The following translation is by Andrew Chubb. The Chinese text of this essay originally appeared in Hong Kong’s Cheng Ming magazine in 2004.
Previously by Andrew Chubb’s on Danwei: Xu Wenli: How Chinese dissidents and the Communist Party use the Western media, Guangzhou scenic park suffers gun, harpoon and machete attack and George Morrison’s An Australian in China.
Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟) was assistant editor, editor and director of the People’s Daily between 1952 and 1983. According to fellow People’s Daily editor Wang Ruoshui (王若水), Hu was chief editor at the time described in this piece.
Hu Jiwei was an outspoken advocate of press freedom, and was active in the debates throughout the 1980s on press reform, ‘spiritual pollution’ and ‘bourgeois liberalisation’, which eventually resulted in his “reassignment” to another work unit. He also promoted a petition for the repeal of the declaration of martial law during the 1989 Tiananmen crisis. Now living in Hong Kong, Hu was among 23 former high-level Chinese Communist Party officials who published an open letter to Premier Wen Jiabao in October 2010 demanding the constitution be upheld.
Aside from recounting Hu Yaobang’s efforts to guide and urge the Democracy Wall Movement along, this piece reveals some of the workings of Chinese state media at that time. It details how political factions and the figures within them vied for influence over the People’s Daily and attempted to use it to reach the public. At the same time, it is clear that their control was never absolute, but was rather negotiated through relationships with the newspaper’s own leadership, who were themselves political players.
The article also shows that the work of the People’s Daily in relation to Democracy Wall was not producing newspaper articles but internal reports for the exclusive consumption of high-level leaders – a classic example of how Chinese media organisations are not merely the Party’s throat and tongue, they are also its eyes and ears.
The author’s own high position and involvement in the political debates over Democracy Wall and the ‘Four Big Freedoms’ also makes the article an authoritative first-hand account of some of the CCP’s most important political struggles of the time.
Hu Yaobang and the Xidan Democracy Wall
by Hu Jiwei / Chenming, 2004.4
April 15 this year will be the fifteenth anniversary of Comrade Hu Yaobang’s death. For the tenth anniversary in 1999 I wrote a piece called ‘Hu Yaobang and the People’s Daily‘. This year the image of Yaobang has constantly flashed through my mind, leading me to once again reflect deeply. I can say from the bottom of my heart that among the high-level Party leaders I came into contact with, few were as broad-minded, tolerant, receptive,1 and willing to act on behalf of the people and take responsibility for the consequences, as Hu Yaobang. We might say he was the most democratically-spirited top-level leader in the history of the CCP, the one who, more than any other, took the point of view of the people.
I have already written much about what I know of his deeds, mainly from when he began leading the rehabilitation of victims of false charges and unjustly or incorrectly handled cases. However, I have not brought up what he did before that, including during the time of the Xidan Democracy Wall. In accordance with the situation concerning Hu Yaobang since his death, there has not been much description of these matters. Hence, in this commemorative article, I will recount his circumstances and thinking during the Xidan Democracy Wall period in order to fill the historical gap.
To summarise Hu Yaobang’s conduct and actions during this time, he showed a close concern and enthusiastic support for the Xidan Democracy Wall, and made every effort to guide the movement.
The origins of Xidan Democracy Wall
I should first explain the Xidan Democracy Wall’s birth and the national circumstances it was situated in.
On February 15, 1979, during a theoretical work conference called by the central government, People’s Daily commentary department head Fan Rongkang and policy research office head Yu Huanchun issued a joint statement. The title was ‘A Dissection of Xidan Democracy Wall’. I used this statement to summarise the Xidan Democracy Wall situation to the Standing Committee of the 1979 National People’s Congress (NPC).
The Xidan Wall was located beside on the sidewalk on the north side of the road running east from Beijing’s Xidan intersection. Buses serving several routes stopped here, and behind the bus stops was a low, gray wall approximately 200 metres long. As the volume of people passing through was high, there would often be missing persons notices and small advertisements stuck to this stretch of wall to attract people’s attention. From the Spring Festival of 1978 people began hanging big-character posters here; many people read these posters, and as news of them spread it gradually became a place of bigger and bigger spontaneous gatherings.
To trace the origins of this – the expression of political views in big and small characters posted freely on a Beijing street – we need to return to the ‘Tiananmen Incident’ of the 1976 Qingming Festival. The criminal behaviour of the ‘Gang of Four’ had long been the subject of widespread indignation, and, availing themselves of the opportunity to commemorate Premier Zhou Enlai, people poured into Tiananmen Square to deposit wreaths and condolences on the Monument to the People’s Heroes. More and more people began sticking up political poems opposing the Gang of Four, thus forming the ‘Tiananmen Democracy Movement’ of 1976, a strong popular force that helped end the Gang’s dictatorship. The 1977 Qingming Festival also saw many poems around the Monument commemorating Premier Zhou and celebrating the smashing of the Gang of Four. During the 1978 Qingming Festival, the number of political poems around Tiananmen Square increased. On April 4, 1978 a big-character poster signed by ‘Huo Hua and Yin Ming’ suggested the hanging of political posters should be normalised and no longer limited to Qingming. The article said: “We should make this place a continuous forum, a meeting place the curtain never falls on, a position not to be surrendered, where at any time we may express our political opinions, publish our writings and let ‘100 Flowers Bloom and 100 Schools of Thought Contend’.”
The article continued: “Here, every person may be a politician, thinker, scientist, artist, theorist and author, and at the same time be a reader, listener, viewer and critic. Here, every person is a master of society.”
At the time, people saw this as a formal proposal for a ‘Democracy Wall’. Of course, Tiananmen Square was not the right place to be regularly hanging posters, so people looked for a more suitable venue.
