The 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement: A warning from history

June 09, 2017 16:04
“We must lure the snakes away from their hideouts so that we can kill them” has become a famous quote from Ma Zedong. Photo:

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the notorious Anti-Rightist Movement in China.

It is estimated that during the movement, at least 550,000 civilians were labelled “rightist bourgeois”, many of whom were intellectuals, and another three million, predominantly their families, relatives and friends, were implicated in a so-called “counter-revolutionary conspiracy”.

Those who were labelled “rightists” and their “accomplices” were either jailed, tortured or condemned to labor camps.

As expected, official mouthpieces and the state-controlled media were strictly forbidden to touch on the subject.

However, a retired university professor in Guangzhou secretly made a documentary titled The Chronicle Of Jiabiangou to commemorate the movement. The documentary was recently aired in Hong Kong.

The film depicts the harsh life in a prison labor farm in Jiabiangou, a remote area in Gansu province, between 1958 and 1962. Based on the testimonies of survivors, “rightist” inmates on the farm endured unspeakable suffering throughout that period.

Because of the constant lack of food supply and appalling living conditions, many of them had to feed on grass, wild plants or even worms, and there were even cases of cannibalism. As a result, thousands died of hunger and diseases, and eventually, only a few hundred inmates survived the ordeal and walked out of the farm alive.

In fact, the persecution against “rightist intellectuals” during Mao Zedong's reign began as early as 1952 when he launched the nationwide Ideological Transformation Movement in the academic sector.

Then in 1954, on Mao's orders, official mouthpieces lashed out at famous academic Yu Pingbo for adopting a pro-capitalist perspective in his study of the famous ancient Chinese novel Dream Of The Red Chamber.

However, in late 1956, Mao suddenly relented and eased off politically by launching the infamous "Hundred Flowers Campaign” across the country, under which he called on the general public, members of pro-democracy groups, former entrepreneurs, artists and, in particular, academics to openly and freely express their opinions of the communist regime and point out the party's mistakes so that it could correct itself.

As Mao himself put it, “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” so that the party could improve itself and serve the Chinese people better.

In response to Mao's appeal, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life began to eagerly express their views on the regime and criticize the Communist Party's mistakes.

These mistakes included enhancing centralization of power at the expense of democracy, adopting a “lean-to-one-side” approach to Beijing-Moscow relations, ultra-left economic policies, too little tolerance for dissent in the academic field, intense media and art censorship and neglect of poverty in rural areas by local party officials, and so on.

However, while millions of unsuspecting Chinese people were eagerly expressing their views and fondly believed that the Communist Party would listen, perhaps none of them noticed that the entire “Hundred Flowers Campaign” was a sinister trap carefully planned by Mao as a prelude to his subsequent massive crackdown on those who were critical of the Communist Party and its ideology.

As Mao said, only by making people come out and speak their minds could the party truly identify pro-capitalist class enemies who were lurking in every corner of the country waiting for opportunities to sabotage the socialist cause.

“We must lure the snakes away from their hideouts so that we can kill them,” Mao said. This famous line would later emerge as one of the most frequently quoted Mao remarks in the decades that followed.

In an internal party document, Mao ordered party officials at all levels to refrain from refuting public criticism in order to allow “the evil rightists to show their true counter-revolutionary colors in front of the public”.

Then in June 1957, when the "Hundred Flowers Campaign" was under way, Mao thought that the time for “killing the snakes” had finally come.

On June 7, 1957, he changed course and ordered the People's Daily to lash out at the rightists in its editorial. And on that same day, Mao personally drafted an internal document titled “Time to organize counter-attack against the relentless offensives by the rightists”, and then passed it down to party apparatuses on every level on June 8.

The day this infamous document was released by Mao is widely regarded by historians as the official beginning of the fateful Anti-Rightist Movement that would last for one year and ruin the lives of millions.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 8

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ columnist