May 2007 is the 50th anniversary of the Anti-Rightist Movement in communist China. Back in May 1957, Mao Zedong initiated a campaign to purge alleged rightist from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Over 550,000 people were purged. Fifty years later, the term "Anti-Rightist Movement" remains a sensitive topic. The Communist Party refuses to apologize or to compensate the victims. Further, the CCP Propaganda Department, through a mandate issued earlier this year, has ordered Chinese media not to mention this issue.
On April 10, 1957, People’s Daily published an editorial calling on intellectuals to voice their suggestions and criticisms to the Party, promising no retaliation. Mao declared, "Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend." This was the "Hundred Flowers Campaign." CCP branches at all levels were instructed to encourage intellectuals to put aside their concerns and to come forward.
Suggestions and criticism poured in.
Then on May 15, 1957, Mao issued an internal notice alerting all CCP branches to be ready for a crackdown. On June 8, 1957, People’s Daily issued an editorial labeling those making suggestions and criticism to the CCP as anti-Communist Party and anti-socialism. The purge began. As a result of the suggestions they had been encouraged to make, tens of thousands of people lost their freedom, and millions of families suffered. Some were sentenced to prison, while others were sent to forced labor camps, where they were subjected to torture, starvation, sleep deprivation and other cruel and inhuman treatment. Their families were discriminated against in areas such as jobs and government medical benefits. Hundreds of thousands of people perished.
How many "rightists" were purged? The official number stands at 550,000, but the unofficial estimate is two million. That number includes approximately half of the intellectual elite of China at that time.
Scholars in the fields of political science, economics, sociology, history, and arts were the hardest hit. The most well known is Zhang Bojun (1895 -1969), who held a number of prominent government positions, including Minister of Transportation and President of Guanming Daily (the China State Council newspaper). Zhang studied philosophy in Germany between 1921 and 1924. A former CCP member, he was one of the founders of the "China Democratic League," a democratic party in China. He criticized the one party rule and advocated a two-house Congress. On June 8, 1957, the official opening of the Anti-Rightist campaign, he was considered the first and the Number 1 rightist. He died of cancer on May 17, 1969. Zhang was one of the few "rightists" who were not redressed after the Cultural Revolution.
Others include Luo Longji, China’s Minister of Forestry Industry who also held other government and democratic positions. He had been jailed under the Nationalist rule of China prior to the communist takeover in 1949. Yet, the CCP purged him because he refused to acknowledge the CCP’s leadership in the charter of the China Democratic League.
Now 77 years old, Zhu Rongji who served as Premier of China from March 1998 to March 2003 was also purged as a rightist. He graduated from the prestigious Tsinghua University in 1951, majoring in electrical engineering. According to his former colleagues, Zhu was indeed wrongfully purged. The work unit had a quota to fill and there was a shortage of rightists. With this education background, they chose him as a natural rightist.
Most of the purged rightists were purged simply because they disagreed with their bosses. Many were called "nodding rightists" because they nodded their head at rightists’ viewpoints during the Anti-Rightists conferences. One main target was the independent legal system. Legal professionals were transferred to other jobs; instead, political cadres and the police exercised judicial power.
According to official data published by communist China, in May 1980, all but a few of the 550,000 rightists, including the No. 1 rightist, Zhang Bojun, received redress. It is estimated there are about less than 10,000 "former rightists" still alive today.
At the beginning of 2007, the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department convened a meeting to lay out the ground rules on what should and shouldn’t appear in China’s media and publications. The Anti-Rightist campaign of 50 years ago was listed as one of the forbidden items.
The No. 1 rightist Zhang Bojun’s retired daughter, Ms. Zhang Yihe, wrote three books about the purge. The CCP authorities banned them all. She filed a lawsuit against the China General Administration of Press and Publications. The CCP controlled court tossed it out and refused to hear it.
The ban on her books remind us of the brutal purges 50 years ago. The issue that China faces today has not changed in fifty years: democracy vs. autocracy, to freely express criticism of to stifle it.
Ms. Zhang pointed out that the CCP believes it will survive the 550,000 rightists that it purged, but it forgot that behind the 550,000, are millions of family members.
Xiao Tian is a correspondent for Chinascope.