Legacy Of a Maoist Injustice

By Perry Link
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

When the world looks back at the troubles of Maoism in China, attention usually focuses on the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, in which millions were persecuted and society all but collapsed, or on the famine induced by the Great Leap Forward of 1959-62, when somewhere between 20 million and 50 million people starved after farmers were forced to apply Mao-thought to agriculture.

In comparison with such huge catastrophes, the "Anti-Rightist Campaign" of 1957-58 may pale. But measured by its long-term ill effects on China -- effects still very much in evidence today -- the Anti-Rightist Campaign might be put front and center. This was the theme of two conferences that victims of the campaign attended last month to mark its 50th anniversary. Some of these veterans, now in their 70s and 80s, were speaking out for the first time. Because the meetings were prohibited in China, they were held in the United States, at Princeton University and the University of California at Irvine.

In 1957, the "rightists" were largely intellectuals: writers, journalists, editors, doctors, professors, students and liberal-minded officials. In fact, they were almost all idealistic socialists, eager to make such slogans as "serve the people" into living realities. They criticized abuses of power but, with rare exception, were only trying to help the new "People's Republic" by their criticism. The eminent Chinese journalist Liu Binyan, labeled a "major rightist" in 1957, later recalled his surprise at the charges that had been leveled against him. He felt innocent on every count, but on the other hand, "How could Mao be wrong? There must be something in me that I still need to dig out and examine."

Soon thereafter Liu -- whose story is typical of many -- was publicly humiliated, separated from his family and sent to labor in a remote, poverty-stricken village. There he had an epiphany. He came to see "two kinds of truth" in China: the "truths" of communism, which descended from the Propaganda Department and infused newspapers at all levels, and truths that emerged from the ground up, out of the hard life of the farmers in the poor village. The "two truths" seemed unrelated.

This separation of formal political language from the language of daily life was a recurrent theme at the 50th-anniversary conferences. Before 1957, socialist slogans could express sincere ideals; afterward, the same phrases became chips in a language game people played in pursuit of other goals. To get anything done, even to survive, one had to master the game. Before 1957, there were certain truths one could not utter; after 1957, there were certain falsities one had to utter. But hypocrisy can have devastating long-term effects.

Conference participants noted several ways in which the game continues. China's leaders, afraid of losing a powerful symbol of their claim to legitimacy, keep Mao's portrait hanging in Tiananmen Square and insist that China is pursuing "socialism." Can they be unaware of the unbridled capitalism that is being pursued? Of course not. This linguistic pretense -- among others -- has fostered cynicism in the Chinese public and led to what many have called a "values vacuum." The recent revelations about tainted pet food, medicines and toothpaste from China are old news in China itself, where corruption, fraud and swindles have been well-known problems for a long time.

Hypocrisy is, of course, not unique to China; nor did Mao Zedong invent the Chinese version of it. And the post-Mao leadership has done much to create the current values crisis by telling the Chinese people that so long as they remain politically docile, they are free to make money just about any way they like.

Still, the cynicism that permeates China seems in important ways traceable to the "two truths" problem that emerged under Mao. In the words of one "1957 rightist" at UC-Irvine, "Mao stole social idealism from us, and we have never regained it." There is interesting indirect evidence that Chinese leaders also sense the connection; why else would they want to block commemorative conferences -- not only in China but even abroad? Before being allowed to leave China, several septuagenarian participants in the conferences were questioned by police who wanted to "chat" about "protecting the image of the motherland overseas." Several others were harassed until they decided to forgo the trip; they sent in their papers to be read by others.

As an American attending the conferences, I was surprised to see how much the idealism of these people, despite everything, simply would not die. Their 50-year-old wounds seemed as fresh as if they had been inflicted last week. Yet all of their talk about the past and the collapse of ideals was for the sake of the future. One participant drew loud applause when he quoted the contemporary Chinese writer Zhang Kangkang: "A country that cannot use today in order to examine yesterday will have no tomorrow."

The writer is a professor of East Asian studies at Princeton University.

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