Then something happened that led even more directly to the appearance of Xidan Democracy Wall. The China Youth Daily newspaper and the magazine China Youth reappeared. Both were widely popular when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966 but had been forced to cease publication. China Youth returned in September 1978, and next month the China Youth Daily followed. No-one anticipated that the first issue of China Youth would provoke the man in charge of propaganda, Party Vice-Chairman Wang Dongxing, to prohibit its sale and order the recall of copies already distributed. This caused widespread anger among its young readers. No-one knows who it was, but someone pasted the banned issue of China Youth, page by page, onto that stretch of wall in Xidan. This caused a sensation in Beijing, with thousands upon thousands of people flocking to the Xidan Wall. After reading the big- and small-character posters on the wall, many people expressed opposition to the ban on China Youth. Others demanded the purging of the poisonous remnants of dictatorship, called for democracy, and still more big-character posters demanded freedom of expression and publication. Articles posted on the Wall that December demanding political democratisation, such as those written by Ren Wanding, Wei Jingsheng and others, provoked much reaction. Some young people spontaneously formed non-official groups and produced people’s publications.2 As more and more people came to read and hang posters, people named the place ‘Xidan Democracy Wall’.
Why did Wang Dongxing ban the first issue of China Youth? There were four reasons. One was that it published poems from the 1976 April Fifth (‘4-5’)3 Tiananmen democracy movement, which Wang said was a “counterrevolutionary incident”. The second was that it did not publish any poetry by Mao Zedong. The third was that it did not carry an inscription from Chairman Hua. The fourth was that it carried an article, attributed to ‘This Magazine’s Commentator’ and titled ‘Eliminate Superstition, Understand Science’, which pointed out for the first time that eliminating “modern superstition” meant eliminating superstition about Mao Zedong. At that time such a suggestion could be said to be a heinous crime, and this was the principal reason why Wang Dongxing ordered the ban. The article was written by the Central Propaganda Department Assistant Chief Li Honglin, and had been reviewed by none other than the recently-promoted Central Organisation Department Chief, Hu Yaobang. The facts showed that this issue of China Youth was not wrong; rather, it was doing precisely what the people wanted.
The content of posters on Democracy Wall varied greatly, from the appeals of those who had suffered injustice, to criticism, proposals, news and information, exposure of evil-doers and scandals. In the latter stages it was mainly political commentary. Within this, the most discussed topics were democracy and law. The principal points were: (1) summarising historical experience to investigate socialist democracy; (2) advocating unofficial and democratic publishing; (3) demanding freedom of speech and abolishing the “crime of malicious attack”; (4) admiration and esteem for Western democracy; and (5) publicly evaluating Mao Zedong’s merits and failings. This content took many forms – poetry and stories, conversations, open letters, and annotations expressing agreement or disagreement. Some were signed with real names, others with pen-names, others still were completely anonymous. There were posters that showed a definite level of theoretical and literary skill, and there were also sarcastic and abusive rants; some were self-critical, others self-congratulatory.
Springing into action alongside the Xidan Democracy Wall were the people’s organisations and people’s publications, and the activist characters who emerged at this time. They would post their self-printed publications on the Xidan Wall, or distribute them to the crowds who came and went in their hundreds, eventually leading to attention from the Public Security Bureau. Foreign journalists and students in Beijing also rushed to Xidan to gather information and conduct interviews or chat with young people, and the foreign news services broadcasted news about it. All of this was certain to put Xidan firmly in the minds of the Central Government and other relevant agencies.
What did the appearance of Xidan Democracy Wall illustrate?
To explain this, we once again need to return to 1976, starting with the end of the Gang of Four in October.
After the Cultural Revolution’s 10 years of feudal fascist dictatorship ended with the smashing of its ruling group, our country entered a new era, the era of construction of a people’s democratic system. Liberated from heavy oppression, the Chinese people came out to vigorously demand thorough democratic reform, to demand change to the despotic system of dictatorship that had been masquerading as socialism for over 20 years, in order to gradually reform the country into a truly democratic – people’s democratic – advanced nation.
Pushing for this democratic reform were two main forces: one was a top-down force, the other bottom-up.
The former was that group of figures Mao Zedong had called “those persons in authority taking the capitalist road”. In order to advance quickly into a “communist society”, Mao established a Stalinist-style single-party dictatorship. He labelled people of different political views, as well as all the other forces he identified, as various kinds of “anti-Party, anti-socialist, anti-Mao Zedong Thought” forces – the “Three Antis”. These people had all previously possessed a certain level of power – from Party elders, to key figures in politics and the military, down to all levels of cadre, along with other public personalities and intellectuals – but they were now listed as targets for dictatorship.4 Mao named State Chairman and Party Vice-Chairman Liu Shaoqi and Party General Secretary and Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping as the bosses of a “bourgeois counterrevolutionary headquarters”, calling himself the highest commander in the “proletarian revolutionary headquarters” of a great rebel army, with Lin Biao as his assistant commander. Running amok in this way, Mao brought down everything, overturned everything, and created a long period of chaos under heaven. In the later stages of the Cultural Revolution, facing an almost impossible situation, Mao had no choice but to ask Zhou Enlai to clean up the mess. Through tireless effort, Zhou had elders including Deng Xiaoping, Ye Jianying and Hu Yaobang set free, along with another group of cadres of all ages, in order to carry out the comprehensive reorganisation needed to alleviate the country’s perilous situation. It was this group of characters who would overthrow and bury the regime of dictatorship, and take the lead in the new era of democratic reform.
