This year marks the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Anti-Rightist Movement. As expected, all official mouthpieces and state-run media in the mainland are strictly forbidden to touch on the highly sensitive subject.
However, while Beijing has gone to extremes trying to erase that dark chapter from the memories of its people, a heated discussion about the movement has been under way among Chinese netizens on several overseas online platforms.
On the other hand, a documentary secretly produced by a retired university professor in Guangzhou titled “The Chronicles of Jiabiangou”, which, based on the testimonies of survivors, depicts the harsh life in a prison labor farm in Gansu province between 1958 and 1962, and which was aired earlier in Hong Kong, is going viral in the Chinese-American community.
Beginning in June 1957, the Anti-Righist Movement approximately lasted for a year and ended in June 1958, during which tens of millions of innocent Chinese, many of whom intellectuals, well-off peasants and former entrepreneurs, were labelled by Mao as “anti-party, anti-socialist, anti-people and counter-revolutionary rightist bourgeois”.
They were also referred to as the “Five Black Categories”, which included former landowners, well-off peasants, counter-revolutionaries, criminals and rightists.
Despite the nationwide witch hunt for rightists which ended roughly in June 1958, it later turned out it was only the beginning of their ordeal and suffering.
After these “venomous snakes had been lured out of their hideouts”, as Mao himself put it, the overwhelming majority of were either jailed, killed or condemned to labor camps and continued to endure unspeakable suffering for the following 20 or more years.
It wasn’t until 1979 when the Gang of Four had been arrested and former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had consolidated his power that the remaining rightists who were lucky enough to survive that decades-long torment were finally released and vindicated.
For the “highly privileged” few who were labelled “correctable rightists”, they were spared jail terms and hard labor but were forced to undergo intense “ideological transformation” in the party organs they were initially assigned to.
Among the most notorious prison labor camps where the rightists were locked up were the ones in Beidahuang in Heilongjiang province in northeastern China, those in the Jiabiangou region in the Gansu province, those in the Jinghai county in Hebei province, as well as those located in a no-man’s land in Qinghai and Xinjiang provinces in northwestern China.
Among these camps, those in northwestern China (i.e. Xinjiang) were exceptionally fearsome because of their notoriously harsh living conditions and the extreme weather in those areas.
Many of the rightists condemned to these labor camps, particularly intellectuals, were “kept in quarantine” for years, which was a euphemism for solitary confinement in those days. Worse still, many of them were sentenced to indeterminate periods in these camps “until further notice”.
The fact that you were thrown into the middle of nowhere and had no idea whether you could ever return home again for the rest of your life was an absolute form of psychological torture for the inmates, many of whom simply collapsed amid the torment and committed suicide.
In fact many had already committed suicide even before being sent to these camps because they knew they wouldn’t be able to make it in such harsh conditions.
On top of that, the inmates also had to do hard labor, endure hunger, appalling living conditions and extreme temperatures. Many of them had to feed on grass, wild plants, insects or even stool on a daily basis in order to survive.
Over the years, countless inmates in these camps died of hunger, disease, fatigue, hypothermia, torture or simply got shot to death by armed guards trying to escape.
As Li Rui, former personal secretary to Mao Zedong who was labelled “rightist” during the movement and sent to a labor camp in Heilongjiang province because of his sympathy for Mao’s political rival Marshal Peng Dehuai, recalls in his memoirs “Reflection at the age of 99” , he and other inmates had to sleep in makeshift tents in winter when the temperature at night could often drop to 30 degrees Celsius below zero.
Not only did those labelled “rightists” undergo unspeakable suffering, their innocent families or even friends who had been implicated in their so-called “counter-revolutionary conspiracy” also received severe punishment.
For example, in 1958, on the orders of Mao, the authorities in Shanghai began to purge the city of the “Five Black Categories”, and hundreds of thousands of Shanghai citizens were rounded up and forced into exile in the desert in Gansu province, and the vast majority of them never returned home.
Under the reign of Mao Zedong, the Communist Party had absolutely no respect for human lives, let alone civil rights or the rule of law. For those who were at the receiving end of Mao’s relentless persecution, the mainland was literally hell on earth in those days.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 23
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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