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 on political issues and they promised not to retaliate against those who took part in it. Outspoken discussion of social and political reforms soon took place in newspapers, journals, intellectual circles, and student organizations. A variety of articles and debates suggested that China should have a system of checks and balances, legal protections of human rights, freedom of expression, and even a multiparty system. The liveliness and tolerance with which such ideas were discussed had not been seen in China since the first Hundred Flowers period thirty years before.

Deng and his allies wanted to use this ferment from below to bring pressure in favor of their own more limited administrative reforms at the Sixth Plenum of the Twelfth Central Committee in September 1986. They, for example, wanted to separate the functions of the Party and government and hold competitive elections for local assemblies. But instead of talking about political reforms, the plenum’s final resolution emphasized the need to build a “socialist spiritual civilization” and warned against “bourgeois liberalization.” The switch in emphasis revealed that a counterattack had been mounted against Deng and the leading reformers by their conservative colleagues in the Politburo, led by the economic planner Chen Yun and the president of the National People’s Congress, Peng Zhen. Both had helped to sponsor the Soviet-type system of the early 1950s; and they regarded the wideranging public debates on political reforms in the weeks before the plenum as a threat to their entrenched power over the bureaucracy. It was not, as some Western reporters thought, the dramatic student demonstrations of December 1986 that set off a conflict between the reformers and the conservatives; the demonstrations were really a response to the events of September, a desperate attempt to revive the political debates that had been going since last spring and to counter the political shift to the conservative leaders. The military leaders, moreover, were also against political reforms; and they were especially unhappy with Hu Yaobang, whose tolerance of dissent and demonstrations, and coolness toward the military establishment itself, made him unacceptable to them as Deng’s successor.


Under pressure from the conservatives and the military, Deng switched sides in late 1986 and launched the national campaign against bourgeois liberalization, discharging Hu Yaobang as Party general secretary on January 16, 1987. Hu has been Deng’s protégé since the 1940s when he was a commissar in the army, led by Deng, that took over Sichuan in the civil war with the Guomindang. Yet Deng may not have been reluctant to get rid of Hu. Deng wants economic reforms and perhaps administrative reforms, but he certainly does not want democratic reforms. He suppressed the Democratic Movement of the young ex–Red Guards in 1979 after using their criticisms to purge the remaining Maoists in the top leadership. He jailed their leaders and decreed that debates must take place within the limits of the regime’s four fundamental principles—adherence to socialism, the people’s democratic dictatorship, the Party, and Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. During the fall of 1983, again under pressure from conservatives, he launched another campaign against the intellectuals, this time accusing them of spreading “spiritual pollution,” which included, for example, the writings of Freud, Kafka, and Sartre, as well as Western Marxist theories. He stopped the campaign in early 1984, when it began to interfere with his economic reforms.

The current campaign against the intellectuals has already become more repressive than the campaign against spiritual pollution, and it is unlikely that it will be brought under control so quickly. Dismissing Hu also means the removal not just of a few promising intellectuals, but of a number of editors, journalists, writers, economists, scientists, and a good many experts who have been associated with Hu since he was the head of the China Youth League during the 1950s. Even then, Hu urged the Youth League members to be independent, outspoken in criticism of the bureaucracy, and to engage in professional and scientific activity.

It may seem strange that Hu, an oldtime Marxist who was head of the Young Pioneers at the age of fourteen and has had little experience of the West, should espouse such values. But Hu is said to be a man with genuine intellectual curiosity. He has read widely in Western and East European Marxist texts that diverge sharply from orthodox Soviet and Maoist interpretations. Moreover, he comes from the Hakka ethnic group. The Hakkas, meaning “guests” in Chinese, migrated from North China to other areas, and were less embedded in traditional ways; they tended to be combative, inventive, and more open to the world at large. Although a tiny minority of the population, they have produced a large percentage of China’s revolutionary leaders, including the Taiping rebels in the nineteenth century, Sun Yat-sen, father of the 1911 revolution, and Deng himself.

During the late 1950s Hu was unable to protect his followers from being sent away for labor reform as “rightists,” and he himself suffered in the Cultural Revolution. When he returned to power with Deng in late 1978, he brought with him his former Youth League followers; they are now not only prominent in the bureaucracies but also in senior positions in the propaganda apparatus, the press, and the intellectual, literary, and artistic establishment. The most outspoken of them has been Liu Binyan, a close associate of Hu’s from the Youth League days, and for many years a journalist for the People’s Daily, the Party’s major official newspaper. He was one of the first three intellectuals to be expelled from the Party in the current campaign.