Long-serving China Youth League Secretary Hu Yaobang was both a core figure in the comprehensive reorganisation under the leadership of Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, and one of the hidden plotters in the later overthrow of the Gang of Four. After the smashing of the Gang, in March 1977 he took up the post of Central Party School Executive Assistant Principal.5 This was the first restoration of a national-level cadre to a central leadership position, before other elders like Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun. He bravely shouldered the great mission of making youth organisations the Party’s rearguard, stepping forward without hesitation to bring together a group of pioneers on the theoretical and news fronts (with the covert support of some Party elders) to fire the first shots in the great movement for democratic reform. In October 1977, following the initial victory represented by criticism of the Gang of Four’s crimes and the ferreting out of the Gang’s factional power bloc, Comrade Yaobang set off a movement to rehabilitate those wrongly purged, setting free untold numbers of cadres of all levels, including many elders, and skilfully organising their return to leadership positions. This quickly reinvigorated areas in which work had long been paralysed. Soon afterwards, in May 1978, Yaobang and others set off a large-scale discussion about criteria for judging truth.6 Thus, by organisational, ideological and political methods, the longstanding dictatorship was basically brought to a close, the path was cleared for the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee, and, under the leadership of a new Party centre held up by Deng Xiaoping and with Hu Yaobang as General Secretary and Zhao Ziyang, Xi Zhongxun, Wan Li, etc., as core members, a new phase of reform and opening unfolded in country and city, economics and politics.
This was the top-down force for democratic reform. What about the other force, the bottom-up force for democratic reform?
At first, the force was the many low-level cadres, young workers and college students who had been attacked and ruined during the Cultural Revolution. Among these, some had been wronged particularly dreadfully, suffering the effects of injustice for many years either with nowhere to turn for recourse, or meeting with ever-heavier attacks the more they tried to clear their name. To be frank, the political rehabilitations that Hu Yaobang initiated were mostly of old cadres and a minority of mid- and low-level cadres. Rehabilitating the greater number of mid- and low-level cadres, workers, peasants and college students was still beyond his power. They saw the central government’s policy becoming more enlightened by the day, with large numbers of cadres being freed, and they eagerly demanded their own injustices be rectified. However, their tormentors were generally still in authority – thus, to be rehabilitated they needed their superiors’ mistakes to be corrected, which was a highly difficult proposition. So this great mass of wronged families fixed their eyes on the central government, and for a time petitioners flocked to Beijing and every provincial capital to appeal their cases. Besides seeking out the Central Organisation Department, Central Discipline Inspection Commission and each of the central government’s newspapers, some wrote their stories of injustice on big- and small-character posters, pasting them in populous places.
In the first few months the content of the vast majority of posters on the Xidan Wall was mostly grievances and appeals for justice – issues discussed on their own terms and rarely touching on politics. Many people came mainly to vent their own sense of injustice and seek opportunities for redress. As the official press criticised the ‘Two Whatevers’7 and promoted the discussion on the criterion of truth, the content of posters at the Xidan Wall concentrated more and more on the topic of political democracy, drawing closer and closer to sensitive issues and eventually leading to numerous and complex discussions. The discussions focused on questions like: is Xidan Democracy Wall a healthy thing or is it reactionary? Is it a display of vitality in our nation’s political life, or an element of instability? Should Democracy Wall be erased from our nation’s political life, or should it receive increased guidance to make it develop more healthily? These all concerned the big questions of whether or not to have socialist democracy, and if so how to develop it, and also whether or not it was possible to maintain a stable and unified political situation while accelerating the achievement of the Four Modernisations.
Party leadership figures speak highly of Democracy Wall
At the time, opinions among the leadership figures varied, with Deng Xiaoping and Ye Jianying both having publicly praised Democracy Wall. At a meeting with a Japanese Socialist Party committee head on November 26, 1978 Deng said: “Writing big-character posters is permitted by our country’s constitution. We have no right to deny or criticise the masses for carrying democracy forward by hanging these posters. If the masses are angry, let them release their anger. The masses’ comments are not all deeply thought-out, but we cannot demand complete correctness, and this is nothing to be afraid of.” Following this, in a speech during Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee in December, Deng reiterated, “The masses should be permitted to put forward opinions. Even if there are some harbouring grievances who want to use democracy to stir up trouble, that is still nothing to be afraid of – we should deal with it appropriately in the belief that the great majority of the masses can judge right from wrong.” Deng also warned: “A revolutionary party is one that is afraid of not hearing different voices – it is silence that is most to be feared.”
Ye Jianying, in his speech to the Third Plenum on December 13, spoke highly of Democracy Wall. Commander Ye said: “The Third Plenum is a model of internal Party democracy; the Xidan Democracy Wall is a model of people’s democracy.” These two sentences from Commander Ye were extremely important, representing an evaluation of the forces for democratic reform. For if these two democratic forces, top-down and bottom-up, could be solidly combined, it would surely be a huge advance. The position of the forces of democracy would be greatly strengthened in their struggle with the forces of dictatorship.
Unfortunately, Hu Qiaomu8 deleted these two sentences from the official published records of the Third Plenum.
It should be apparent that attitudes towards Xidan Democracy Wall were indeed many and varied. Some praised it, some derided it, some commented that it was great, others commented that it was terrible. When Deng Xiaoping made his comments he was very firm in his attitude, but after the meeting his bearing changed. As a great reader of people,9 Hu Qiaomu sensed this shift and used his power over document distribution to brazenly erase Commander Ye’s crucial two sentences.
