Hundred Flowers Campaign

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Mao Zedong in 1956. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In late 1956, just seven years after the Red Army prevailed in China's Civil War, Chairman of the Communist Party Mao Zedong announced that the government wanted to hear citizens' true opinions about the regime.  He sought to promote the development of a new Chinese culture, and said in a speech that "Criticism of the bureaucracy is pushing the government towards the better."  This was a shock to the Chinese people, since the Communist Party had always previously cracked down on any citizen bold enough to criticize the party or its officials.

Mao named this liberalization movement the Hundred Flowers Campaign, after a traditional poem: "Let a hundred flowers bloom / Let a hundred schools of thought contend."  Despite, the Chairman's urging, however, response among the Chinese people was muted.  They did not truly believe that they could criticize the government without repercussions.  Premier Zhou Enlai had received only a handful of letters from prominent intellectuals, containing very minor and cautious critiques of the government.

By the spring of 1957, communist officials changed their tone.  Mao announced that criticism of the government was not just allowed but preferred, and began to directly pressure some leading intellectuals to send in their constructive criticism.  Reassured that the government truly wanted to hear the truth, by May and early June of that year, university professors and other scholars were sending in millions of letters containing increasingly assertive suggestions and criticisms.

  Students and other citizens also held criticism meetings and rallies, put up posters, and published articles in magazines calling for reform.

Among the issues targeted by the people during the Hundred Flowers Campaign were the lack of intellectual freedom, the harshness of previous crack-downs on opposition leaders, the close adherence to Soviet ideas, and the much higher standard of living enjoyed by Party leaders versus the ordinary citizens.

  This flood of vociferous criticism seems to have taken Mao and Zhou by surprise.  Mao in particular saw it as a threat to the regime; he felt that the opinions being voiced were no longer constructive criticism, but were "harmful and uncontrollable."

On June 8, 1957, Chairman Mao called a halt to the Hundred Flowers Campaign.  He announced that it was time to pluck the "poisonous weeds" from the bed of flowers.  Hundreds of intellectuals and students were rounded up, including pro-democracy activists Luo Longqi and Zhang Bojun, and were forced to publicly confess that they had organized a secret conspiracy against socialism.  The crackdown sent hundreds of leading Chinese thinkers to labor camps for "re-education" or to prison.  The brief experiment with freedom of speech was over.

Historians continue to debate whether Mao genuinely wanted to hear suggestions on governance, in the beginning, or whether the Hundred Flowers Campaign was a trap all along.  Certainly, Mao had been shocked and appalled by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's speech, publicized on March 18, 1956, in which Khrushchev denounced former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin for building a cult of personality, and ruling through "suspicion, fear, and terror."  Mao may have wanted to gauge whether intellectuals in his own country viewed him the same way.

  It is also possible, however, that Mao and more particularly Zhou were truly seeking new paths for developing China's culture and arts under the communist model.

Whatever the case, in the aftermath of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, Mao stated that he had "flushed the snakes out of their caves."  The rest of 1957 was devoted to an Anti-Rightest Campaign, in which the government ruthlessly crushed all dissent.