Mao’s Twisted Version of Freedom of Expression


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

Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flower campaign invited intellectuals to speak freely. But, conditioned by years of shoddy treatment at the hands of the Communist Party, China’s intellectuals initially failed to respond to this invitation to freedom of expression. And, so, after waiting, in vain, for the intellectuals to respond to his invitation, Mao decided that even stronger assurances were needed to coax them into participating.

Silhouette of a group of protesters with flags.
Mao decided to make everybody aware of the criteria of free speech so that socialism itself would be unscathed by criticism. (Image: Champ008/Shutterstock)

China’s Shy Intellectuals 

To coax the intellectuals into participating, Mao Zedong gave a speech. In this now famous speech delivered in February 1957, entitled ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People’, Mao affirmed the need for vigorous intellectual debate and criticism.

He called for unfettered intellectual ‘blooming and contending’ in China. The Chairman sought to reassure China’s intellectuals that the bulk of their concerns belonged to the category of benign contradictions among the people rather than antagonistic contradictions with class enemies.

To coax the intellectuals out of their shells, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sponsored a series of open forums in May and early June of 1957, in which they sought to engage intellectuals in open debate, hoping thereby to clear the air. At around the same time, a new form of political expression, called dazibao, or big-character posters, made its debut on billboards and walls on Beijing’s college and university campuses.

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

Intellectuals Begin to Express

Illustration of Emile Zola
One critic of Mao wrote a pamphlet and titled it ‘I Accuse’ in the spirit of Emile Zola, the French writer. (Image: German Vizulis/Shutterstock)

At last, the intellectuals began to express themselves, cautiously at first, but then with growing boldness. Often choosing to hide behind a protective shield of anonymity, poster-writers began to direct a growing stream of criticism at Communist Party cadres and bureaucrats. 

One critic wrote an anonymous pamphlet with the title, ‘J’accuse’ (I accuse), invoking the spirit of the famous 1898 broadside by the French writer Emile Zola. In it, the critic bemoaned the unprincipled opportunism and opulent lifestyle of high-level party officials:

[It seems] we have given our blood, sweat, toil, and precious lives to defend not the people but the bureaucrats who oppress the people and live off the fat of the land. They are a group of fascists who employ foul means, twist the truth, band together in evil ventures, and ignore the people’s wish for peace.

One essayist asked rhetorically, What does it mean when the Communists say they suffer so that the people may not suffer and that they let the people enjoy things before they do the same? … These are lies. We ask: Is Chairman Mao, who enjoys the best things in life, … having a hard time? … When he wants to kill you, he doesn’t have to do it himself. He can mobilize your wife and your children to denounce you and then kill you with their own hands! Is this a rational society? This is class struggle, Mao Zedong style!

(ibid., p. 63).

Learn more about Mao’s Little Red Book of sayings.

Mao Strikes Back

Stung by the mounting intensity and ferocity of the intellectuals’ attack, Mao sat back and waited. Then he struck back. In early June, a substantially revised version of the chairman’s February speech was issued. The new version was considerably more confrontational and hard-line than the original. 

Where the February speech had stressed the importance of free ‘blooming and contending’ among competing ideas, Mao now added a stern warning against sabotage by class enemies, including counterrevolutionaries, rich peasants, and rightists. 

In Mao’s newly revised view, China’s overthrown class enemies remained unreconciled to their defeat; and they constituted a dangerous threat to the socialist cause. In emphasizing the need to remain vigilant against class enemies, Mao directly contradicted the Eighth Party Congress’s formal conclusion that class struggle was ‘essentially over’ in China. 

Criteria for Acceptable Freedom of Expression

After warning against the ‘frenzied attacks’ of counterrevolutionaries and rightists, Mao went on to enumerate six criteria to be used in distinguishing between the ‘fragrant flowers’ of healthy debate and the ‘poisonous weeds’ of noxious capitalism:

What [asked the chairman] should be the criteria … Broadly speaking, we consider the criteria should be as follows:

Words and actions should help to unite, not divide, the people of our various nationalities; They should be beneficial, not harmful, to socialist construction; They should help to consolidate, not weaken, the people’s democratic dictatorship; They should help to consolidate, not weaken, democratic centralism; They should help to strengthen, not discard or weaken, the leadership of the Communist Party; They should be beneficial, not harmful, to international socialist unity.

Of these six criteria, [concluded the chairman,] the most important are the socialist path and the leadership of the party.

(Mao, Selected Readings… p. 378)

Learn more about Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Mao’ Swift Revenge

Image of a group of middle school students in a classroom in China
Teachers had to wear dunce hats and were also forced to sign confessions. Many of whom were falsely accused of being rightists. (Image: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

Having clearly narrowed the limits of free speech for intellectuals, Mao next instructed his associates to punish all those who had dared to attack the party. And in the summer of 1957, an ‘Anti-Rightist Rectification movement’ was launched.

In a throwback to the repressive days of the Yan’an Forum of 1942, hundreds of thousands of non-Communist teachers, writers, scientists, and artists were now subjected to intense criticism and struggle. Teachers were paraded in front of their students, made to wear dunce caps identifying their alleged crimes, and forced to sign confessions. Tens of thousands were beaten; many were imprisoned, and not a few died, some by their own hand.

Aside from the denunciations, beatings, and detentions, the majority of those who were labeled as rightists were dismissed from their jobs and sent down to the countryside to be reformed through physical labor. Much later, it would be estimated that up to half a million people were falsely accused and punished as rightists in the course of the rectification movement, which continued until 1958.

Common Questions about Mao’s Twisted Version of Freedom of Expression

Q: Give an example of the criticisms of Mao Zedong.

One essayist believed that Mao had turned China into a class struggle and compared to the people, he had a very easy life.

Q: How did Mao punish those who criticized him?

First, Mao gave his six criteria on freedom of expression, essentially limiting expression. Then he started an ‘anti-rightist’ movement where many people were falsely accused.

Q: What were the most important free expression criteria that Mao outlined?

According to Mao, the most important criteria for freedom of expression were the socialist path and the leadership of the party.

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