Written by Jackie Sheehan.

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences vice-director Li Shenming’s article in Seeking Truth, the CCP’s theoretical journal, has caused a stir in China for his assertion that “not a single person was persecuted” in the anti-rightist campaign of the late 1950s. Li acknowledges that 550,000 people were “labelled as rightists”, but apparently does not believe that the consequences of this – loss of jobs, being made the target of every other political campaign for the next 20 years, the ruination of family members’ life chances, and, for several hundred thousand, detention in the labour camps which the Chinese government, after more than 30 years of reform, has still not quite managed to abolish – amounted to persecution.

For this first generation of labour-camp prisoners, detention was indefinite; it would end when years of forced labour in harsh and sometimes dangerous conditions had “reformed” you. In practice, this meant that the rehabilitation which came for many only in the late 1970s was often posthumous, though still welcomed for the cloud it lifted from families. “Rightist” actually became part of China’s system of social control by class designation, so that the status of “rightist” could be inherited, like that of “landlord” or “rich peasant”, by the children of the original offender.

Do the “media controlled by international capital” really exaggerate the harm done by the anti-rightist campaign, as Li claims? The campaign abruptly shut down the brief period in which the open expression of critical views of CCP rule had been encouraged, the 1956-7 Hundred Flowers campaign, in which intellectuals, students, workers and peasants alike had spoken out about issues from day-to-day economic mismanagement to fundamental questions of CCP legitimacy.  As Jerome Cohen has noted, it destroyed the formal legal system that had been under development in China, condemning the country to two decades in which every citizen was vulnerable to persecution by those in power and denied legal protection of their constitutional rights, while the party centre’s “label factory” created category after category of “enemies of the people” who could be denied all basic rights.

The purge, which lasted into the early 1960s, also played a part in the rural famine which killed upwards of 30 million between 1958 and 1961, as many of the experts who might have spotted early warning signs of disaster were in labour camps, and officials still in post had learned the lesson that if they were going to make a mistake, it had better be a mistake to the left, such as excessive zeal in seeking out “hidden” food in villages, rather than one to the right, such as questioning whether a country facing starvation should still be exporting grain to the Soviet Union.

Li seems to believe that all 550,000 rightists deserved the designation, but the campaign had a quota for work-units to fulfil, having to identify 5% of their members as rightists, regardless of reality. This gave rise to the category of “toilet rightists”, chosen as their work-unit’s scapegoats only because they were the first to have to duck out of the meeting called to identify culprits in order to empty their bladders – one cup of tea too many, and you’d be felling trees in Manchuria for the rest of your (short) life.[1] The quota system ensured that injustice and excess were built into the mass campaigns of the Mao era.

And if all those labelled as rightists deserved it, why the rehabilitations at all? A case can be made that the wave of late-70s rehabilitations was politically useful to Deng Xiaoping as he established himself as China’s paramount leader, but it was also hard to resist, given the strength of popular feeling among millions who had witnessed blatant injustices in their own workplaces, schools, neighbourhoods, and families.

It is possible to believe that both the original victimization and the much later reversal of verdicts were correct; indeed, as Zhu Yufu’s 1998 poem, The Central Government is Correct, reminds us, it is possible to believe that none of the 180-degree turns in policy of the past 64 years in China has in any way represented an admission of previous error:

“All the political campaigns were carried out correctly.
A number of historical questions were appraised correctly.
It was correct to amputate the remnants of Capitalism.
It was correct to invoke the theory of Socialism’s early phase…

All the newspaper editorials are correct;
Every position paper from the Central Government is correct;
In the Anti-Rightist campaign, it was correct to be Anti-;
When they were rehabilitated, the rehabilitation was correct.

However, the amount of cognitive dissonance generated by this stance is not conducive to Li’s stated aim in his article, that of “Appropriately evaluating the periods before and after China’s reform and opening-up”. Like Bo Xilai before him, Li seems to have the knack of surveying the PRC’s pre-reform history and alighting on all the wrong elements on which to base a claim that the Mao era wasn’t all bad.

If he is looking for lessons for the present day, he might instead look to Mao’s statements from early in the Hundred Flowers campaign, where the Chairman acknowledged the many mistakes his government had made since 1949, its separation from the masses and above all its failing to make socialism benefit ordinary people, and proposed a period of open criticism and debate as an alternative to the explosion of popular discontent which was otherwise bound to occur.

Jackie Sheehan is Associate Professor in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies.


[1] As depicted in a scene in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1993 film The Blue Kite.


  1. Does it make a difference that Li Shenming’s statement refers to “executions” not “persecution”? He claims that not a single person was “executed” (chu-si).

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