China’s Search for Justice Long after the Cultural Revolution


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

Early in 1979, the state-controlled media in China began asking: How could something so destructive as the Cultural Revolution had been permitted to wreak such unchecked havoc upon China for so long? This was a very delicate territory. It was inevitable that in searching for the roots of institutional dysfunction and failure, the trail would lead back to the Chinese Communist Party.

China's Great Hall of the People, the meeting place of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China.
The roots of the blame regarding the Cultural Revolution came down to the Communist Party. (Image: testing/Shutterstock)

Chinese Media’s Portrayal of the Gang of Four

Early in 1979, the media began to paint a grim picture of a Chinese political and legal system in tatters, paralyzed by the absence of procedural safeguards, checks and balances, and enforceable political liberties, and thus vulnerable to gross abuses of power.

Here is a relatively representative assessment of China’s post-Mao political predicament, taken from a state-run magazine published in January of 1979. Note how powerfully it indicts China’s pre-existing political and legal institutions, yet without assigning causal agency, that is, the ultimate responsibility, for the murderous rampages of the Gang of Four and their minions.

Because there were no clear laws [to define] what constituted a counterrevolutionary crime … the [Chinese] people could not safeguard their right to free speech; … Since the people could not safeguard their right to free [speech], the Gang of Four were free to … make the mass media toe their line. Because the people could not safeguard their freedom of assembly, the Gang of Four wantonly prohibited all meetings, parades and demonstrations against them on the grounds that these were “counterrevolutionary.” … As the people could not safeguard their freedom of conviction, the Gang of Four had a free hand to imprison those who thought for themselves.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Reversing Cultural Revolution Verdicts

Though ultimate blame remained unassigned, this was nonetheless a powerful indictment of the political system itself. And it was in response to such self-critical revelations that people’s courts in China, at all levels, began the arduous task of reviewing a virtual avalanche of allegations concerning illegal political persecution that had occurred during the Cultural Revolution.

An image of Peng Zhen.
Peng Zhen was the man tasked with overseeing the new legislation. (Image: 太子太保啦啦/Public domain)

By June of 1980, over 1.1 million cases had been reinvestigated, and verdicts were reversed in more than 260,000 of these. To begin building a more orderly and predictable legal system, in March of 1979, the National People’s Congress enacted two critical new pieces of legislation: a comprehensive criminal law and its companion piece, a code of criminal procedure.

Among other things, these two laws narrowly restricted the definition of “counterrevolutionary” crimes and limited the scope of arbitrary police powers of arrest and detention. They also mandated speedy public trials for accused criminals and guaranteed the right of defendants to retain legal counsel and to confront their accusers.

Significantly, the man tasked with drafting and overseeing this new legislation was former Beijing mayor Peng Zhen. Peng had been a principal victim of leftist persecution during the Cultural Revolution. If anyone in China had a strong motive for building institutional safeguards against the anarchy that prevailed between 1966 and 1969, it was Peng Zhen.

Learn more about Mao’s last revolution.

How Much Freedom Is Too Much?

But even as progressive new legislation was being enacted to protect people from arbitrary abuse, arrest, and detention, behind the scenes, an intense debate was taking place within the Communist Party over the proper limits of citizen rights of free expression and assembly.

With the regime now openly acknowledging that horrendous miscarriages of justice had occurred during the Cultural Revolution, the months of February and March 1979 witnessed a massive increase in the size, scale, and volatility of petitioners’ protests both in Beijing and in the provinces. 

With a growing backlog of cases slowing down the process of reinvestigation, many petitioners took matters into their own hands, forcing their way into factories and work units to confront the cadres and coworkers who had persecuted them. In other instances, angry plaintiffs broke into party and government offices searching for records pertaining to their cases. In several cities, violence broke out.

Tensions Rising

Since it was the Communist party itself that had permitted Mao to run amok, giving him virtually unlimited dictatorial power for 40 years, Deng Xiaoping had to tread very, very carefully.

In response to these rising tensions, an important split developed within Deng Xiaoping’s reform coalition. Some younger leaders, including two of Deng’s more liberal protégés, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, argued in favor of relaxing the restrictions on protest by petitioners. 

Even the normally staid and sober-minded Chen Yun felt that petitioners had a right to express their grievances. “People are impatient,” he said. “They’ve been waiting for decades. … Why must they go on suffering without end? Unless we do something to win [their] trust … there can be no [peace].”

Learn more about Socialist transformation.

Not Much Sympathy on Other Side

An image of Tan Zhenlin.
Tan Zhenlin was of the view that the protests were conspiracies. (Image: Walter Grassroot/Public domain)

On the other hand, more conservative party leaders showed little sympathy for the petitioners, favoring a firm response to their protests. One veteran official, former agriculture minister Tan Zhenlin, pleaded in 1967 to stop overthrowing veteran cadres. 

Now he denounced the petitioners’ protests as part of an organized conspiracy by troublemakers. Dismissing the arguments for tolerance advanced by Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, and Chen Yun, Tan Zhenlin heaped scorn on the reform coalition’s “bleeding hearts”:

The amazing thing, [he charged,] is that there are some among us … leading individuals in the party Central Committee who … talk a lot of nonsense. … They babble absurdities such as: “It is because these people have suffered such grave injustice over the last ten years … that these consequences now occur.” Even more ridiculous are such statements as “China needs more democracy.” … What utter nonsense!

Common Questions about China’s Search for Justice Long After the Cultural Revolution

Q: Why was the Chinese media’s assessment of the post-Mao political predicament a delicate territory?

Although the Chinese media blamed the Gang of Four for the crimes committed during the Cultural Revolution, if they dug deeper, they would have to ultimately blame the Communist Party.

Q: What was the purpose of the comprehensive criminal law enacted in 1979 by the National People’s Congress?

These changes in the laws were in response to many verdicts during the Cultural Revolution. It limited the definition of “counterrevolutionary” acts and increased defendants’ rights while decreasing the power of the police when it came to detention and arrest.

Q: What was the split within Deng’s reform coalition?

After tensions rose in petitioners protesting the Cultural Revolution, some younger leaders argued that there should be fewer restrictions on people protesting. On the other hand, more conservative members were on the other end of the spectrum, suggesting that the organized protests were conspiracies.

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