The big change in Deng’s attitude came during the period of the Theoretical Work Conference,10 as two ideologies crossed swords in a fierce battle. By March 1979, after Ren Wanding and others had pasted up their Declaration of Chinese Human Rights, and especially after Wei Jingsheng posted Do We Want Democracy or a New Dictatorship? on March 25,11 Deng’s attitude had clearly undergone a major change. On the fourth day after Wei hung his poster he ordered Wei’s arrest. From this point on the conservative forces [within Deng’s reformist coalition] had the upper hand, and the fate of the Xidan Wall was extremely precarious.
Hu Yaobang: Democracy Wall is the heartfelt voice of the people
When the Democracy Wall first appeared the central leaders all followed it very closely. Chen Yun issued special instructions for the People’s Daily to send a reporter deep into the midst of the crowd to relay the movement’s dynamics and situation. The paper dispatched Internal Political Bureau editor Wang Yong’an to perform this task. I repeatedly warned him to do no more than try to learn the situation, understand its direction and ask for materials, and to absolutely avoid declaring his own opinions. Wang Yong’an wrote numerous ‘internal’ reports for the central leadership.12
I sent many reports about the Xidan Wall to Yaobang, and attended a small meeting he chaired.
In short, Comrade Yaobang was greatly interested in the Xidan Democracy Wall, having already indicated his admiration for it, and believed its big-character posters to be different from those of the Cultural Revolution and before. He believed that in the past they had mostly been used by leaders to punish and harm people. This time, the big-character posters were like those of the May Fourth Movement, voices coming from people’s hearts, a new people’s awakening.
I related to Yaobang how people were rushing to Beijing to petition, how some were taking to the streets with their complaints, others writing big-character posters, and still more sitting outside government offices silently asking for their petitions to be heard. I told him how this had greatly shocked some leaders in power, who had called loudly for order to be restored at once. I said this was a positive effect of his political rehabilitation programme. Most of the severely wronged cadres and ordinary people had seen how the central government was now encouraging rehabilitations, and many were now rushing to county and provincial capitals, showing their trust in and dependence on the central government and their belief that, with the central government now doing what was right, there was hope that their problems could be solved.
Yaobang agreed. He said that the rehabilitations had only just begun, so all over the country much work had to be done on the incoming letters and petitions, and every effort made to solve local problems locally if possible, in order to avoid involving the central government. While Yaobang continuously enlarged the scope of the rehabilitations, he also sent instructions to Party, government and news organisations everywhere to work harder on incoming letters and petitions. At the same time, he was actively preparing to call a national complaints handling conference. At this conference he said firmly: “All untrue words, all incorrect conclusions or handling of cases, no matter when or under what circumstances they happened, no matter what level of organisation or person authorised them, must be corrected by seeking truth from facts.”13 These instructions – Yaobang’s ‘Two No-matters’ – practically eliminated the ball-and-chain of the ‘Two Whatevers’, bringing the rehabilitations down to the base level, to cadres and masses who been suffering the effects of their injustice for more than a decade.
Comrade Yaobang also saw the petitioners’ hanging of big-character posters, the formation of people’s organisations and the emergence of people’s publications as greatly important, and directed all news organisations to be sure to reflect this situation in their reports. The People’s Daily published a ‘Special Compilation’ for the central government that included a selection of Xidan Wall big-character posters and some longer small-character posters and articles from the people’s publications. We also published an ‘F.Y.I.’ loose-leaf anthology for a small number of leaders. Other newspapers, periodicals and related work units in Beijing also specially published this type of internal reference material during this period.
For a period of time, the Guizhou people’s organisation called the ‘Enlightenment Society’ was very active in Beijing. In order to understand the Enlightenment Society’s circumstances, Yaobang got the People’s Daily to send a reporter to investigate. The office sent commentator Comrade Zhou Xiuqiang to Guiyang. After Zhou returned from his investigation, Yaobang summoned him specially to his office to hear his findings.
Yaobang: We must halt the slide away from the masses
Besides getting newspapers to dispatch journalists to cover the Wall, Yaobang also brought together newspapers, the Central Propaganda Department, the Communist Youth League, unions and other work units to discuss how best to deal with people’s organisations. The general spirit of this was was to discuss with us our experience of all the Party’s previous work for the masses. He recounted several great mass movements – the December Ninth Movement, the Xi’an Incident,14 strikes, petitions, marches, demonstrations – saying our Party had always appreciated the importance of such events. It was the Party’s special character to be deeply immersed among the masses, win the trust of the masses, and to rely on the masses in bringing forth its leadership function. This was our Party’s fine tradition of working for the masses, he said. But, he recalled, after we had taken power, our Party’s glorious tradition of working for the masses had gradually started to deteriorate. When the masses stood up, some of our leader-comrades became frightened. When they weren’t bossily issuing orders from above they were standing opposite the masses allocating blame. They began to fear the masses more and more so that now, if the masses wanted to gather, march or petition, they had to get approval first. Our mass organisations, like the Communist Youth League and the unions, had also changed, drifting further and further from the masses. We had to correct this course of action, he said, which had seen us sliding away from the masses.
Just as political posters began to appear on the Xidan Wall, Yaobang wrote a warmly cordial open letter to a youth, which was published in the April 10, 1978 edition of the People’s Daily as ‘Letter from an old cadre to a youth’. The letter especially emphasised that youth workers “should often go to the youth to discover advanced [role] models and types, and use these advanced things to guide, educate and influence other youths. The way to educate the young is not pressure and it is not arrests, it is guidance. ‘Guidance’ is a better term than ‘education’, as its meaning is broader. This is the conclusion of decades of work experience. Suppression and slaps on the hand, these are the methods of feudal parents.” These heartfelt words from a leader with decades of Youth League experience were a compass for dealing with youth and mass movements in the new era.
