Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist)

China debating rights issue

First Published: The Call, Vol. 8, No. 19, May 14, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Is the democracy movement in China genuine? Or, as many American newsmen suggest, is it a fleeting phenomenon which will inevitably come to a screeching halt with the recent arrest of “human rights” demonstrators? Is the admonition to “Let 100 flowers bloom” really a call for debate and discussion among the masses and in the Communist Party? Or is it a tool in a power struggle between factions of a Chinese “elite”?

A delegation of U.S. writers, including journalists from >em>The Call, sought answers to these questions while visiting the People’s Republic in March. During our three-week tour we interviewed leading officials in culture, state planning, education, journalism and other fields. We talked to peasants and factory workers, as well as writers, actors, professors and students.

And (perhaps most importantly) we witnessed on the streets of Beijing (Peking) and other cities what other U.S. journalists have reported – wall posters on all manner of subjects; an openness toward us as foreigners that was from all accounts unheard of a few years ago; and a willingness to say frankly, “We have a lot of problems, and we don’t have all the answers.”

While our stay ended before the recent so-called “crackdown” on wall postering in major Chinese cities, our impressions may give our readers a better basis from which to evaluate these measures by understanding, more about the democracy movement overall. Some examples:

Probably the most popular public forum for today’s mass debates is the media – especially newspapers, but also radio and TV. People’s Daily, the official paper of the Communist Party, receives over 2,000 letters every day, and Radio Beijing is flooded with audience response.

An editor told us why they encourage debate and even print incorrect views in the pages of the newspaper: “The masses must come to understand right and wrong through free discussion,” he said, adding that, of course, this did not mean that wrong ideas should go unchallenged.

Letters to the, editor, he stressed, are also an important barometer of mass sentiment on Party and government policies. One example, while not the most earth-shaking, was particularly interesting for us: both Americans and Chinese have questioned whether China should import Coca-Cola from the U.S. We could well understand this, having received letters to The Call on the same subject!

At a Beijing radio arid TV broadcasting station we heard details of the huge debate sparked by the TV screening of Brothel B., a Japanese film about prostitution.

“The first reaction to the film was very negative,” one person told us, “and some officials, reacting to public concern that the morals of our young people would be corrupted, said we should not show it again.”

But the suggestion of censorship brought even louder protests. So the station organized a TV panel discussion to debate the pros and cons. The result? Public opinion changed in favor of the film for its value in educating the Chinese people – who have little recent experience in such things – about life under capitalism.

We saw evidence of more democracy at the workplace too. At the Hutong shipyard in Shanghai the direct election of supervisors – a practice which was dropped during the Cultural Revolution – has been reinstituted. And the Workers Congress, composed of elected representatives of all the workers, is now the highest body in the yard, supervising even the top administrator.

On a visit to the Shanghai film studios where we previewed selections from three current movies, writers and actors described what they considered a splendid new democratic atmosphere in the cultural field. Love themes, comedies, and other previously taboo real-life subjects are blooming.

Being in the audience for the joint performance of Beethoven’s Fifth by the Boston Symphony and the Peking Philharmonic was a heady experience – even for those in our group who prefer rock to classical music. Just a few years before, the Chinese musicians were rotting away, playing only the eight “officially approved” works, or, as in the case of Beijing’s concert master, imprisoned in a labor camp, prohibited from playing at all.

As for the wall posters, we saw these broadsides everywhere. They ranged in form and subject from lengthy works, outlining the program of a newly-formed literary society, to shorter personal appeals against injustice: from poems praising Marxism-Leninism to between-the-lines scrawls of frank disagreement.

But, you may ask, what’s so special, so unusual, about TV debates, elections, and graffiti?

The fact is, these things, while they existed in form, were stripped of their democratic essence for almost a decade. Despite the fact that the working class held state power overall, the now-infamous “gang of four” exercised a virtual fascist dictatorship in many areas of society during much of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.

During this period, capricious justice characterized the legal system. Arbitrary and stultifying prohibitions ruled the arts. Democracy inside the Communist Party was largely suspended and the Party’s leadership side-stepped and trampled on. Political labelling and fingering, compared by some Chinese to the American McCarthy era, spread fear and a reluctance to speak out among all but the bravest.

This is not just our opinion. It is also the conclusion drawn by virtually every foreign visitor to China since the downfall of the “gang. ” This view is also borne out by reports of many visitors before 1976, including those who were supporters of socialist China.

American scholar Orville Schell, for example, who lived and worked in the People’s Republic for several months in 1976, wrote that he found no one who would tell him the legal definition of “ counter-revolutionary, ” even from imprisoned “counter-revolutionaries” and their captors. Now it is known that thousands were unjustly and arbitrarily jailed on this charge.

“Wang Hongwen [one of the four] could decide by one word who could be called a counter-revolutionary,” commented the current president of the trade union in the Shanghai textile mill which Wang made his base of operations. “My own house was searched and I was detained for disagreeing with him.”

What made the “gang’s” rule even more insidious was that it was perpetrated under the guise of “encouraging democracy.” “Up with workers’ control,” “Down with rules and regulations,” “Overthrow all” sounded very revolutionary – and, indeed, there was a need for more democracy and participation of the masses in Chinese society. But what the “gang” meant by “workers’ control” was anarchy; what they meant by “overthrow all” was overthrow all leaders except them and all ideas but theirs.

