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The Cultural Revolution and Freedom of Speech

December 30, 2013

“Farewell to a classmate leaving the countryside to work in the city.” Drawing by Hu Ping, 1972. Courtesy of Hu Ping.

No event has had a bigger influence on me than the Cultural Revolution. First, it is because the Cultural Revolution was a major event in its own right. Second, it is because of my age: I was 19 years old in 1966, a high school student in Chengdu.

I was the class of 1966. High school students in the classes of 1966, 1967, and 1968 are known as the "old three classes." The reason the “old three classes” became a sociological term and the generation that has the strongest sense of a shared identity is that these individuals all have a set of special and protracted common experiences. They participated in the Cultural Revolution for two and a half years at school, and, for that reason, they became known as the Red Guard generation. Afterwards, they were all sent to the countryside and became known as the “educated youth” generation. The old three classes were "born in the new society, and grew up under the red flag." They were the products of the Communist Party of China. But the tumultuous changes during the Cultural Revolution and great hardships of life in the countryside compelled them to reflect and doubt, and some of them began cultivating rebellious ideas. That is why this generation also became known as the “thinking generation.”

The two years leading up to the Cultural Revolution was a period in my life when I felt the greatest sense of being lost. From childhood, I was determined to be a scientist. I studied very hard, consistently testing as the top student in my whole school. I also served as the squad leader and captain of the Young Pioneers of China. My name always appeared on the list of the most outstanding students. But as the rhetoric of class struggle and the revolutionizing of thought was reaching fever pitch, academic achievement became unimportant, and the desire to become a scientist was viewed as "bourgeois individualism" and much derided.

For students, family background became the chief measure of advancement. My father was an officer in the Nationalist army, who later "revolted with the army" and joined the People's Liberation Army. Yet, during the 1952 campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries, he was executed for crimes against the revolution. Because of this problem with my family background, when I applied to join the Communist Youth League in middle school, my application was not approved. When it came time to apply to high school, even though my test scores were among the best in the entire city, I was not admitted to any top-ranking ones. I was assigned to a school far away from home where the teaching quality was very poor. After entering high school, the school authorities emphasized class, that is, discrimination based on family background. Despite being elected head of the student association by a wide margin in my first year, I was later blacklisted and never again had the chance of becoming a student cadre or being picked as the most outstanding student.

In those years, family background counted even more for college admission. A student with a "bad" family background, regardless of how high his or her test scores were, would not be accepted by any university. I felt discriminated against and rejected; I felt that I did not fit into the society I was living in. But because it was not possible for me to have my own independent view in the closed and repressive environment of that time, I was not able to develop a clear critical consciousness. Instead, I felt confused and lost.

When the Cultural Revolution started, I, too, had hoped to transform myself and the world, and I threw myself into the movement energetically. I tried to demonstrate through my activism that I, too, was a revolutionary. In the beginning of the movement, I did what my classmates did and wrote big-character posters criticizing our teachers and "the bourgeois educational line." Soon, our verbal and written criticism toward teachers with “serious problems” and those who were labeled "cow spirits and snake demons" escalated into personal humiliation and physical beatings. Some of those teachers were detained in unofficial jails, or "cow sheds," as they were called. This kind of brutality disgusted me. Next, the Beijing Red Guard mantra, “A revolutionary’s son is a real man, a reactionary’s son is a rotten egg,” spread Chengdu. My school's Cultural Revolutionary committee and Red Guards held a school-wide class line debate. I, as a classic example of the "black five categories" (landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists) bore the brunt of the criticism. I believed that this expression was one-sided and wrong, and, even more, I could not concede that I was a rotten egg. I went up to the stage several times and argued for what I felt was right. Three of the three and a half days of the debate were devoted to criticizing me. I felt an unprecedented sense of isolation and being wronged.

In October 1966, the central government issued a call to criticize the “bourgeois reactionary line” [shifting the targets of struggle from “class enemies” to “capitalist-roaders”]. I was greatly heartened. I took the lead to release the teachers who had been locked up in cow sheds. I read the article "On Family Background"[1] in a Beijing newspaper borrowed from a friend.  (Later I learned that its author was Yu Luoke.) It resonated with me powerfully. Several classmates and I started a little journal of our own. We reprinted Yu Luoke's article, and I wrote the launch editorial and two articles. At that time, I believed that I really understood the Cultural Revolution and greatly supported "Great Proletarian Democracy."

We were permitted to write big-character posters, produce our own newspapers, and form our own social organizations—all were unthinkable before the Cultural Revolution. Previously, one could be branded "anti-party" just for criticizing the CPC branch secretary in one's work unit. Now we could criticize any official if we thought his words or actions violated Chairman Mao's thought. But the “great democracy” of the Cultural Revolution actually had strictly defined limits all along.

At that time, even when I learned that someone was arrested for publishing big-character posters that targeted Chairman Mao, Party vice-chairman Lin Biao, or the Central Cultural Revolution Group,[2] and the writer was labeled “reactionary” and “counterrevolutionary,” I thought nothing of it. It was due to our own childish and narrow thinking that we did not have a strong sense of this kind of restriction and crackdown.

The happy feeling I described above did not last long. Qin Benyu of the Central Cultural Revolution Group called "On Family Background" a "big poisonous weed" and "bourgeois objectivism," and that it "incited classmates with bad class backgrounds to be dissatisfied with the Party." At that time, the Central Cultural Revolution Group was like a religious tribunal: its word was final judgment, no proof was needed and no rebuttal was allowed. I thought about my family background for a long time, and there was no way I could accept this judgment. I did not openly raise an objection, but kept my doubts to myself.