Yaobang: I respectfully suggest that comrades do not arrest people
After the arrest of Wei Jingsheng at the end of March 1979, Comrade Yaobang indicated his disagreement in a speech to the Second Session of the Fifth National People’s Congress in June. Yaobang said: “I support anyone exercising their democratic rights under a socialist system. I hope everyone can enjoy the greatest freedom under the protection of the Constitution. Despite the numerous comrades criticising me by name or otherwise during the Central Work Conference and this People’s Congress, saying I was going behind the central government’s back, supporting a so-called democratisation movement that violated the Four Modernisations, and encouraging anarchy, despite all that I still maintain my views.” Regarding Wei’s arrest he said: “I respectfully suggest that comrades do not arrest people who engage in struggle, still less those who merely show concern. Those who are brave enough to raise these problems, I fear, will not be put off by being thrown in jail. Wei Jingsheng has been held for more than three months, and if he dies he will become a martyr of the masses, a martyr in the hearts of all.”
That year, on November 14, the People’s Daily printed an article by Guo Luoji called ‘We can talk about political problems too’, examining and elucidating the principles of “don’t shoot the messenger” and “speech is not a crime”. Some people believed these articles spoke on behalf of Wei Jingsheng, and they lined up to criticise the People’s Daily. Hu Qiaomu was greatly incensed by it, complaining to Deng Xiaoping that the paper had flagrantly excused Wei of his crimes. This began a dispute between Hu Qiaomu and I. With no basis at all, he accused us of completely affirming the innocence of counterrevolutionary political opinions, and demanded to know why I had published this kind of important article without sending it to the central government for examination. In fact, the article had been reviewed and edited by Yaobang. Not wanting to pull him into this whirlpool of discord, I replied that the People’s Daily had the right to publish this kind of article without running it past the censors. Afterwards I consulted Yaobang, who specially arranged several legal experts to come and talk it over. They said Guo’s article was not particularly wrong, but that his thesis was not complete enough as it had not explained that freedom of speech was also restricted by the law. Forthwith they wrote an article for the People’s Daily called ‘Discussing the speech and behaviour problem within counterrevolutionary crimes’, reaffirming “don’t shoot the messenger” and explaining Article 102 of the Criminal Code, “the crime of counterrevolutionary incitement”, and the principles behind it.
Only then was the big stick of Hu Qiaomu safely avoided. From this we could see how committed Comrade Yaobang was to upholding freedom of speech and opposing speech-crimes. Later, when many of us persistently advocated the abolition of “counterrevolutionary crimes”, it was based on the same principle.
Hu Yaobang endorses the establishment of a Democracy Park
Resolutions were passed at the Second Session of the Fifth NPC in November 1979 on the question of banning the ‘Xidan Wall’, and at the Third Session in September 1980 on the question of abolishing the ‘Four Big Freedoms’ (the right to air views freely, to hold mass demonstrations, hang big-character posters and conduct great debates).15 These two resolutions strangled the Xidan Wall. I made statements to both sessions making clear my disagreement.
These two resolutions had already been decided by the central Party leadership so I could not openly oppose them. I could only objectively explain the Xidan Wall’s origins and development and suggest a pragmatic approach.
While the Fifth NPC’s Twelfth Standing Committee discussed banning the Xidan Wall in June 1979, in a group meeting I advocated replacing Democracy Wall with a Democracy Park. I did not agree with the idea of a ‘ban’ – I thought it would be better to increase supervision and nurture it instead. The opinions I presented on that occasion basically outlined Fan Rongkang and Yu Huanchun’s joint statement at the Theoretical Work Conference earlier that year, describing the following two suggestions:
“In order to guide the Democracy Wall towards healthier development, we suggest turning the Beijing Working People’s Cultural Palace into a Democracy Park with a special big-character poster area. Forums on democracy could be held in the Labour Theatre, 16 with the masses allowed to freely participate and speak. In accordance with the masses’ demands, heads of work units should be organised to meet with the masses and address the problems they bring up. That way the heads of Party and government departments could inform the masses of the relevant circumstances, difficulties and current plans so that they may have an understanding of the overall situation. If the masses have any objections they will be able to express them face-to-face, so naturally they will have no need to surround the premises of Party and government institutions.” We took England’s Hyde Park as an example in putting forward our vision. In the same NPC group meeting I said: “Britain’s bourgeois government has the courage to allow Hyde Park; could it be that our country’s proletarian people’s government is not even equal to them? Do were really dare not have a Democracy Park? There are many ways of realising democracy, and a Democracy Park is one good way, allowing mass opinions to be heard and all their positive elements to be put into the service of socialism – what could be wrong with that?”
Afterwards I outlined our opinions to Yaobang, who agreed with the idea of setting up a Democracy Park. He asked me to talk to the Beijing government. After looking into it the Beijing Municipal Committee told me they felt that the Working People’s Cultural Palace already served many functions and that to mess around with its original structure would create problems. But they agreed to let us choose a different park as a testing ground. Eventually Yuetan Park was chosen and a big-character poster area was established. However, with Wei Jingsheng having been arrested, and the tension increasing day by day, very few people hung posters there. And since Yuetan Park was not on a major transport routes, the numbers of people going there specifically to read posters were even smaller. The experiment died of natural causes.
Later I finally came to realise that while the idea of making the Working People’s Cultural Palace into a Democracy Park was a good one, it was completely unrealistic. Only in a highly democratic environment can such a thing be established or sustained. Clearly our thinking was rather naïve.
Cancelling “Big Democracy” is not cancelling democracy
In September 1980, as the Third Session of the Fifth NPC discussed removing the clause about the ‘Four Big Freedoms’ from the Constitution, I made a statement to a meeting of the Sichuan Delegation titled Cancelling ‘Big Democracy’ is not Cancelling Democracy.