During the first Hundred Flowers period, Liu described the central conflict in China as one between rigid, incompetent bureaucrats and young, idealistic Party youth. During the Deng era he has gone further. In many of the stories he has published in recent years he presents the bureaucracy as thoroughly corrupt and only interested in its own power and privileges; many of the idealistic young people of the 1950s, as he makes clear, went on to become victims of thirty years of Party campaigns for daring to speak out against injustice and economic irrationality. When almost everyone else remained silent, they resisted the disastrous policies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, despite imprisonment and the threat of death. After the cataclysm of the Cultural Revolution, which affected some hundred million people, the courageous dissenters of whom Liu writes attracted a wide audience and restored a degree of national self-confidence. Even under the Deng regime, they criticized what Liu called in one of his stories the “invisible machine” of the Party’s bureaucratic interests. (The courageous people he described could hardly have been more different from Lei Feng, the man chosen by the Party, under Deng as well as Mao, as the model of communist virtue. Lei Feng, a soldier, obeyed every Party command.) At a meeting in 1979, Liu advised writers that in case of a conflict between what the Party commands and what one believes is best for society, “We should listen to the people; we owe our allegiance to their welfare and needs”—because, he added, “the Party is not infallible.”1


Without a free press or an independent legal system, people throughout China who were unable to get a hearing for their grievances took their cases to Liu in the hope that he would write about the injustices they suffered. Since he is now China’s most popular writer, it is not surprising that the conservative leaders find him and the dissenters he praises a threat to their power. In the “spiritual pollution” campaign of 1983, they attempted to get at Liu and at another independent intellectual promoted by Hu, the writer Wang Rouwang, who is now also being attacked. Hu was able to protect them then; now that he is no longer general secretary, the conservatives can denounce his associates while they widen the current campaign. They now say that if the campaign against spiritual pollution had not been interrupted in 1983 they would have been able to prevent the wide-open debates and student demonstrations of 1986.

The highly respected astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who had spent some time at Princeton in 1986, expressed views similar to Liu’s on university campuses during the last few years. In a speech at Jiaotung University in Shanghai in November 1986, Fang, whom Chinese students call China’s Sakharov, urged young intellectuals to participate directly in political affairs. For too long, he said, intellectuals and students had been dependent on the decisions of the top leaders which were not always correct. If they want democracy they must fight for it, because “democracy granted from above is not democracy in a real sense. It is relaxation of control.”

This meant, Fang said, that the recent official tolerance was only a phase of the Party’s cyclical policy toward the intellectuals, and that it would inevitably be followed by another period of repression. In contrast to the Party’s current insistence that stability and economic development will only come with increased Party control and discipline, Fang argued that the decisive factor “lies in whether intellectuals as a group have the awareness of democracy and consistently strive for their rights.” Human rights are not unique to the West, but exist for all human beings, including the Chinese. Thus Fang urges students to fight for their rights, learn professional skills, and join the Party, because he believes that is the only way to break the cycle and avoid another Cultural Revolution. “It would be tragic if China is to repeat this cycle.”2

Fang’s students at the prestigious University of Science and Technology in Anhui province, where he was vice-president, responded to his appeals. They began the first student demonstrations on December 5 by protesting against the Party’s official nominees to represent their district at the People’s Congress, a local assembly. With Fang’s help and Hu’s sanction, they held an open election with competing candidates in which Fang and a student were elected to represent their district.

Not only did Fang share Liu’s and Wang’s aim of making the Chinese public aware of its democratic rights; he had like them been branded a “rightist” during the late 1950s. The three men planned a “commemorative” meeting in June 1987, on the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the anti-rightist campaign, in order to publicize its “evils” and to help insure that such persecutions would not be repeated. Liu had interviewed victims of the campaign and planned to publish a multi-volume oral history dealing with it. Contrary to the official line, these intellectuals believe that the Cultural Revolution was not just an aberration of Mao and the “gang of four” but evolved out of the previous campaigns against intellectuals, principally the anti-rightist campaign.

As it happens, Deng Xiaoping and Peng Zhen, the leaders of the current campaign against bourgeois liberalization, had also been in charge of the anti-rightist campaign thirty years ago, and their assistants led the campaign against spiritual pollution in 1983. Deng has stated repeatedly that the anti-rightist campaign was “not wrong at all” even though he admitted it had affected “too many” people. It is therefore not surprising that Deng and Peng regarded the planned condemnation of the anti-rightist campaign as a thinly veiled attack on themselves. Thus the animosities and vendettas of a handful of aging leaders make the current campaign a factional as well as an ideological struggle, with China’s intellectuals once again the chosen victims, this time the group associated with Hu Yaobang.

Deng might also be responding to a strong conservative element in the population at large. It is not unusual to hear ordinary Chinese complain that loosening discipline has caused public morals to deteriorate or that the economic reforms, which removed controls from the farmers and small entrepreneurs, have caused increases in prices. Some workers wanted to join the December student demonstrations, but the students rejected their offer when they found the workers wanted to protest about economic rather than political issues. Cracking down on dissent and slowing down some of the reforms no doubt are responses to popular concerns.

