign. The change in official tone caused criticisms in the press from that point to turn from almost exclusively attacking dogmatism and bureaucratism to condemning liberalism and revisionism.


In February 1957, to clarify the emerging confusion over Party policy towards intellectuals, Mao's gave a speech entitled On the Correct Handling of the Contradictions Among the People (关于正确处理人民内部矛盾的问题), professing his theory that non-antagonistic contradictions between the leaders and the led could exist in a Communist society. These contradictions could be better resolved by "democratic methods" of open discussion, criticism, reasoning, and education. The speech thus encouraged people to vent their criticisms as long as they were "constructive" ("among the people") rather than "hateful and destructive" ("between the enemy and ourselves"). [5]


Mao’s renewed call for intellectual’s criticism was not only a reaction to the opposition of some Party officials but also a response to the Polish and Hungarian uprisings of 1956, which Mao attributed to the isolation of the Hungarian and Polish Communist Parties from the masses and to the repression of intellectuals.[6] In March 1957, in another effort to reassure the intellectuals, Mao again called on all people to dare to speak, dare to criticize, and dare to debate, during another speech to the Propaganda Department.[7] Soon after, in April 1957, the CCP launched its earlier planned internal rectification campaign against bureaucratism, factionalism and subjectivism within the party. This time, when the government again encouraged the public to voice their criticisms about the works of the party and the government, more intellectuals responded.


One such intellectual, for example, was economist Gu Zhun (顾准1915-1974) from the Economics Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He pointed out that the problem of socialist economy was that it abolished the market system. To promote efficiency, socialism might choose an economic system in which enterprises could make decisions according to spontaneous rises and falls in market prices. In other words, market forces should play a decisive role in resource allocation. Unfortunately, his comments failed to capture the attention of most economists, who were still loyal adherents of dogmatic socialist economic theories.[8]


By the middle of 1957, however, as the Hundred Flowers Campaign and the party rectification movement took on a momentum of its own, the situation took an unexpected turn. Instead of receiving mostly constructive criticisms, the government was beginning to see more attacks from liberals directly criticizing socialism as well as the rule of the communist party. For example, some non-Communist intellectuals, including leaders of the Democratic League, maintained that it was not only the bureaucratic methods of the cadres but the privileged position of the Party itself that produced the contradictions between the leaders and the led. They demanded institutional changes in which decisions would be made according to legally established procedures and in which other parties would have an independent voice. A number of intellectuals working in sciences, history and the social sciences even questioned the relevance of the thought of Mao to academia and rejected Mao's Yenan talks as no longer applicable to China's intellectual life.


By mid-May 1957, students at Peking University also joined the furore. They not only put up posters on what became known as Democracy Wall, criticizing officials and the politicization of academic work, but also incited students from other campuses. Inspired by the tradition of the May Fourth movement, the students printed pamphlets that revealed lingering influence of Western ideas introduced then. Some of these printed materials even demanded a system of laws that would protect their freedom to speak and criticize. A few went so far as to condemn the Party's monopoly of power and suggested its dissolution.


These shocking criticisms from the intellectuals and the students, coming at a time of Khrushchev’s destalinization, went beyond Mao’s bottomline. They were unsavoury proofs that despite years of indoctrination, some intellectuals from within and without the Party had not abandoned the Western liberal ideas they had absorbed in earlier decades. Even more shocking for Mao was how young intellectuals and students, the future leaders of the Party and China, had also been influenced by Western ideas despite being “brought up” by the regime.


In short, the Hundred Flowers Campaign went far beyond the Party's original intent. Even though the Party limited the scope by establishing the framework within which intellectuals were to express themselves, it could not fully control the response. In the end, the campaign released more pent-up dissatisfaction and bitterness than the Party had anticipated.


In May 1957, Mao penned an internal document “The Situation is Changing” (事情正在发生变化) to warn party leaders about how a minority of rightists were using the rectification movement as an opportunity to overthrow socialism and the party. The following month, the party released a document entitled “Instructions on Organizing the Counterattack on the Rightists” (关于组织力量准备反击右派分子进攻的指示).


When the Hundred Flowers Campaign ended in July 1957, Mao ordered an all-out crackdown of these outspoken “bourgeois Rightists” in a campaign known as the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” (反右运动). Within a year, about 550,000 “Rightists”, including many who genuinely offered constructive criticisms were persecuted. Gu Zhun, who professed the role of market forces in a socialist economy, was labeled a "bourgeois Rightist". His academic viewpoint was judged as heresy and fell into oblivion. Nevertheless, Gu Zhun was widely acknowledged as the first to propose market-oriented reform in the development history of Chinese reform theory.[9]


Historians remain divided over Mao true intentions in agreeing with the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Some doubt whether Mao placed any value on the contributions or criticisms of intellectuals, who he regarded as relics of the old order. Others argue that Mao was prepared to tolerate a period of liberalization and free thought to promote socialism, to present it as a reasonable ideology that would listen to the people, even those who did not agree. Mao himself claimed it was a deliberate ploy to coax dissidents into the open, suggesting he had “enticed the snakes out of their caves” (引蛇出洞). It was also possible that Mao was indeed sincere in soliciting criticisms but was disappointed with or even felt betrayed by the responses.


More importantly, after Mao display of intolerance over criticisms, few dared to speak out against his policies thus sowing the seeds of calamities for the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign that followed.

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NEXT: 1.05  Great Leap Forward and its Aftermath (1958 – 65)



[1] See Jinglian Wu. (2005). Pg 39.

[2] See Denis Twitchett & John K. Fairbank. (Eds) (2008). “The Cambridge History of China: Volume 14. The People's Republic, Part 1: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1949-1965.” Cambridge University Press.

[3] See Alpha History. “The Hundred Flowers Campaign.”

[4] See Denis Twitchett & John K. Fairbank. (Eds) (2008). Pg 244.

[5] See “Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung: On the Correct Handling of the Contradictions Among the People.” February 27, 1957.

[6] See Denis Twitchett & John K. Fairbank. (Eds) (2008). Pg 250.

[7] See Roderick MacFarquhar. (1974). “The origins of the Cultural Revolution - Volume 1.” Pg. 188.

[8] See Jinglian Wu. (2005). Pg 38.

[9] See Jinglian Wu. (2005).

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