A new semester is upon us and I am preparing for this week's classes on Chinese politics. On Thursday we will be thinking about the big events of the 1950s: the Hundred Flowers Campaign; the Anti-Rightist Movement; the Great Leap Famine. I'm interested in dissent and how it was expressed and repressed at that time. Thus, the Hundred Flowers Campaign is very much in my mind this afternoon. I have been noodling around on the intertubes, looking to see if there are some interesting bits of information I might bring into class. One thing I have noticed is the near virtual absence of English language material on Lin Xiling on the web.
She needs to be remembered.
Lin was a student at Renmin University in 1957 when the Hundred Flowers Campaign entered its "big blooming and contending" period (biographical details in French, here). She had strong revolutionary credentials. Lying about her age in 1948, she joined the PLA when she was only 13. In 1955, as a college student, she met with Hu Yaobang, who was then the General Secretary of the China Youth League. By then, she was well versed in Marxist-Leninist ideology and, by her own account, optimistic about China's future:
``Those few years after liberation were a golden age. Young people were very pure. Everyone was full of hope,'' she says.
Perhaps it was that optimism, and a certain naivety, that led her to heed the call when Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai encouraged the urban intelligentsia to criticize the work of the Communist Party more thoroughly and openly in 1957.
Just for the record, I tend to accept the interpretation of the Hundred Flowers Campaign that sees it as a political error on Mao's part (MacFarqhhar is the best source here): he thought that the intellectuals would be generally supportive of the Leninist system he and the Party leadership had imposed on the country. When that turned out not to be the case, Mao was caught out in an exposed political position. He regained his footing by siding with Liu Shaoqi and others who had resisted the Hundred Flowers initiate from the beginning, thus initiating the Anti-Rightist Movement.
In any event, Lin took up the call for constructive criticism in May, 1957:
Lin's ordeal started with a speech she delivered at Peking University in 1957. ``I went on to the stage and gave the speech without much thought,'' she pauses and sighs. ``I didn't know I was going to be dragged into such a tragic event. Once I was on that stage, I was to stay there for the rest of my life.''
It was May 23, 1957. Peking University students had declared the beginning of a democracy movement on May 19 and demanded party reforms. They had been inspired by Mao's speech that spring calling for intellectuals to criticise the party. The ``May 19 Movement'', as it was to become known, was the first post-communism pro-democracy movement.
Lin couldn't believe her eyes when she arrived at the university campus. ``All the walls were covered with Big Character posters,'' she says. ``I had not even seen such a level of democracy during the KMT years. It was the first time I breathed the air of democracy.''
During a raucous debate over a counter-revolutionary literary critic named Hu Feng, Lin was invited to speak. On stage, she said Hu's thoughts should not be crimes, and that the evidence against him was weak.
``I didn't know that the evidence had been prepared carefully by chairman Mao. No one was allowed to challenge him,'' Lin says. `That became my biggest crime.''
She went further than the Hu Feng case. She understood the systemic problem of highly centralized authoritarianism, arguing on the fateful May day:
"True socialism is highly democratic but the socialism we have here is not democratic. I call this society a socialism sprung from a basis of feudalism. We should not be satisfied with the Party's rectification and reformist methods and the slight concessions made to the people...."
....Moreover, quoting Engles' theory that one country cannot construct socialism and Lenin's dictum that socialism is the elimination of class, she arrived at the conclusion that present-day China and Russia are not socialist. She loudly demanded a search for "true socialism" and advocating using explosive measures to reform the present system. (MacFarquhar, The Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Chinese Intellectuals, pp. 140-141)
She was loyal to the ideology the regime had taught her. She truly believed that Mao's "Democratic People's Dictatorship" would yield a more genuine democracy. But by 1957 she had realized that actually existing Maoism was not living up to the democratic promise, and she called out the Party.
For that she was branded a "Rightist" and imprisoned for fifteen years. In 1983, Hu Yaobang, then General Secretary of the Communist Party, let her travel to Paris, where she remained in exile until her death in 2009.
Looking back on what she had to say in 1957, we have to conclude that she was correct. Single-party authoritarianism was becoming more repressive and isolated from popular life. Party elites were concocting utopian visions of "socialist China" that had little connection to realities on the ground. Lin could see this; Mao was blinded by his own power. The tragic culmination was a year away, when the Party veered into the "Great Leap" and started a process that would systematically kill tens of millions of Chinese. The problem of the "Great Leap" was not some sort of policy miscalculation or communications breakdown. The problem was that the Party took food away from people and they died en masse. It was not "true socialism;" it was not "democracy;" it was hell on earth.
Looking back at those tragic times, I think of Confucius, who understood that dissent was required for good leadership. Analects 13.15 includes this point:
..."Is there a precept the could destroy a country?" asked the Duke.
[Confucius replied]" "Precepts cannot do such things. But they say: In ruling, there is but one joy: no one dares defy you. If a ruler is good and no one dares defy him, isn't that good? But if a ruler is evil and no one dares defy him, isn't that close to a single precept destroying an entire country?"
Mao would not allow people to defy him. Millions and millions died. He was, qutie simply, a bad ruler.
Although she would probably reject the comparison with Confucius, due to her revolutionary-modernist orientation, Lin Xiling, in her dissent, was doing more to save the country. Had Mao, and the Party leadership, listened to her in 1957, the worst famine in humane history might have been averted.