This is a time for commemorations in China, some public, others necessarily private. The 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Beijing’s rule is currently the subject of official celebrations in both places. Also, thanks to the autonomy conferred on their Special Administrative Region, tens of thousands of devoted Hong Kong democrats recently demonstrated their continuing determination to remember the June 4, 1989, massacre in the territory. In mainland China, by contrast, any attempts to recall the Tiananmen tragedy were again severely repressed.
Yet a third major event of modern Chinese history — the “antirightist movement” of 1957-58 — is being publicly ignored in both the mainland and Hong Kong, despite its impact on millions of Chinese intellectuals and the course of their country’s development, and despite its relevance to many contemporary problems.
Just 50 years ago, a series of editorials in the People’s Daily, the voice of the Chinese Communist Party, abruptly terminated Mao Zedong’s brief effort to “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, Let a Hundred Schools Contend.” Mao had hoped that by permitting China’s intellectuals openly to vent their pent-up criticisms of the first seven years of Communist rule, the regime would not only enlist their cooperation in the country’s economic development but also subject the Party apparatus to a much-needed exposure of its many abuses of power.
But it soon became clear that Mao had underestimated the depth and breadth of the intellectuals’ hostility. Their wall posters and speeches seethed with a sense of injustice that reflected the oppression of previous political campaigns, the Party’s domination of society, the prejudice against non-Party members, the deadliness of Soviet-style education, the disappointments of the socialist economy and the failures of the legal system. So the Party leadership launched a mass movement to stamp out “bourgeois rightist” thinking and to intensify the “re-education” of millions of officials, democratic activists, journalists, teachers, scholars, economists, lawyers, students, artists, writers and others for whom the previous years of “thought reform” had evidently proved insufficient.
Throughout the country hundreds of thousands of “rightists” were suspended from their work or study, many lost their jobs, and the entire Soviet-style formal legal system that had been taking root was ended. Some “extreme rightists” were prosecuted as “counterrevolutionaries” and sent off to criminal punishment. A few student leaders were executed before large crowds. But most serious critics of the regime were subjected to a novel form of “administrative punishment” called “re-education through labor” that was announced shortly after the onset of the “anti-rightist movement.”
This new sanction enabled the police alone, without indictment or trial, to dispatch people to forced labor camps where they were often confined with ordinary criminals for long, indefinite periods. There’s no reliable count of precisely how many intellectuals were condemned to such re-education, although the number reaches into the tens of thousands. The work was usually hard outdoor labor ranging from farming to quarrying to low level production tasks. “Rightists” who had condemned the massive abuses of the constitutional guarantee of the inviolability of the person that had occurred during the 1955 campaign to suppress “counterrevolutionaries” did not suspect that they were about to be victimized by a newly minted punishment that would arbitrarily deprive them too of their liberty.
Deng Xiaoping, who had played a major role in orchestrating the antirightist movement as Party Secretary General, 20 years later led the campaign to rehabilitate many who had unfairly suffered. Some, such as future Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and China’s most famous international law expert, Prof. Wang Tieya, went on to distinguished careers. But for most the movement ruined or stunted their professional and personal lives. Living in Hong Kong in the early ‘60s and in Beijing beginning in 1979, I met many former “rightists” and learned about their shattered lives.
I will never forget the gaunt man who knocked on the door of my Beijing office in 1980. An overseas Chinese from Indonesia, he had gone to the mainland for a free university education in 1950. Upon graduation from law school, he worked as a lawyer until branded a “rightist” and sent to a labor camp in 1958. He was formally released from the re-education camp after a few years, but because he had no family or job to return to in China, like many others he was required to remain in labor camp as a “free worker” until rehabilitated in 1979.
Our conversation encapsulates the depth of the long-term damage the antirightist movement inflicted on China. I told this sad man, who looked old beyond his years, that China urgently needed judges, prosecutors and lawyers for its post-Cultural Revolution legal system. But he dismissed any possible interest he might have with a Chinese proverb: “Once you’ve been bitten by a snake, you’re even afraid of a piece of rope.”
Despite the enormous economic and social progress that half of the Chinese people have made in recent decades, many of the complaints voiced by the “rightists” remain among China’s most pressing issues. Freedoms to speak, publish, organize, assemble, worship and demonstrate continue to be severely restricted. No effective mechanism has yet been developed to turn constitutional rights into living law. The Party-controlled legislative process continues to be slow, timid and largely nontransparent.
Although those who have been harmed by arbitrary administrative actions can now seek judicial review and compensation, relatively few manage to do so. Most victims of administrative injustice are still required to look for relief to the agency that harmed them rather than an impartial tribunal. Judicial reform moves at a snail’s pace. Only recently has the Supreme Court mandated an oral hearing in all death sentence appeals, something that “rightists” demanded for all criminal appeals.
The continuing prominence of re-education through labor is the most enduring reminder of the antirightist movement. For the past few years, a bill that would abolish this widely feared sanction, or reform it by providing for prosecutors, judges and lawyers to participate in its decision-making process, has languished before the National People’s Congress. This proposed legislation enjoys broad support among legal experts. Nevertheless, it is stalled because of opposition from the Ministry of Public Security, which is understandably reluctant to surrender its most convenient weapon against the growing challenges of crime and economic, social, political and religious protests.
As China’s many law reformers recognize, re-education through labor undermines their quest for criminal justice and subjecting their country’s ubiquitous police to the rule of law. Will the Politburo break the deadlock following this autumn’s 17th Party Congress? The personal security of 1.3 billion people is at stake.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.