Tony Cliff

China: The Hundred Flowers Wilt

(May 1959)

From Socialist Review, 9th Year No. 9, Mid-May 1959.
Reprinted in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 236–41.
Transcribed by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Thanks to Ted Crawford.

It is two years since the policy of “A hundred flowers will bloom” was launched in China (May 1957).

This campaign in its way revealed, better than anything else, the real social and political character of Mao’s China.

The “hundred flowers” campaign was launched largely as an after-effect of the Hungarian revolution. Mao saw to what extent a so-called Communist regime can become isolated from the people and found it advisable to allow popular criticism to be vented in order to prevent a social explosion.

Mao made a sharp attack on “bureaucratism” and stressed the need to deal carefully and patiently with “contradictions among the people” and between the “people and the leadership.” The Communist leaders deferred to the new. spirit of the “hundred flowers policy to invite all organizations and individuals to join with the Communists in open and frank criticism of all the deficiencies of the Party activities, especially of the three “evils of bureaucratism, sectarianism and subjectivism.” Assurances were given th4t no action would be taken against the critics, and that the movement would be carried out “as gently as a breeze or a fine rain” (New China News Agency, April 30, 1957).

As we shall see presently, despite these pledges, a bare month passed before the movement to cleanse the Party suddenly turned into a campaign to crush the critics.

Criticism short-lived

On June 8, the People’s Daily gave the signal for the change, charging that certain people had taken advantage of the rectification movement to try to overthrow the Communist Party. The following months saw the unfolding of a vast “anti-rightist” campaign attacking all those who dared to criticise the shortcomings of the Party during the month of “free criticism.” Thousands upon thousands both outside and inside the Patty became the victims of this campaign. However, the short-lived period of free criticism served to reveal the terrific tensions rending Mao’s regime. the great amount of gunpowder lying under its foundations.

The leadership’s announcement of the rectification of the Communist Party caused great excitement, especially among the intellectuals, who, as in Hungary, were the first to taste the new freedom. As one paper wrote:

The bulletins began to be more active in Peking University. All available wall space around the Mess Hall was filled with these bulletins. At one corner there appeared the “democratic wall; at another corner there was opened the “garden of freedom, the democratic tribunal. Some articles were written by persons individually, others jointly produced by a number of people. and still others produced by the students associations of departments. According to statistics compiled by one student, by the evening of May 22, over 500 bulletins had been issued.

At this time, there were developed debates of varying scopes. started spontaneously or with proper organization. On the square in front of the Mess Hall, like in Hyde Park, thousands of students were listening to one heated debate after another. The Student Association announced that the period from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. would be given to debates, and two class rooms were allocated for the purpose, while platforms were also erected and loudspeakers installed on the square to facilitate the holding of debates. The university magazines the broadcasting station, and the Blackboard Bulletin all carried reports on the viewpoints expressed by students in the course of their contention.

In Peking University with its glorious revolutionary tradition, more than 8,000 young people had become inflamed with enthusiasm. (Wen Hui Pao, May 27, 1957).

In their excitement people came out with the sharpest criticism of the Communist Party and its rule. Thus, one playwright, Ho Chih, a member of the Communist Party. wrote a play entitled Disease of Unity, in which he poured scorn on totalitarian regimentation. The play describes a city of a million people, the mayor of which once contracted the “disease of unity.” In his pursuit of “unity,” this mayor not only cancelled all the names of the people in the city and gave each a number to follow in his daily routine of livelihood, but also, for the sake of “unity” of physique and features of the people. ordered the “medicine of unity” for everyone of the whole city so that they subsequently became people with the same appearance in ten different categories. The result was great confusion among all, with fathers and sons and husbands unable to recognise each other. Finally, they had no choice but to recover their original features (New China News Agency, August 22, 1957).

Rulers too!

Li Shi-chun, Director of the Nanking Bureau of Civil Administration, at a forum called by the Communist Party Kiangsu Provincial Committee on May 23, severely attacked the Public Security Organisation. He said that the Public Security Personnel were as numerous as “the hairs of a tiger” and were “dreadful and hateful.” He called the personnel dossiers “the record of life and death” (New China News Agency, July 14, 1957). A student in Nanning said: “The system of personnel dossiers was a ruler’s tool with which the Tsars dealt with revolutionaries” (Kwangsi Jih Pao, October 3, 1957).

Ko Pei-chi. lecturer of physics and chemistry in the China People’s University stated: “The Party members behave like plain clothes police and place the masses under their surveillance – China belongs to 600,000,000 people – it does not belong to the Communist Party alone. It is good for the Party members to behave as masters, but your adoption of the ‘I am the State’ attitude cannot be tolerated.” (Jen Min Jih Pao, May 31, 1957).

Engineer Lt P’ei-ying of Tientsin said:

When the Communists first entered Tientsin, they said that it was a revolution and that “our revolution is not a change of dynasties.” But judging from present conditions, it is even worse than a change of dynasties. To live in such a society is a most disheartening thing. Intellectuals are more timid and nervous day after day, living a life that is less peaceful even than in the Japanese period or under Kuomintang rule (ibid., June 12, 1957).

