Throughout history, intellectuals have been frequent targets of tyrannical regimes to suppress political dissent. But Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong himself boasted about taking it a step further.
After the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, Mao had instilled a climate of fear and terror. In the late 1940s to early 1950s, he mobilized Chinese peasants to kill off the landlord class, resulting in a death toll that various estimates place from the hundreds of thousands, to up to several million. In some areas, public trials became the norm, and Mao’s politicized peasants became judge, jury, and executioner of the landlord class in China. Amid the repressive climate, intellectuals seemingly lacked a voice to say anything about the communist party.
But that all changed when Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev denounced his totalitarian predecessor, Joseph Stalin. The move prompted Mao to act, as China had been running on similar economic models used by Stalin’s Soviet Union.
“Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend,” Mao quoted a famous Chinese poem as saying. In 1956, the “Hundred Flowers Movement” was thus coined, encouraging the public, particularly intellectuals, to criticize the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership and to offer solutions to its national policies.
“The government needs criticism from its people,” Chinese premier Zhou Enlai said, according to Smithsonian magazine. “Without this criticism the government will not be able to function as the People’s Democratic Dictatorship. Thus the basis of a healthy government lost. … We must learn from old mistakes, take all forms of healthy criticism, and do what we can to answer these criticisms.”
But far from being a genuine effort to rectify the excesses of his bloody regime, the “Hundred Flowers” movement instead turned into the greatest attack on intellectuals in history, as hundreds of thousands with a mind to speak out identified themselves to the CCP.
Intellectuals of different backgrounds, including lawyers, academics, scientists, writers, and others, rushed to take part in the campaign. They criticized communist officials for low standards of living, for meddling in their affairs, slogans, posters, corruption, the “slavish following of Soviet models,” and how communist “party members [enjoyed] many privileges which make them a race apart” (which effectively betrays a core tenet of the Marxist doctrine), according to Chinese historian Jonathan D. Spence, in his book “The Search for Modern China.”
Wall posters were hung around China, denouncing every aspect of the communist regime, and party members were criticized.
In 1957, millions of letters poured into Premier Zhou’s office and the offices of other communist authorities. Some people organized rallies, put up posters, and even published critical articles.
“The Party members, due to their occupying positions of leadership and being favorably situated, seem to enjoy in all respects excessive privileges,” read one letter from a college professor.
According to one letter from the editor of the Guangming Daily newspaper, after 1949, “intellectuals warmly supported the Party and accepted the leadership of the Party. But in the past few years the relations between the Party and the masses have not been good and have become a problem of our political life that urgently needs readjustment. Where is the key to the problem? In my opinion … I think a party leading a nation is not the same as a party owning a nation; the public supports the Party, but members of the public have not forgotten that they are masters of the nation.”
Mao’s critic and historian Jung Chang explained the rationale behind the movement:
“It was a year before the intellectuals gained courage to respond to [Mao’s] call, first with strongly expressed criticisms of the patterns imposed in education, then with broader criticisms of the overall socio-political system. In terms of the education system there were bitter complaints about the mechanical copying from the Soviet Union, the narrowness of programs of teaching, the neglect and repression of the social sciences, and the fact that Marxism-Leninsm was upheld as orthodox doctrine, to be accepted without question. … Wider social criticism focused on the authoritarian role of the party in all decision-making, the increasing gulf between party and non-party professionals, and the various abuses of privilege of the new political elite”.
The fervent criticism ultimately didn’t bode well with Mao and his cohorts, who claimed the comments violated the “healthy criticism” level, without elaborating. He later denounced the letters as “harmful and uncontrollable.”
So, by mid-1957, the criticism could no longer be tolerated.
Those who laid their critiques at the feet of the CCP and Mao were denounced as “Rightists,” and the Hundred Flowers Movement gave way to the Anti-Rightist movement, starting in the summer of 1957.
Mao then rounded them up, sending them to be executed or to perform forced labor in re-education camps. Mao then proclaimed the movement a victory, claiming the campaign “enticed the snakes out of their lairs.” Between 300,000 and 550,000 people were identified as Rightists, many of them intellectuals, artists, scientists, and writers.
Mao’s reign drew comparisons to that of China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who buried hundreds of scholars and intellectuals alive, more than 2,000 years prior.
But Mao said he went a step further during a speech to CCP officials in 1958, referring to Qin: “He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive… You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold.”
A theory has been advanced on Mao’s true motivation. Jung and historian Clive James claim his campaign from the get-go was a lie intended to expose so-called Rightists and counter-revolutionaries, giving Mao and the CCP a new enemy to eliminate. Mao’s personal physician Li Zhisui also made similar claims, arguing the Hundred Flowers Movement was “a gamble, based on a calculation that genuine counterrevolutionaries were few … and that other intellectuals would follow Mao’s lead, speaking out only against the people and practices Mao himself most wanted to subject to reform.”
Today, discussion of the Anti-Rightist Movement is heavily censored in China. The China Media Project, of the University of Hong Kong, noted in 2009 it was deemed a “dangerous topic” because it touches “on the crimes of Mao Zedong and on the serious failings of China’s political system.”
A year later, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous campaign that resulted in the loss of tens of millions of lives.
The Great Leap Forward pushed for China to increase its steel production while collectivizing agriculture farming. The Great Leap Forward led to a large quantity of poor-quality steel production (farmers melted down their own tools to meet Communist Party demands), persecution of those who resisted, and mass starvation.
In 1959, the nascent Great Leap Forward was discussed during the Lushan Conference, a meeting of top CCP leaders. At the conference, General Peng Duhai criticized the failures of the Great Leap Forward and was subsequently labeled a Rightist. After the conference, any criticism of the party’s policies were considered the same as criticizing Mao himself, further consolidating his power over the party.
Communism is estimated to have killed around 100 million people, yet its crimes have not been fully compiled and its ideology still persists. Epoch Times seeks to expose the history and beliefs of this movement, which has been a source of tyranny and destruction since it emerged.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.