Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

China’s Poster Campaign is Socialist Democracy in Action

First Published: Unity, Vol. 1, No. 6, December 15-28, 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Since mid-November, tens of thousands of people throughout China and particularly in Peking have been engaged in a massive “big character poster” debate to express their views on a wide variety of topics. The posters have attracted much attention and stimulated widespread discussion. The campaign reflects the confidence and enthusiasm which the masses have for the present situation in China.

The majority of the posters encourage support for the efforts to modernize the country and recent decisions of the Communist Party such as the re-evaluation of the Tien An Men Incident, which took place in 1976 as a memorial to Chou En-lai. The “gang of four,” who had opposed Chou, had the incident labelled reactionary and a number of the participants persecuted. With the fall of the “gang,” the Communist Party has rejected the past decision and now upholds the 1976 events as revolutionary.

But the posters that have been given the most attention by the western capitalist press have been those that criticize Chairman Mao, Chairman Hua and others in the Party leadership, or that attacked socialism itself in China. Accompanying the newspaper reports were all sorts of speculation about changes in the Chinese leadership and even in its political system.

In fact, the very opposite is the case: the current poster debate is an indication of the strength and stability of socialism in China today. This was emphasized by Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping in an interview with American journalist Robert Novak on November 27.

Countering speculation, Teng commented on the poster campaign:

“This is a normal thing, and shows the stable situation in our country. To write big character posters is allowed by our country’s Constitution. We have no right to deny this or to criticize the masses for making use of democracy and putting up big character posters.”

At the same time, Teng said, “Not all the opinions of the masses are carefully thought out, nor can we demand that they are all correct. That is nothing to be afraid of. It is wonderful to see the ability to distinguish right from wrong and the conscientious care for the destiny of the country shown by the overwhelming majority of the masses of Chinese people who have been tempered in the Great Cultural Revolution.”

Teng also reiterated the Party’s stand that Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought is the guiding ideology of China in her drive for modernization. He made it clear that Chairman Mao’s contributions to Chinese history were immense. “Every Chinese knows that ’without Chairman Mao there would have been no New China.’ ”

Teng stressed that ”Present-day China is stable and united, concentrating on the four modernizations from the Central Committee down to the localities. The Party Central Committee headed by Comrade Hua Kuo-feng is united and fully confident of carrying through the four modernizations.” The four modernizations refers to China’s program to modernize its industry, agriculture, science and technology and national defense by the end of the century.

Immense expansion of democracy

Wall posters are not something new in China but have been a part of the modern revolutionary movement from its very beginning. Especially since liberation in 1949, wall posters have developed as a form of freedom of speech for the masses and an important aspect of socialist democracy.

Through these posters, everyday people can put up their opinions for all to see on whatever topic they choose. This method of expression became particularly popular during the Cultural Revolution. The country’s Constitution specifically upholds the masses’ right to “speak out freely, air their views fully, hold great debates and write big character posters.”

The current poster campaign and the defense of it by the Communist Party, confirm Mao Tsetung’s lesson that “socialist democracy is democracy in the broadest sense such as is not to be found in any capitalist country.” (“On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” Selected Readings of Mao Tsetung, p. 436).

The masses enjoy such democracy under socialism because political power is in their own hands. In the old society, the privileged few enjoyed democracy at the expense of the masses. The 1949 Revolution turned this upside down, for now it is the masses who enjoy democracy because they exercise dictatorship over their former and would-be exploiters. Dictatorship over the enemy and democracy among the people –this is a fundamental Marxist tenet for socialism.

What does democracy for the masses mean? It means basically that the masses of people led by the working class determine the future of their socialist country through broad participation in the political life of the society. It means that the masses administer commune, factory and neighborhood life and make use of big character posters, and other means, to express their opinions. This is what Lenin meant when he said that socialism results in an “immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people.” (Lenin, State and Revolution, p. 103).

Democracy necessary for socialism

Socialism brings a great expansion of democracy for the masses and at the same time, democracy is vitally necessary for the construction of socialism. Democracy is required to help unleash the enthusiasm of the masses and utilize their ideas. Without these most valuable resources, socialism can never be successful. Mao stressed this point in opposition to those who stifled the masses with bureaucracy, arrogance and intimidation. Let the masses speak out, criticize and debate. Only in this way could the correct and revolutionary emerge in struggle against the incorrect and anti-revolutionary.

Mao always maintained the Party had to combine democracy with centralized leadership. Without democracy, without the full expression of the ideas and sentiments of the masses, how could there be correct political leadership? Mao once stated: the “mass line is absolutely necessary: first democracy, then centralism; from the masses, to the masses.” (Mao, “Talks at an Enlarged Working Conference Convened by the Central Committee,” p. 7, Peking Review No. 27, July 7, 1978).

Of course, in practicing democracy the masses may express some incorrect ideas, such as seen in the current poster campaign. But this should cause no worry. There are always contradictions among the people, and as Mao had often pointed out, such differences should be struggled out in a democratic fashion, by discussion and persuasion. Clearly this is the method which the leadership of the Communist Party of China is using today. It is encouraging the full expression of ideas and debate to sort out right from wrong. And at the same time, making its own stand clear on the key issues to help lead forward the discussion.

The situation today is different than that several years ago when the “gang of four” had much influence. At that time they damaged the Party’s practice of the mass line. The “gang of four” attempted to exert their own dictatorship of a small group over the masses, even labelling whole sections of the masses as part of the enemy camp. Their practice violated the principles of socialist democracy.

The current poster debate is a result of the attempts of the Party to restore the democratic methods of leadership by encouraging the flourishing of “a hundred flowers” in the arts; by revitalizing the mass organizations (such as the Women’s Federation and the trade unions) to more widely incorporate the masses into organized political life; and to promote the study of the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialist democracy, such as by printing Mao’s important article, “Chairman Mao Tsetung’s Talk at an Enlarged Working Conference, January, 1962” (Peking Review No. 27, July 1978).

Overall, the objective is to achieve in China what Mao called “a political situation in which we have both centralism and democracy, both discipline and freedom, both unity of will and personal ease of mind and liveliness.”