People’s Daily staff members compared the current situation to the period 1972-76 when the “gang’s” man was editor of their paper. During those years, any letters to the editor that criticized or raised doubts about articles were turned over to the ministry of justice, the letter writers in many cases arrested.

Information was also strictly controlled. “We were forced to report only ’good’ news during this period,” an editor explained, “and that news was often false. Some people got so fed up they smashed their radios and TV sets!”

In the beautiful resort city of Hangzhou, we heard how inner-party democracy was replaced by the feudal practice of “rule by edict.” In 1973, Party members at the Silk Printing and Dyeing Complex there circulated a petition against sending a local protege of the “gang” to the 10th Party Congress. Out of 580 Party members, 550 signed it. Yet this man went to the Congress anyway – by order of the “four.”

Anarchy crippled Shanghai’s Hutong Shipyard and countless other factories and communes until the country found itself on the edge of bankruptcy.

This look at the past helped us understand the aims of the democratization campaign today. Socialist democracy is a way to ensure the greatest participation possible for the masses in running and building their country. In this way, it is completely different from the so-called democracy we enjoy in the U.S.

The bourgeois democracy of capitalism, while granting some rights to people; mainly legalizes the right of the capitalists to exploit us. The great majority don’t even have the guarantee of a job.

And, while there are reports of wall posters appealing to Jimmy Carter to support “human rights” in China, the masses of Chinese people are certainly not advocating the return to capitalist rule. Even bourgeois news reports on the wall poster campaign have concluded this – somewhat to their own amazement.

A recent article in the Beijing Daily explained why most Chinese don’t advocate a return to capitalism: “The imperialists brought the Chinese people cannons rather than flowers. Those who understand the misery and suffering of the people in the colonies and semi-colonies know that the gun of the imperialists never speaks the language of human rights.”

A fundamental problem in all socialist societies – and one that has never been fully solved – is how to combine the extensive centralization of a proletarian state with the need for broad participatory democracy among the masses.

Mao Zedong, by launching previous democracy campaigns both in the Yenan period and in the late ’50s, sought solutions to this problem. It was Mao who argued that socialist China should be a place where differing schools of thought contend and correct ideas grow strong in struggle against incorrect ones.

The current democracy campaign in China is aimed at putting the whole country to work to answer all the difficult questions that go into solving the key problem – how to modernize China as rapidly as possible while keeping it socialist.

Modernization requires the free exchange of ideas, without fear of being labeled or persecuted for putting forward incorrect ones. It also necessitates a fight against dogmatic, stale, formula-thinking.

And there was no doubt in our minds that the overwhelming majority in China are all for the democracy campaign, But this doesn’t mean that everything is perfect in China today.

For one thing, we learned that there are still many people who are afraid to speak out and boldly state their views. One rural official recently quoted in the Chinese press stated, “Most of the cadres overthrown during the Cultural Revolution have been rehabilitated. But many of them are still afraid of being overthrown again.”

According to another article in the Shanxi Daily, many people “dare not interfere” to oppose things they feel are wrong.

Of course, this hesitancy is not all the result of the “gang’s” rule. There are also the habits, customs and ideas left over from China’s not-too-distant feudal past. According to several people we spoke with, the legacy of landlord-peasant, or emperor-subject relationships lingers even today, acting as a brake on democratization and modernization.

Secondly, we saw certain restrictions of freedoms – perhaps inevitable as a result of China’s economic underdevelopment and scarce resources. Former students who were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and now want to return to the city have been told they must wait until there are enough jobs. The “right” to a higher education cannot be guaranteed to everyone who desires one until more universities can be built and staffed.

Besides observing these problems our delegation was also left with a number of questions, questions which the Chinese themselves are debating.

One of these is, how do you distinguish between the expression of incorrect ideas among the masses and a line that is being promoted to attack the socialist state?

“If wrong ideas don’t violate the law, people should be allowed to express them” was how one People’s Daily editor answered this question. But he also believed that “democratization will develop in steps” and that “unity and stability” must be maintained.

Another question grows out of the fact that there is naturally a small minority of people in China who want to restore capitalism. How can they be prevented from using the democracy campaign to further their aims?

This brings us to the “crackdown” on wall posters. It is exactly this distinction – between individual freedom of expression and the collective right to proceed with the building of socialism – that officials are attempting to delineate in recent public notices regulating some forms of protest.

According to the New China News Agency, the notice in Beijing says demonstrations will not be allowed to “disrupt traffic.” or “create disturbances in government institutions:” Wall posters are restricted to certain locations and must not “oppose socialism, the proletarian dictatorship, or party leadership” or “disclose classified information.”

What affect these restrictions will have on the democracy movement in China remains to be seen. But in trying to assess their meaning from afar it is important to remember that wall posters and demonstrations are only one of many ways that democracy is seeing new life in China today. Even more important are new developments, such as changes in the socialist legal system, the rash of new publications, and the opening up of new fields of intellectual endeavor which are springing up all over China. Through these and other means, the democratic right to freedom of expression will be tapped and translated into concrete action to build socialism in the best possible way.