This article will feature in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

 For China, the 20th century was a Sisyphean journey; time and time again, the Chinese rolled a boulder up that steep slope of progress towards utopia, only for it to roll back down and crush millions of lives with it. The Hundred Flowers Campaign is but another flashpoint in this path, one of many visions of utopia that ended up tormenting the Chinese people further.

Beginning in 1956 with the speech On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People, the Hundred Flowers Campaign aimed to allow people to vent their criticisms of the government, particularly regarding the First Five Year Plan (1953 – 1957). The name “Hundred Flowers” originates from a poem describing the Spring & Autumn Period of Chinese History, a period which gave rise to China’s greatest philosophers: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”. However, a year after the campaign was launched, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched the anti-rightist campaign, cracking down on those who spoke out and sending them to thought reform camps. Therein lies a question – was the Hundred Flowers Campaign a well-meaning attempt by Mao to promote a flourishing of arts and sciences or was it designed to entrap critics of the regime?

In On the Correct Handling of Contradictions, Mao suggested that dissent was a manifestation of the conflict between the superstructure and the underlying economic system; as such, like the growth of weeds in a field, could not be suppressed. In the speech, he suggested that China was “big enough” to contain dissent, admitting to past excesses and failures of the party. Perhaps, this was a sign that Mao and the CCP were willing to improve on their mistakes and tolerate a diversity of opinion. After all, Mao was a part of the New Culture Movement of the 1920’s, which saw a great flourishing in arts and culture in China; it was in this period that Mao had helped co-found the fledgling CCP.

However, it is also abundantly clear in his writings of the period that Mao tolerated no path other than Socialism. The entire campaign was couched in the rhetoric of dialectical materialism: besides framing dissent as a conflict between the superstructure and the economic reality, Mao also argued that the purpose of dissent was to provide an “antithesis” to the party’s policy, allowing them to achieve synthesis. At no point did Mao suggest that criticism could lead to change towards a direction other than of the party. Furthermore, Mao dedicates a large portion of his speech to deflecting criticism of the persecution of dissidents, dismissing calls for greater liberalization. Yes, China was “big enough” for dissidents, but people should still “plow the earth” to weed out dissidents. Additionally, Mao had an intolerant track record towards dissent – from the early days of the Jiangxi Soviet, he engaged in bloody “rectification campaigns” eliminating disloyal elements in the party and red army. None were spared – from the lowliest soldier to the most prominent Communist figureheads such as Zhang Guotao, those who opposed him were marginalized, humiliated and ultimately purged. Therefore, interpreting Mao’s words as supporting the expression of dissent is naive at best. 

Furthermore, when examining Mao’s ideological stances over the years, it seems that he, above all, valued his own place in power, jumping from left to right as it suited him. For example, during the Encirclement Campaigns of the 1930’s where the Guomindang (GMD) threatened to annihilate CCP-controlled Soviets, the leadership of the CCP advocated fighting pitched battles. Mao, believing in the wisdom of guerilla warfare, denounced the ‘leftist adventurism’ of the leadership. Later, when confronted with the horrors of the Great Leap Forward during the Lushan Conference in 1959, Mao declared that ‘I now support conservatism… it is essential to be right opportunists’. With these ideological flip-flops and his intolerance to dissent, it would not be uncharacteristic of Mao to use his ambivalent political stance to deliberately entrap critics. In fact, in his later speech Things are Beginning to Change, he says

“Why is such a torrent of reactionary, vicious statements being allowed to appear in the press? To let the people have some idea of these poisonous weeds and noxious fumes so as to have them uprooted or dispelled.”

To lend a more sympathetic view to Mao, one could plausibly argue that rightist conservatism was threatening to drag China away from the path of socialism. With the GMD just across the Taiwan Strait and the CCP being in power for less than ten years, there was likely a genuine risk that counter-revolutionaries would take over. To add to these external fears, turmoil within the Communist bloc, from Khrushchev’s Secret Speech to the Hungarian Revolution, may have exacerbated fears of backsliding towards Capitalism. 

Left-leaning optimism was not unwarranted – the First Five Year Plan had increased China’s productivity massively: should it not continue on this path to socialism? One could plausibly dismiss Mao’s past track record of intolerance to dissent as a desperate measure to ensure the unity and survival of the fledgling CCP, which was faced time and again with the prospect of annihilation. Now that the CCP had a firmer grip on power and things were looking up, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the party would allow a greater degree of freedom and encourage dissent. But alas, it was not to be. With the anti-rightist movement, the axe fell, the voices were silenced, and that Sisyphean boulder rolled back down the slope once again.

By Gabriel Chan