In the statement I said: “I completely endorse the deletion of Clause 45 of the Constitution, the cancellation of Big Democracy of the ‘great contention of viewpoints/big demonstrations/big-character posters/great debates’ kind. The reason is that ever since this topic was raised in 1957, this so-called ‘Four Bigs’ form of Big Democracy has in reality been a tool for a succession of political movements aimed at suppressing others. Over the past 20-something years what were originally contradictions among the people, including many differences of opinion and acquaintance, were raised to the higher plane of ‘class and road struggle’.17 The methods of ‘Big Democracy’ were used by people to bring down those whose opinions were different from their own one after the other, and this was itself a fundamental violation of [Chairman Mao’s] theory of how to correctly handle contradictions among the people. Through successive political movements, and especially through the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’, everybody saw clearly that what we call the Four Bigs was in reality a way for figures in authority exploiting leadership and using distortion and exaggeration, framing and false accusations, arbitrary fabrication, the inversion of black and white, and never-ending escalation, to incite the masses (among them many naïve youths) to bring down those they wanted brought down.18 The framer and false accuser himself did not need to take any responsibility, since he was of the ‘rebel’ or ‘revolutionary’ faction, and ‘mass movements’ were ‘naturally rational’. Those falsely accused had absolutely no right to defend themselves. If they tried, even more big-character posters would appear. For a ‘stubborn attitude’ or ‘crazed counterattacks’, out would come the ‘unrepentant’ cap. Thus, the Four Bigs kind of Big Democracy had nothing to do with real democracy. It was just a way to deceitfully use the name ‘revolutionary mass movement’ to implement barbaric and feudal fascist dictatorship.”
In the same statement I also mentioned the misconceptions some members of society had towards the cancellation of the Four Bigs. I explained:
“There is currently some contention at home and abroad regarding the cancellation of the Four Bigs style of Big Democracy. Outside China it is understood according to translations. ‘Great contention of views’ and ‘great demonstrations’ are translated as ‘free speech’ and ‘complete expression of one’s views’. Foreigners find this difficult to understand – how can we cancel the people’s right to speak? I believe that cancelling the Four Bigs does not equal cancelling freedom of speech. This point only needs to be explained properly for people to understand. As for those people with ulterior motives who are using our cancellation of the Four Bigs to slander and attack us, that is a different sort of problem. Within China it is mainly due to the existence of bureaucratist and patriarchal ways among all levels of leadership. Also, some of the masses are still angry and have objections to raise, so many of them still believe big-character posters are useful and shouldn’t be completely cancelled. I believe this kind of opinion is reasonable. Thus, I suggest that if a poster is signed and taken responsibility for, presents the facts and talks reasonably, it should be allowed to be posted within the author’s work unit. This is completely different to the Four Bigs, representing instead the right to free speech that the people should have and that no person can deprive them of. The rules of the Four Bigs and Big Democracy have been deleted from the Constitution but that absolutely does not mean that all hanging of big-character posters now violates the Constitution.” My view was that only the indiscriminate hanging of big-character posters on the street should be prohibited, and that they should always be allowed in appropriate places within the grounds of government departments. Our newspaper should run more mass opinions, I said, and our publishing unit’s internal publications had to run more letters, petitions and complaints in order to provide more opportunities for the masses to express their opinions.
I discussed these opinions with Yaobang and he agreed with all of them.
‘Long Live the People’: The grand blueprint for the democracy movement in Yaobang’s heart
The initiator of the smashing of the Gang of Four, Commander Ye Jianying added the vital finishing touch to the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Standing Committee when he said: “The Third Plenum is a model of internal Party democracy; the Xidan Democracy Wall is a model of people’s democracy.” At that time Yaobang was working with the tide, trying to consolidate and develop the two forces for democracy, trying to bring them closer together, and gradually facilitating a new era of advanced democracy. A blueprint to develop this wave of democratic action had already started to take shape in Yaobang’s heart. Yaobang’s conception is best shown, I think, in a long exposition titled ‘Long Live the People’ that was run across three People’s Daily issues beginning on December 21, 1978, and which Yaobang coordinated the writing of under the name ‘Special Commentator’. The article originally came from a drafting group under the leadership of Ruan Ming and Lin Jianqing and was principally the latter’s work. This planned, programmatic thesis made perfect use of the opportunity afforded by the political rehabilitations of Tiananmen Incident participants and the removal of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Deng Nagy, Black Hand of the Tiananmen Counterrevolutionary Incident’ label at the Central Work Conference held in the lead-up to the Third Plenum.
‘Long Live the People’ was the theme of the article, and it was dedicated to evaluating the 1976 April Fifth Tiananmen movement and summarising its historical experience, explaining how this great revolutionary mass movement, like the May Fourth and December Ninth movements, showed the eternal truth and power of the people.
The article said: “The 1976 revolutionary mass movement was not just a display of Party, military and popular will, it was also a display of the people’s wisdom, talent, ingenuity and the art of struggle.” It said: “Before the movement there was nobody appealing, mobilising and organising; there was nobody checking the target of struggle, nobody drawing up programmes of struggle and nobody readying the battle flag of struggle. The masses of people were both the brave fighters of this movement and outstanding organisers and conductors . . . demanding scientific socialism, people’s democracy and the Four Modernisations was the programme for struggle that the masses themselves drew up during the movement, and it raised a most heartening and inspiring banner for achieving the Four Modernisations.”
