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A short history of free speech in China


This Chinese propaganda poster – carrying one of the messages from the Cultural Revolution – reads: ‘Shun the worlds of literature and art and become familiar with the lives of workers, peasants and soldiers.' It was designed by the 65 Rebel Group at Jiangxi Province Art School.

200 BC The legacy of Confucius From 200 BC to the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese statecraft was based on the ideas of Confucius, a political thinker who had lived in the 5th century BC. Confucian thinking stressed ethics. It regarded order and stability as essential to enable people to behave in a moral way. Despising violence and force, it also looked down upon profit and commerce. China did not develop an idea of rights that were inherent and natural to the individual as had arisen in Western Europe. However, the ideally organized Confucian society was supposed to provide social welfare and just treatment. People were expected to know their place – kings ruled over subjects, fathers over children, husbands over wives. The powerful were expected to behave with benevolence and failure to do so could result in forfeiture of power. Of course, the reality was often different. Nevertheless, for much of the first two millennia AD, this system allowed a civilization to flourish and a variety of thinkers of many persuasions to debate ideas.

Chris Richards

1842 Imperialism and new thinking China’s relations with the outside world changed profoundly in the 19th century as European empires expanded. Britain and China clashed in the Opium War, culminating in the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 – a humiliating agreement forcing China to open up territory and trading rights to the West. These ‘unequal treaties’ have not been forgotten even today, and shape debates about free trade and globalization. For most of the next century, portions of Chinese territory were under foreign control. It was often in the imperialist-controlled areas where China’s dissidents hid from their own governments and published their radical thoughts.

Imperialism had a profound effect on political thinkers in late 19th and early 20th century China as they encountered liberalism, social Darwinism and Christianity. Yan Fu drew on ideas of evolution to argue that China was a nation struggling against others for survival. Thinkers argued for a greater role for individual rights than in pre-modern China, but also valued collective action. The Qing (pronounced ‘ching’) dynasty – initially ambivalent about these reforms – swiftly changed tack after various military defeats between 1895 and 1900, and tried to carve out a new role for China as one sovereign state among many. Popular discontent was too great to save the dynasty, and it was swept away in the revolution of 1911. China was officially reconstituted as a modern republic at the start of 1912.

1919 The May Fourth Movement On 4 May 1919, 3,000 students demonstrated at the Tian’anmen, the gate at the front of the Forbidden City in Beijing (the palace complex of the Ming and Qing dynasties). Incensed at the news that the Treaty of Versailles was not going to hand back former German colonies on Chinese soil, but award them to Japan instead, they burnt down the house of a pro-Japanese government minister. This one demonstration, lasting only a few hours, remains legendary. Called the ‘May Fourth Movement’, it became shorthand for perhaps the most liberal and fruitful period in modern Chinese history.

Between 1915 and the early 1930s reform-minded Chinese looked in every possible direction for solutions to the twin problems of militarism and imperialism that they felt needed to be overcome to ‘save the nation’. The most radical – including members of the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – argued that Confucianism was at the root of China’s problems and must be utterly rejected. Overall, the era was shaped by a shared agenda among reformers for ‘science and democracy’. But the promise of the May Fourth era was dealt a crushing blow by the horrifying Japanese war against China (1937-45), which killed more than 20 million Chinese and hardened political attitudes against pluralism.

1949 Mao Zedong and ‘democratic dictatorship’ Mao Zedong – who would rule all of China for more than a quarter-century – left his southern rural home as a young man and became involved in the May Fourth Movement while working in the Beijing University library. He was a founding member of the CCP in 1921 and followed it through its persecution by the Nationalist Government (founded by Chiang Kaishek in 1927), the Long March northwards (1934-35), the war with Japan (1937-45), and then the civil war with the Nationalists (1946-49).

The CCP’s adoption of the Bolshevik ideas of ‘democratic dictatorship’ meant that open dialogue within the Party became restricted. After the CCP’s victory in 1949, the tentative moves toward freedom of speech – already restricted by the war with Japan – were mostly cut off. There were short windows of opportunity, such as the Hundred Flowers Movement in May 1957, when the public were encouraged by Mao to speak out about problems. But when the criticisms turned out to be more savage than expected, the Movement was ended and millions of critics were sent into internal exile. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) sought to encourage the young and re-energize Mao’s revolutionary vision. In the process it fuelled a near-theological cult of Mao’s personality and created an atmosphere of paranoia that led to denunciations, murders and suicides across China. Schools and universities were shut down, thereby robbing a generation of its chance of education.

1976 Deng Xiaoping: China opens for business The death of Mao in 1976 was followed swiftly by the arrest of the ‘Gang of Four’, the ultra-radical supporters of Cultural Revolution policies. People who had been persecuted were rehabilitated, and a genre of writing known as ‘scar’ literature allowed people to express their sufferings. Deng Xiaoping – one of the longest survivors in the CCP – eased himself into paramount power by 1978, and until the early 1990s was the prime force behind China’s economic reforms.

Deng believed that the nation’s progress was dependent on a well-educated population. As part of the reform process, official sanction was given to more open debate and discussion. Throughout the 1980s, students demonstrated publicly, newspapers and radio shows began to discuss social problems openly, and it became possible once again to travel and study abroad. The daring documentary ‘River Elegy’ (Heshang) was broadcast on national Chinese television in 1988, arguing that China had been led astray by Mao, the false ‘peasant emperor’, and that the country needed to return to the message of the May Fourth Movement – ‘science and democracy’.

1989 Tian’anmen Square By 1989, Deng’s economic reforms had contributed to massive growth, but had also led to spiralling inflation and discontent. Demonstrations of workers and students demanding more democracy appeared in many cities in the spring of 1989. While most were dispelled peacefully, Tian’anmen Square in Beijing proved the exception. With up to a million protesters at its height, this demonstration was co-ordinated to start on the 70th anniversary of the original May Fourth demonstration to point out that the CCP’s founders (some of whose contemporaries were now China’s leaders) had once been angry radicals standing in the same spot seven decades before. Despite attempts to negotiate, the demonstrations were ended with bloodshed when tanks rolled into the Square on the night of 4 June.

Tian’anmen Square now shapes popular understanding of the Chinese Government in the West. However, it was not the end of openness in China (although the period from 1989-92 was highly repressive). China is slowly opening up a space for discussion in a way that was difficult to imagine in 1989 (see (http://www.newint.org/issue371/keynote.htm)[keynote] and (http://www.newint.org/issue371/bloom.htm)[Let a hundred flowers bloom!]). Yet this expansion is very clearly within limits.

Rana Mitterteaches Chinese history and politics at Oxford University. He is the author of A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2004), copies of which are available to NI readers for the discount price of £15.00 plus post and packaging (UK – £3; Europe – £6; rest of world – £9). Contact Oxford University Press on Tel: +44 1536 741727 quoting code 10PHMIT04.