Fifty Years On, Deaths, Persecution of Anti-Rightist Era Still Taboo in China


BEIJING: Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from 1935-76, delivers a speech, "On correctly handling contradiction among the people," at the standing committee of the State Council in Beijing in 1957.

HONG KONG—The infamous Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals were killed, jailed, or persecuted, still lingers as a shadow hanging over China’s development, despite calls from its targets for the Communist Party to admit its mistakes, campaigners said.

Chen Fengxiao was a student at prestigious Beijing University when the campaign, which came soon after the “Hundred Flowers” movement in which party chairman Mao Zedong invited intellectuals to set forth a profusion of dissident views, was initiated 50 years ago this month.

“I was sentenced to 15 years. After that, my sentence was extended by seven years. In total I did 22 years of reform through labor,” he told RFA’s Mandarin service. “I was subjected to all manner of punishments. You can say that I was a rightist, fine, but I don’t accept that I committed any crime. Because everything we did was within the Constitution, within the law. I didn’t break the law and yet I was tortured, tied up to a bench, hung up, scorched with fire, and forced to watch executions.”

The 50th anniversary has sparked calls for the government to make a public announcement accepting that the movement, in which 550,000 people were “struggled”—often dying from beatings or summary executions or serving lengthy terms in labor camp—was a mistake.

Party says initial struggle 'justified'

Lin Xiling (林希翎), an independent writer based in France speaks at Princeton University, at an event marking 50 years since China’s Anti-Rights Campaign.(RFA / He Shan)

The stigma of the rightist label often meant their relatives also suffered severe social disadvantages.

Until now, the official line has been that the initial, narrow version of the Anti-Rightist Campaign was necessary to stamp out a threat to Communist Party rule, but that its expansion was a mistake.

In an open letter to China’s leadership, 55 former “rightists” called on the government to admit the campaign had been “a gross violation of the constitution of our country and a mistaken political movement,” calling the official line on the subject “ludicrous self-deception.”

It also called for compensation for the victims, for the ending of restrictions on freedom of speech, and for Chinese citizens to be allowed to openly tell their own history of the movement.

According to unofficial minutes leaked earlier this year from a key meeting of the Party’s Central Propaganda Department, the media and publishing industry have been warned off any material touching on the history of the Anti-Rightist Campaign.

“This year is the 50th anniversary of the Anti-Rightist Campaign,” said the notes, which were taken by an official who attended the meeting and were widely circulated on the Internet.

No books allowed

It warned that many people, including top academics, who were dissatisfied with the Party would use the anniversary to “smear the Communist Party.”

I didn't break the law, and yet I was tortured, tied up to a bench, hung up, scorched with fire and forced to watch executions.

“For this reason, no memoirs or books dealing with the period of history around the Anti-Rightist Campaign are allowed to be published, and no articles regarding the movement may be printed,” ran the notes, which claimed to be taken from a verbal announcement made at the meeting.

RFA was unable to verify this account, but it accords with information about the Propaganda Department from media and publishing sources across the country.

In an essay written for the anniversary, former top Communist Party official Bao Tong, under house arrest in Beijing since ending a jail term in the wake of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, described the fate of the 550,000 people who were designated “rightists.”

“Their collective crime was to have criticized the Party’s policies and work style. The fate of those 550,000 was as follows: some died right there during the struggle sessions; many died later in prison or labor camp, or as a result of kangaroo courts and summary executions. A small number survived to see their relatives suffer discrimination and oppression,” said Bao, a former aide to ousted late premier Zhao Ziyang.

Bao’s essay, titled “On the illegality of the anti-rightist struggle,” lashed out at late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, who spearheaded the campaign.

Critics acted legally

“What sort of a crime is 'denying the leadership of the Party' or 'reversing the direction of socialism?'” Bao wrote.

“Citizens have a right to express agreement or disagreement with the Party’s leadership or with the direction of socialism. This is a legal act. The State and the law have a responsibility to protect it, not the right to punish it.”

“Didn’t we allow tens of millions of people to starve to death through the ‘progress’ achieved through the Party’s leadership and socialism, and persecute 200 million more?” Bao wrote, in a reference to the subsequent Great Leap Forward (1959) and Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Tan Tianrong was also a student at Beijing University at the time of the movement: “At that time we were spending an awful lot of time in political study classes. We were being taught that the progress of history was the result of economic inevitability, and all the actions of the great historical personages of the time were carried out with a view simply to bringing this economic inevitability into being.”

“I didn’t agree with this view,” Tan said. “I thought that it had a lot to do with the ideology of Stalin. I said that there was a cult of personality around Stalin because Stalin had become inflated and had made mistakes of subjectivism. I read it the first time without realizing that of course this was also the story of our Party, especially Mao Zedong...For that reason I was labeled a rightist.”

One of the signatories to the open letter, Mao Yushi, said the former “rightists” weren’t simply asking for personal compensation and redress, however.

History affects the present

“This isn’t just a problem for the individual. It’s a question of China’s political development, and that is a very important issue. Because all the great mistakes that came afterwards are connected to this.”

“This is when the Party lost its way and started to tell lies. This was when it became impossible to speak freely. It led to the famines of the Great Leap Forward and later to the Cultural Revolution. So it is a very important thing, and it matters what the Communist Party does to redress it, before all the old anti-rightists pass away.”

“The demands of the ‘rightists’ have a bearing on the relationship between the Party and the people, between the government and its citizens. That is why we are bringing it up again,” Mao said.

His views were echoed by Bao, who noted that the first professionals to be sidelined in the campaign were lawyers and judicial professionals, pointing to the first major deviation from legitimate national structures which would culminate with the institutional chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

“During this movement, as part of its quest for absolute power with no rival, the Party leadership nakedly trampled national laws underfoot and destroyed the Constitution, mounting a massive and illegal attack on freedom of expression and ideological freedom,” he wrote in an essay broadcast on RFA’s Mandarin service June 14.

“This act destroyed 550,000 free spirits in an experimental sacrifice. Once the leadership had got its hand in, it unleashed an endlessly repeated series of scenes of tragedy and torment, one after the other, [with] no curtain in between.”

“Such a thing can be allowed to happen only under one-party authoritarian rule: it has no place in a modern, civilized society,” Bao said.

China’s leaders have remained silent on the Anti-Rightist Campaign in recent years, pointing only to a set of official guidelines titled “On a number of historical problems concerning the Party’s leadership,” which contains the official view.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Bai Fan. Essay by Bao Tong. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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