This article came out just as the Xidan Democracy Wall mass movement was flourishing, so when it sang the praises of the April Fifth Tiananmen mass movement it was essentially praising the Xidan Democracy Movement too. The article said: “All the masses who suffered the oppression and bullying of the Gang of Four have genuinely stood up as a result of a general awakening. They have not only positively put forward their political and economic demands, they have also tried pushing for the achievement of these social transformations via their own methods, means and measures, leaving their mark on the whole revolutionary development process. They understood that . . . to achieve the Four Modernisations we first had to amputate the Gang of Four, that malignant tumour on the organism of Party and government . . . and that only by achieving the Four Modernisations can poverty, backwardness and the remnants of dictatorship finally be escaped, and a great socialist country with a high degree of political democracy and a flourishing economy become reality.”
The article continued: “The revolutionary movement at Tiananmen Square was the great act that decided the result of our Party’s struggle with the Gang of Four. It laid the important mass foundation for the ‘October Revolutionary Victory’ [the Gang’s arrest], and in this sense the Tiananmen Incident sounded the Gang’s death knell.”
The article’s brilliance lay in setting out the basic attitude revolutionaries should take towards revolutionary mass movements. As far as we genuine, original mass-revolutionaries were concerned that had never been something abstract, yet unfortunately over the years many of us had forgotten it. The time chosen for the article’s publication was just as the Xidan Democracy Wall was peaking and creating fear among some of those in power. This showed Hu Yaobang’s thorough open-mindedness towards the new-era democratic movement.
Outlining the correct basic attitude towards mass movements, the article issued a sincere and earnest warning to all revolutionaries: “This kind of great political awakening and historical activity is the most important manifestation of our Party and government’s efforts. Just as Lenin pointed out, ‘A state’s power lies in the awakening of its people. Only by taking the people to be all-knowing, all-determining and consciously all-doing can the state have power.’
“Every revolutionary and every Marxist should raise their hands to welcome and resolutely support the appearance of this type of spontaneous mass struggle that is forming itself into self-conscious revolutionary action.”
Immediately afterwards, the article quoted Lenin as saying: “The working people are extremely sensitive, and are most adept at discerning who is an honest and sincere communist.” The article then elaborated: “If there are some Party members and state cadres who forget our Party’s flesh-and-blood connection with the people, forget that our Party relies on the power of the masses to remain in power, who do not use the power the masses have assigned to them to protect the the people’s interest but instead pursue a life of luxury and big houses for themselves, scheming to deprive the people of their right to rule and even oppressing, attacking and persecuting the people and ruining the glorious reputation of the Party and socialism, then the people have the right to discard them. If these people experience a great mass movement like the Tiananmen Incident, and then still continue with their old ways, if they remain unwilling to grow a bit of honesty and sincerity on the back of the four words ‘Long Live the People’, then the result will not be pretty.”
This article was written in December 1978, so of course there was no way people could have predicted the even greater mass democracy movement that would break out 10 years later at Tiananmen. Even the NPC’s decision to shut down Xidan Democracy Wall just one year later was not easily foreseen. However the article had in fact highlighted this from the opposite angle, pointing out that when the masses rose up from below, the dragon would really have come to “those dragon-loving Dukes of Ye”.19 Those who “don’t go out and discover for themselves, who don’t support and correctly guide the masses’ self-conscious history-making operations, who are unwilling to keep up with the mass revolutionary ranks ahead, who gesticulated wildly and criticised minute details after the great struggle and victory of the masses – isn’t this the furthest one can get from a Marxist attitude towards mass movements?”
The article sharply pointed out to the elderly lords of the Party: “There are some comrades who have made revolution for many years but who do not understand socialist democracy, who panic at the first sign of an upsurge of popular democratic spirit and always want to increase restrictions and suppression, who stand opposite rather than with the masses, thus completely departing from the basic principles of Marxism and our Party’s fundamental standpoint. This is totally mistaken.”
These passages seem to forecast how that clique of leftist forces would once again strike at and oppress the mass democratic movement. Unfortunately this warning did not attract the attention it should have, including from the new batch of leaders, among them Yaobang. Of course, it would not be true to say that Yaobang was not vigilant at all. Soon after the end of the Cultural Revolution, as people were savouring that triumph, Comrade Yaobang reminded the Chinese people to celebrate on the one hand the emergence of new forces for people’s democracy but on the other to be more alert in order to avoid complications. As time has passed, the historic masterpiece that he oversaw the writing of more than twenty years ago has appeared increasingly brilliant.
Yaobang initiated the political rehabilitations when he had only just returned to the political stage.
While many old comrades were celebrating their liberation, he was weighed down with anxieties. Some comrades had raised a pointed issue: “Will another ambitious schemer like Lin Biao or Jiang Qing appear in our Party? Will they be able once again to usurp the Party and state’s power of leadership?” Others from the media also raised the same type of problem with Yaobang: “Will the central Party newspapers again fall under the control of double-dealers, becoming once more tools in the usurping of the Party and state?” There were people who asked bluntly: “Will the Gang of Four stage a comeback?” I remember that at the time Yaobang answered clearly: “The Gang cannot come back, but it is possible they will be reincarnated in someone else’s body.”
This shows Yaobang’s foresight. However, later facts showed that Yaobang also had significant limitations, for during the Theoretical Work Conference in early 1979 some particularly forward-thinking comrades raised the issue of Mao Zedong’s criminal responsibility for the Cultural Revolution and whether we should be talking about a Gang of Four or a Gang of Five. Unfortunately people of this type were few in number; the majority of the Party elite had not arrived at that level of awakening. I myself also had not.
