By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
At the end of 1978, Deng Xiaoping enjoyed an enormous wave of popularity. He was the closest thing to a Chinese rock star. Being an extremely canny politician, he sought to take full advantage of his newfound popularity and exploit the unpopularity of the previous regime. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the fascinating saga of the ‘Democracy Wall’.
The ‘Democracy Wall’
In November of 1978, when the Central Committee first reversed the verdict on Deng Xiaoping and the Qingming incident, the citizens of Beijing celebrated by posting dazibao along a 200-meter stretch of city wall along Chang’an Boulevard, west of Tiananmen Square near the Xidan market. It was dubbed the ‘Democracy Wall’, or Minzhuqiang.
The wall at Xidan soon became the focal point for a remarkable display of free and unfettered public political discourse.
Wall posters have long served both as a pressure release valve and as an informal conduit for disseminating inside information and opinion in China. In the spring of 1978, the people’s right to post dazibao had been enshrined in a new, newly revised, state constitution, along with the right to engage in ‘big debates” and “big blooming and contending.”
The idea—which was quite redolent of the 1957 Hundred Flowers Movement—was to allow the masses to express themselves more freely and openly, and thereby relieve pent-up frustrations.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Many Diverse Opinions
Among the many diverse opinions expressed in dazibao at Xidan Wall in the fall of 1978, three inter-related themes stood out.
First was the spontaneous expression of relief that the mourners of April 1976 had been vindicated; second was an outpouring of bitter emotion directed against the tyranny of the Gang of Four; and third was mounting criticism of Hua Guofeng and his ‘whatever faction’, who were now derisively referred to as a ‘little gang of four’, or xiao siren bang.
Deng’s Endorsement of the Posters
By late November, the wall posters at Xidan had begun to attract considerable attention. Individually and in small groups, the citizens of Beijing gathered there to read the latest posters and participate in an unprecedented public discussion of pressing national issues.
Deng Xiaoping initially was rather supportive of this new climate of free speech, since it served, first, to enforce his own claim to political legitimacy, and second, to highlight Hua Guofeng’s inadequacies.
In a meeting with a group of visiting Japanese politicians in late November, Deng himself warmly endorsed the appearance of the wall posters, saying, “We do not have the right to deny…the blossoming of democracy…If the people are angry, we must let them blow off steam.”
All but lost in the excitement over Deng’s endorsement was the important caveat that he added at the end: Mao Zedong must not be criticized.
The Wall Poster Movement
By late November, Xidan’s activists were becoming bolder and more outspoken. At the end of the month, a startling 66-page wall poster appeared on Mao’s Memorial Hall at the south end of Tiananmen Square.
Its anonymous author boldly called on the Chinese people to rise up and “settle accounts” with all dictators, “no matter who they are.” Then, in violation of Deng Xiaoping’s explicit prohibition, the poster called for a thorough accounting of Mao’s mistakes and shortcomings.
At this point, the carefully constructed firewall that had been erected to protect Mao from being held responsible for the crimes of the Gang of Four began to crumble.
By early December, as the wall poster movement spread from Beijing to other cities, including Shanghai, Wuhan, Guangzhou, and Nanjing, a unifying theme began to appear among the disparate groups participating in the new movement.
They began to call for political democracy and respect for human rights as prerequisites for successful economic modernization.
Learn more about the “Red Guard” units.
Bitter Indictment of the Political System.
Democracy Wall started out as a cleansing breeze of honest, unfettered speech, but soon morphed into a bitter indictment of the entire political system.
Like Mao Zedong in 1957, Deng Xiaoping now grew visibly irritated with the irreverence and the ultra-liberalism of some of the wall posters on Democracy Wall. In response, he sternly repeated his earlier warning against direct criticism of Mao and of the Chinese political system. Undeterred, however, a few bold activists responded by openly criticizing Deng for trying to curb free speech.
One writer admonished:
Vice-Premier Deng, you are wrong, completely wrong…There is no doubt that, a long time ago, the Chinese people took note of Chairman Mao’s mistakes. Those who hate the Gang of Four cannot fail to have grievances against Chairman Mao.
Learn more about Mao’s unleashing of the Cultural Revolution.
Becoming Politically Alive
By the turn of the New Year, 1979, the political climate in Beijing was a curious mix of throbbing excitement and low-level background anxiety. After decades of stifling political conformity, revolutionary chaos, and economic mismanagement, the Chinese capital seemed to be awakening from a prolonged slumber.
Poised on the knife-edge of momentous changes, Beijing was coming alive politically. But where would it all lead? Where would it end? What were its limits? No one could say.
Common Questions about Deng Xiaoping and the Democracy Wall
The Democracy Wall, or Minzhuqiang, was a 200-meter stretch of city wall along Chang’an Boulevard, west of Tiananmen Square near the Xidan market.
Deng Xiaoping warmly endorsed the appearance of the wall posters, saying, “We do not have the right to deny…the blossoming of democracy…If the people are angry we must let them blow off steam.”
Deng Xiaoping‘s endorsement came with an important caveat that Mao Zedong must not be criticized.