Zhao Ziyang, the former premier who has replaced Hu as general secretary, has assured the intellectuals that the current campaign will be limited to Party members who have unacceptable views on political ideology. During the late Fifties similar efforts were made to limit the anti-rightist campaign, but, as we have noted, about 400,000 people became its victims. Once a movement to punish dissidence gains momentum in China, it becomes very difficult to control. Purging a small number of top officials such as Hu and his propaganda director Zhu House, and a few famous intellectuals such as Liu and Fang, makes those lower down the bureaucratic and intellectual hierarchy who have expressed criticism, or even remained neutral, easy targets for vengeance by opportunists and factional enemies.

The campaign could have even more serious repercussions for Deng’s economic reforms. So far, only a small number of Party intellectuals have been openly criticized. They cannot, however, be dismissed as just a few brave, idealistic writers and a politically involved scientist. They also include Yu Guangyuan, vice-president of the Academy of Social Sciences, and several economists who have been the leading advocates of price reform, market forces, and emphasis on consumer goods, all measures essential for the success of the economic reforms. The president and vice-president of the Academy of Sciences were dismissed because they had appointed Fang as vice-president of the University of Science and Technology. Investigations are now being made at the research institutes to find out if the experts who studied abroad absorbed some Western spiritual pollution along with their scientific training.

After the chaos of the Mao years, the Deng regime came to power promising the public that it would act according to fair and regularly followed procedures. With Hu Yaobang’s encouragement, the Academy of Sciences had elected its own leaders in 1981. Yet in January 1987, the National People’s Congress, headed by Peng Zhen, removed the president and vice-president, both educated in the United States before 1949, and appointed to replace them a new president, educated in the Soviet Union. These were acts beyond the Congress’s jurisdiction. Similarly with Hu’s blessing, the Chinese Writers Union in late 1984 held an election, a secret ballot with competing candidates, in which Liu Binyan received the second highest number of votes. He became a vice-chairman and the respected older writer Ba Jin became chairman. Liu will now probably lose this position along with his Party membership. Perhaps most important, Hu Yaobang was dismissed without any of the regular Party procedures being followed. This may mark the beginning of a factional struggle for succession to Deng that could destabilize China long after the campaign against bourgeois liberalization is over.

That the campaign is already getting out of control is suggested by the daily appeals of the leaders to contain it. They also assure non-Party intellectuals that they will not be touched and they can continue to speak openly. Yet the attacks on a small number of well-known scientists and economists are bound to intimidate even the non-Party scientists and economists whose work is essential to China’s economic modernization. Fear and resentment can be expected to discourage them from taking intellectual risks and some may simply withdraw from their work in the recent economic programs. Moreover, those now studying abroad may be reluctant to return.

Deng may have felt he was sacrificing a few Party intellectuals and forgoing some improvements in administration in order to placate his conservative opposition and continue his economic reforms, or even prevent them from being rolled back. But in the long run he may have actually undermined those reforms because he has lost the confidence of the intellectuals who must carry them out. Without the pressure for far-reaching changes that came from Hu and his intellectual allies, Deng no longer has leverage against his conservative colleagues to continue his economic reforms.

Before the current campaign, People’s Daily had aptly described the ups and downs of Liu Binyan’s career as the barometer by which to evaluate China’s political climate. His purge from the Party seems to mean the lively spring and summer of Deng’s experiments have given way to a dull, monotonous winter. Yet it is not exactly a return to the blizzard of the Cultural Revolution or even the storm of the anti-rightist campaign. The three principal intellectual targets—Liu, Wang, and Fang—despite heavy pressure, have still refused to make abject self-criticisms, as most of the intellectuals have done when strongly attacked in the past. Some of their colleagues have already denounced them, but a few of Fang’s colleagues at the University of Science and Technology have refused to go along with the rest of the faculty in attacking Fang. And so far, at least, some of China’s most prominent writers such as Ba Jin have not joined in the denunciations against Liu and Wang. The decisions the intellectuals take now may well affect the outcome of the current campaign. Will they join together to protect their own long-range interests or will they, as in the Maoist era, take part in the attack in order to protect themselves? Not only their bitter past experiences but also their more recent exposure to Western institutions and intellectuals may encourage them to hold out.

The Chinese leaders want to cultivate a favorable image abroad and they need access to Western technology and capital. The outside world may now have a degree of influence that would have been unthinkable during the Cultural Revolution, when the regime did not care what the “imperialists” and “capitalists” had to say. Until now, China has been spared the harsh criticism that has been routinely made in Western countries against the Soviet Union for its treatment of such dissidents as Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. When Deng launched the current campaign he remarked that in 1979 the outside world did not care that he had Wei Jingsheng of the Democratic Movement sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He implied that he did not expect much Western reaction this time either. His remark accurately reflects the relative silence from abroad about China’s treatment of its intellectuals; but it also suggests that Deng may take account of what the outside world has to say. Protests from the West may not be of much help to those now under attack. Still they might prevent the current campaign from turning into a second anti-rightist movement.

This Issue

March 26, 1987