As far as I know, Hu Yaobang knew all about the shifting circumstances that surrounded the arrest of Wei Jingsheng and the banning of Democracy Wall. He was clear on Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Uphold the Four Cardinal Principals’20 and the gradual backsliding of the central Party’s anti-leftist policy. He knew about Hu Qiaomu’s deletion of the vital section of Commander Ye’s speech to the Third Plenum – “the Third Plenum is a model of internal Party democracy; the Xidan Democracy Wall is a model of people’s democracy” – from the official record. Afterwards Hu worked at developing and consolidating the two democratic forces and bringing them closer together towards the creation of a new democratic wave. Just think: if the spirit of the Third Plenum – the “model of internal Party democracy” – had been successfully implemented, and the “model of people’s democracy”, Xidan Democracy Wall, had been able to develop smoothly, if the two had really come together, what would our country’s new democracy movement have become? It is worth pondering.
As it happened, Yaobang rallied [Zhao] Ziyang, Wan Li, Xi Zhongxun and other central leader-comrades to devote their all to implementing a guiding policy centred on economic construction. From abolishing the commune system in the countryside to breaking up the planned economy in the cities, they went against the tide, eliminating countless problems and, step by step, they corrected layer upon layer of errors from the era when Mao was in charge. It seems that as this great reform movement proceeded, spurring the rapid development of the entire national economy, Yaobang was increasingly powerless to halt the Party’s retreat from the anti-leftist policy following the Four Cardinal Principles speech. After all, trying to fight a surging tide will only leave you at the bottom of the ocean.
More than twenty years on, remembering how Comrade Yaobang treated the popular democratic movement during the Xidan Democracy Wall period, I feel even more strongly that it should never be forgotten. It is worth reflecting on!
- 容异纳谏 rong yi na jian, tolerant of dissenting views and accepting of admonition.
- 民间团体；民间刊物 minjian tuanti, minjian kanwu. Refers to non-government groups and publications. 民间 minjian, literally “among the populace”, is the opposite of 官方 guanfang, “officialdom”.
- The term ‘4-5’, referring to the date April 5, 1976, implied a connection between the 1976 movement and the watershed ‘5-4’ movement of May 4, 1919, when protesters took to the streets to voice their opposition to the Treaty of Versailles and the impoverished state of the nation.
- 专制对象 zhuanzhi duixiang. Dictatorship is used as a verb here, reflecting Mao’s declaration that the people should “exercise dictatorship over reactionaries” in his 1949 article ‘On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship’. The phrase might otherwise be rendered “targets for suppression”.
- 中央党校常务副校长 zhongyang dangxiao changwu fuxiaozhang.
- ‘Practice is the sole criterion of truth’ (实践才是检验真理的唯一标准 shijian cai shi jianyan zhenli de weiyi biaozhun) was the title of an article that became a rallying call for the reformist cause by attacking the theoretical basis of the ‘Two Whatevers’ (see note 12). It is today seen as crucial in the rise of Deng Xiaoping to power at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee later that year. Hu Yaobang was heavily involved in the drafting of the article and its publication in the Party media. See Goldman, M. (1994) ‘The Role of the Press in Post-Mao Political Struggles’ in C-C. Lee (ed.) China’s Media, Media’s China, Colorado: Westview Press.
- Chairman Hua Guofeng’s formulation that “we will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave”.
- Veteran Party theoretician and speechwriter for Deng Xiaoping, Hu Qiaomu was a powerful figure on the conservative side of Deng’s reform coalition.
- 善于察言观色 shan yu chayan guanse.
- Organised by Hu Yaobang, it ran for over 10 weeks from late January 1979.
- There are two Chinese words that may be rendered ‘dictatorship’: one is 专制 zhuanzhi, as used in the sense of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and thus implying a collective dictatorship; the other, 独裁 ducai, carries strong overtones of individual rule or despotism. It was the latter term that Wei used in the title of his article.
- Party-run media organisations in China did cover sensitive issues, however, their reports about such issues were (and, it may be assumed, still are) often only published in the numerous ‘internal’ bulletins.
- ‘Seek truth from facts’ was one of the catchcries of the reform movement, a theoretical formulation of Mao’s that Deng Xiaoping ingeniously used to legitimate criticism of Mao’s successor and the ‘Two Whatevers’ policy. See, for example, Deng’s September 16, 1978 speech entitled ‘Hold high the banner of Mao Zedong Thought and adhere to the principle of seeking truth from facts’ (link).
- The former refers to mass protests in Beijing on December 9, 1935, the latter to the kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek in Xi’an on December 12, 1936. Both were aimed at forcing the Kuomintang government into actively resisting Japanese aggression.
- The ‘Four Big Freedoms’ had been enshrined in the Constitution at the behest of Hua Guofeng in early 1978. The Dengist Central Committee decided in early 1980 that they were to be abolished, a decision that was ratified by the NPC later that year.
- 劳动剧场 laodong juchang – located inside the Working People’s Cultural Palace in Beijing.
- ‘Road struggle’ refers to the posited choice between the ‘capitalist road’ and the ‘socialist road’.
- This seems to be a reference to Chairman Mao, with Mao’s name conspicuously not mentioned. This is quite understandable given that the statement preceded the Party Central Committee’s adoption of ‘Resolutions on Some Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China’, the document that finally made it officially acceptable to say that Mao had made mistakes.
- The Duke of Ye was a historical figure of the Spring and Autumn period who claimed to love dragons but in fact was terrified of them.
- Outlined in one of Deng’s most famous and influential speeches, delivered just days before Wei Jingsheng’s arrest. The Four Cardinal Principals specified four principles that were off-limits for political dissent: 1. Socialism; 2. The dictatorship of the proletariat; 3. The leadership of the Party; and 4. Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.
- Cheng Ming via Record History (Chinese): Hu Yaobang and the Xidan Democracy Wall