Party privileges

One, Liu Tseng, declared that “Party members are secret agents and they are worse than the Japanese agents during the occupation period” (New China News Agency, June 30, 1957) In Tsinghua University a number of students and professors branded Communists as a “privileged class”, even “fascists” (Chung Kuo Ching Nien Pao, June 21, 1957). Hsu Hsing-chin, Councillor of the State Council, wanted “to end the practice of making the high-ranking cadres a privileged class” (New China News Agency, May 27, 1957). Again, while complaining of the generally low standard of living of the people, one Ko Pei-chi stated that not all suffered: “Who are the people who enjoy a higher standard of living? They are the Party members and cadres who wore worn-out shoes in the pest but travel in saloon cars and put on woollen uniform now” (Jen Min Jih Pao, May 31, 1957).

Again in a forum convened by the Chinese Communist Party, one Chu Yunshan, said:

In leading the masses to carry on the revolution in the past the Party stood among the masses; after liberation the position was changed in its mind and, instead of standing among the masses, it stood on the back of the masses and ruled the masses.

Government cadres should differ in duties and not in status. Some are deeply conscious of being officials; they occupy special positions even when taking meals and seeing opens. (New China News Agency, May 30, 1957).

Lui Kan, a student in the Department of Geology at Nanking University, called for the “abolition of special privileges of the Party and young Communist League” (Jen Min Jih Pao, July 12, 1957). Chou Ta-chio, a student at the Aviation College in Peking, spoke about the “new class” of Communist Party high officials who “had obtained financial advantages from controlling financial activities” – the “leaders class” (New China News Agency, July 16, 1957). Liu Ti-sheng, an assistant professor at Nanking University, called upon the Communist Party to “liberate the Chinese people for a second time” (Jen Miin Jih Pao, July 12, 1957). A professor of sociology, Li Ching-han. declared that the Communist Party “rules the people with Marxist-Leninist textbooks in its left hand, Soviet weapons in its right” (Jen Min Jih Pao, August 30, 1957).

Pao Chu-t’ao, a student of the Normal College at Kwangsi, said:

The Communist Party monopolises all the power in China today. All you can do is to flatter it and cater to its every wish. You will be in its good books by simply shouting “I support ..”. and “Long live ...” all the time. What you really think does not matter.

He also said that “the Party is a hotbed for two-faced characters” (Kwangsi Jih Pao, October 3, 1957).

“Loyal stooge”

In an article entitled Second Tour of River Village, published in the June issue of the New Observer, Fei Hsaio-tung, probably the most famous sociologist in China today, and up to then the pride of the Communist regime, asserted that the peasants do not live so well as twenty years ago. For this statement he was called a few months later, “a despicable, obsequious loyal stooge of imperialism” (Houch Hoi, September 18, 1957).

Reference was constantly made to the Hungarian revolution. Thus one professor at Peking University, Chien Wei-cheng. stated: “This is the eve of the Polish and Hungarian events” (New China News Agency, July 6, 1957).

Mass demonstrations

In a speech to a forum of the Department of Industrial Economy of the People’s University of Peking, Professor Wang Feh-chou stated:

The Party has come before the situation where it confronts a dangerous crisis ... Speaking of pork in a certain land, 12 butcheries have been reduced to two. When pork is unavailable, it is difficult to convince people that living standards have improved. Vegetable prices have increased by 600 per cent compared with the previous year. The common people begin to lose confidence in the Central Committee, saying that in some matters, the situation is worse compared with the days of the Kuomintang ... To say that the Party has divorced itself from the masses is not so true as to say that the masses have divorced themselves from the Party. The Party will collapse soon. More than 90 per cent of the members of the Party give themselves to sectarian activities, and some indulge in the most evil of acts. At any time, might overcomes might. It is possible to mount machine guns to deal with trouble. But what is to be feared is that the machine guns may be turned round for action. (Chung Kuo Ching Nien Pao, June 10, 1957).

In a number of places, mass demonstrations took place. Thus, for instance, on June 12 thousands of secondary school pupils in Han’yang went on strike and demonstrated. (See reference to this in New China News Agency, Wuhan, September 6, 1957. Three of the leaders of the demonstration were condemned to death and another three were given sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years). On the same day a large number of students in Chengtu demonstrated and attacked the Security Police station. (Jen Min Jih Pao, July 11, 1957).

Very suddenly, after a month, the Party leadership put an end to the rectification campaign and turned about face against the critics. The People’s Daily, in an editorial, blandly stated that the aim of the month of free criticism had been to trap the critics. It said:

To publish no or little positive views and to refrain from counter-criticising the erroneous views for a certain period of time – is that wrong? From May 8 to June 7. our paper and all Party papers carried out exactly this policy in accordance with the directive of the CCP Central Committee. The purpose is to let the evil spirits and demons of all kinds to “contend freely” to let the poisonous weeds gain a luxuriant growth so that the people will be startled at such things in the world and will take action to wipe out these low scamps.

Some say: this is a dark scheme. We say: this is a dark scheme. For we told the enemy beforehand: demons can be wiped out only when they are let out of the cage and poisonous weeds can be got rid of only when they are let come out of the soil. Do peasants not weed several times a year? The weeds removed can be used as fertilizer. (Ibid., July 1, 1957)

The victims of the counter-“purge” are very numerous, many of them being Party members of long standing, like Ting Ling, undoubtedly one of the most famous of Chinese authors, who had been a member of the Party for some 25 years. The effect of the Hungarian Revolution was so great that Ting Ling’s house in Peking was nicknamed the “Petofi Club.”

Last updated on 16 February 2017