I belonged to the “rebel faction”, but a relatively unconventional rebel faction. I was frequently criticized by my comrades-in-arms as "old right deviation." The label did not so much refer to my point of view as my attitude. For example, I was opposed to a conservative organization, but I did not necessarily want to have the conservative organization "struck down" or "smashed." I also believed that our school director was an "an alien class element" and should be “struck down.” But by “struck down,” I just meant fired from his job and expelled from the Party, I thought he could remain a teacher. Even though it was a conflict between us and the enemies, it could still be resolved as a conflict among the people. At a minimum, he should be released from his cow shed.

Chengdu was one of the first places where mass organizations began resorting to violence against each other, and where the violence was most extreme. First it was the rebel faction against the conservative faction. After the conservative faction was defeated, the rebel faction split into two big factions and they began fighting with each other even more fiercely and for an even longer period. I always opposed violent struggle and actively supported uniting the two big factions. I felt that my stance was in keeping with Chairman Mao's teachings. What I didn't understand was that during the movement, it was always the fierce stance and cruel practices that gained the upper hand and received the authorities' approval.

In the later stages of the movement, the workers’ and army’s Chairman Mao Thought propaganda teams entered and garrisoned in our school, and a Revolutionary Committee was also established. It was soon followed by a movement to "purify class ranks." Quite a number of teachers who had been labeled "cow spirits and snake demons" in the beginning of the Cultural Revolution were again called "enemies of the people" and "dregs of the Nationalists" and received cruel maltreatment. I was said to have “reversed the verdict for class enemies” and was sent to a "study class" for criticism. It was not until Chairman Mao issued the call for educated city youth to go down to the countryside to be reeducated by the poor and lower middle-class peasants, and the whole school was sent to the countryside that their criticism of me stopped.

In March 1969, I was sent with 19 of my classmates to work in a production brigade in the suburb of Dukou in the southern tip of Sichuan Province. We were a collective household: aside from doing the farm work in the brigade, we cooked together, and jointly operated the land we were allocated. Everyone worked unstintingly. We also brought to the whole village electricity, electric lights, and public address loudspeakers, and improved the use of pesticides. However, all this heavy labor was only enough to sustain our meager living. I couldn't help feeling that it was a senseless waste of the knowledge we had.

In this environment of heavy labor, I tried my best to carve out time to read and think. I gradually came to my own realization that we were living under a dark and tyrannical system. Mao was the tyrant, and the success of the Cultural Revolution just created broader and more severe political repression. The "Great Proletarian Democracy" claimed to give the people the greatest freedom, but would not give enemies or counterrevolutionaries any freedom. But it was the authorities that decided who were the people and who were the enemies, and the authorities divided the two groups based on the support they received from them. We were all living under the arbitrary will of the authorities, and in the fear of inviting imprisonment and even death for expressing different political views. I cannot guarantee that each and every one of my criticisms of reality was correct. But I believe that I should not have been persecuted merely for these viewpoints. Thus, I gradually formulated the concept of freedom of expression.

I should point out that as I was formulating my concept of freedom of expression, freedom, and democracy, the intellectual resources I had at my disposal were very paltry. At that time, other than the works of Chairman Mao, all I could find were some Marxism-Leninism books. I had little access to books on freedom and democracy by Western thinkers or by the previous generation of Chinese liberal scholars. And most of what I had access to were just a few isolated words and phrases, incomplete and fragmentary. One should say that to a great extent, my ideas about liberalism were not learned from books, still less through contact with the West. Instead, they were born of my personal experience and of my independent reflection and understanding of my personal experience.

Now, whenever we talk about modern Chinese concepts of freedom and democracy, many people (including many Western scholars) credit the CPC’s policy of opening up to the outside world, which opened the door of thought, for enabling Western ideas and scholarship to reenter into China. This view is mistaken. What must be seen is that contemporary Chinese trends of thought about freedom and democracy did not come in from the outside but were born from within.

Since the CPC took power in 1949, it has established a far more thorough unification of church and state than that of the Middle Ages in Europe. In the name of executing the great ideas of the Communist Revolution, the CPC continuously launched political movements for all sorts of causes. These movements gave rise to extremely pervasive, cruel, frequent, and shifting and unpredictable political persecution, and criminalized speech and thought throughout China. This has caused extensive and profound fear among the majority of the people, whether they are peasants or high officials. The decade of the Cultural Revolution escalated all these developments to unprecedented height, but, at the same time, also caused them to play out. In this environment, a small number of people formed the ideas of freedom and democracy, and the majority of people possessed the foundation and aspiration for accepting these ideas. Even among those in power, there are many who sympathize with and find resonance in the concepts of freedom and democracy. Hence the broad spread of the concepts of freedom and democracy in contemporary China, and the continuous recurrence of liberalization and democracy movements.

People always ask: freedom and democracy are products of the West—can they be directly transplanted into China? But if we see that in contemporary China the concepts of freedom and democracy did not come from outside but were born from within, then this problem naturally will not become a problem.

English translation by Human Rights in China.


Translator's notes

1 "On Family Background" by Yu Luoke, published in 1967, was a refutation of the “blood lineage theory” that political stance had to do with hereditary factors.

2 During its existence (May 1966 to mid-1969), the group was the center of political power of the Cultural Revolution.

Hu Ping

Hu Ping (胡平) is the New York-based editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring, and is a member of the board of directors of Human Rights in China.

Video Commentaries by Hu Ping

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