China: Intellectuals at Bay

Hu Yaobang
Hu Yaobang; drawing by David Levine

Once again, the Chinese Communist party’s customary target—the intellectuals—are under attack. When Deng Xiaoping returned to power in late 1978, he promised to redress the wrongs of the Maoist era. In contrast to Mao’s denigration of the intellectuals, Deng said they were necessary to China’s modernization and promised never again to attack or wage campaigns against them. Yet less than ten years later he and his associates have launched another movement, this one against “bourgeois liberalization,” directly threatening the entire Chinese intellectual community.

Despite the democratic rhetoric and more restrained methods of the Deng era, the current campaign is just the latest episode in the Party’s contradictory policy toward intellectuals. Since the Party came to power in 1949, it has sought the cooperation of intellectuals in developing the economy, but it has also insisted that they conform to every shift in the Party’s political and ideological line. Since these goals are contradictory, policy toward the intellectuals has oscillated between periods of repression and periods of relative relaxation. These cycles are influenced by political and economic events, but they have a dynamic of their own: the Party insists more and more strongly on conformity until the intellectuals become reluctant to cooperate with it; then it relaxes its control until the intellectuals’ independence and criticism threaten the Party’s authority. The Party then presses hard on the intellectuals once again. The Cultural Revolution, which ravaged China from 1966 to 1976, was the high point of this repressive cycle. The fierce political and factional struggle between Mao and his Party associates made the entire intellectual community the scapegoat. The still vivid memories of the Cultural Revolution will prevent the current campaign from matching its violence, mass rampages, and fanaticism, but the cyclical forces that set it in motion are similar.

The current campaign against “bourgeois liberalization” more closely resembles the anti-rightist campaign of the late 1950s, which followed the Hundred Flowers period of 1956 and 1957, when Mao encouraged intellectuals to debate and criticize the regime in the hope of shaking up the Party bureaucracy. After the intellectuals criticized not only the bureaucrats but the Party itself, the Party cracked down on the critics and some 400,000 people went to prison, were sent to work in the countryside, or were otherwise punished.

A similar process is at work today. Last spring, the Party’s reform leaders, Deng Xiaoping, Premier Zhao Ziyang, and especially Hu Yaobang, then the Party’s general secretary, set in motion a second Hundred Flowers period. They urged discussion of political reforms and criticism of Party wrongdoing, evidently believing such discussion would accelerate the pace of economic reforms. They had concluded that as long as the Party cadres remained entrenched in the state economic enterprises and bureaucracy, the economy would not run efficiently. Although their proposals to reduce the Party’s role in the economy and bureaucracy were modest, they called for a national debate…

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