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The Li Yizhe Group

Members of the Li Yizhe group (painting by Li Zhengtian's students after an original photo, Guangzhou 2013). In front in the middle: Li Zhengtian; in the front row, fourth from the left: Wang Xizhe; row behind, fifth from the right: Gong Xiaoxia

Big-Character Posters Criticizing the Regime

During the Cultural Revolution Mao himself praised "dazibao" (大字报, big-character posters) as a useful method of revolutionary debate. But very often they just contained exaltations of Mao's teachings and personality, and they served as a medium for political and personal intrigues, using rumors, polemics and fabricated accusations, and "criticism" usually only targeted politicians that had already been ostracized.

At the culmination of the Cultural Revolution posters are mainly used by ardent followers of Mao to attack "reactionaries" and "capitalist-roaders" like Deng Xiaoping or Liu Shaoqi (plus hundreds of thousands of local cadres). In late 1973 during the campaign to "criticize Lin Biao and Confucius" (Pi Lin pi Kong 批林批孔) the party leadership used dazibao to vilify Lin Biao (Mao's former deputy who died when his plane crashed in Mongolia in 1971), and again in April 1976 to attack Deng Xiaoping who had become disgraced once again.

The methods had not yet changed much when the so-called Gang of Four (Mao's former close allies) were arrested in October 1976, a month after Mao's death, and now became themselves a target of poster attacks.

But besides the large majority of dazibao in line with the official propaganda, there were always a few who used such campaigns to criticize state and party politics, usually in veiled allusions and indirect hints, but many Chinese had become used to reading between the lines in political references.

The most famous critical text from the period just before the end of the Mao era is the manifesto "On Democracy and Legality under Socialism" by the Li Yizhe Group from Guangzhou (see below). But there have also been some less known protests in other provinces, notably in Zhejiang and Jiangsu.

In Nanjing a young activist named Xu Shuiliang (徐水良) wrote posters and distributed leaflets attacking China's "bureaucratic elite" and the alleged system of privileges for cadres. Xu was arrested in 1975 and kept in custody without indictment until 1979. After his release he joined the Democracy Movement, just to be arrested again in 1981. In 1998 he was eventually allowed to leave for the US.    

"On Democracy and Legality under Socialism" (1974) - Li Yizhe's manifesto also circulated as a brochure and in a printed version

"On Democracy and Legality under Socialism"

In 1974 a Group of former red guards in Guangzhou (south China) draft a political pamphlet with the title "On Democracy and Legality under Socialism - dedicated to Chairman Mao and the Fourth People's Congress". Under the pretext of "criticizing" it, it became attached to an internal party document and thus widely circulated among cadres all over China.

The text cites Marxist principles and Maoist phrases to take on the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and the hollow rituals of the personality cult around Mao, and it also tries to outline some essentials of "socialist democracy" and rule of law to replace unbridled party rule.

It is certainly not a comprehensive political treatise, but a rather polemical text constantly referring rhetorically to Mao and the Marxist-Leninist classics. But under the circumstances of the time such criticism would not have been possible otherwise, and thoroughly reading this text is soon becomes evident, that "Li Yizhe" do not just talk about the "Lin Biao System" they ostensibly criticise, but that they want to debate the entirety of Maoist theory and practice.

The majority of the authors are former Red Guards who had got enthusiastic about socialist ideals during the Cultural Revolution, but later realized that they had often been manipulated and used for power struggles, intrigues and personal gains of high-ranking officials. The authors of "On Democracy and Legality under Socialism" still seem to belief in revolutionary ideals, but they already anticipate some of the more pragmatic approaches to society that would later become part of the "reform and opening" policies persued by the new party leadership after Mao's death.

Not only between the lines...

"We are allegedly, the youth who are 'not afraid of tigers; but we are not unaware of the ferocity and cruelty of the tigers.' We even dare to say that we are the survivers who were once bitten by that kind of animal but in the end could not be knawed firmly between the teeth or swallowed; on our faces there are claw marks so that we are not handsome figures." [English Translation quoted from: Li I-che: Concerning Socialist Democracy and Legal System - Dedicated to Chairman Mao and the Fourth National People's Congress. In: Issues&Studies (Taibei). January 1976, p. 130] 

On the "new bourgeoisie": "What has been commonly observed is that some leaders have expanded this necessary preferential treatment granted by the Party and the people into political and economic special privileges, and then Extended them boundlessly to their families and clansmen, relatives and friends, even to the degree of exchanging special privileges [among themselves]..." (p. 114)

On the  cult of Mao in the "Lin-Biao-System": "...it says there would only be a 'genius' in a period of several centuries or several milleniums; thus, everyone must worship this 'genius', and do everything according to the will of this 'genius.' Furthermore, whoever opposes this 'genius' will be struck down. Is this not an extremely encompassing ideological and political line? No one is allowed to think; no one is allowed to study; no one is allowed to do research; and no one is allowed to 'ask a single why' on any question. The 'historical concept of genius' has indeed liquidated 800 million brains." (p. 119)

On the rituals of the Cultural Revolution: "We have not forgotten the giving prominence to the (empty) politics which rewarded the lazy and punished the diligent, the 'daily reading [of Mao's works and quotations]' which resembled the incantatation of spells, the 'discussion-application [of Mao's works and thoughts]' which became more and more hypocritical, the 'revolution erupts from the depth of the soul' which become more absurd, the 'manifestation of loyalty' which encouraged political speculation, the grotesque 'loyalty dance,' and the excruciatingly multitudinous rituals of showing loyalty - morning prayers, evening penitences, rallies falling-in, reporting for and quitting work and making duty shifts, buying and selling things, writing letters, making phone calls, even taking meals - which were invariably painted with violent religious colors and shrouded in such an atmosphere. ... The innumerable 'meetings of representatives of active elements' were, at first expositions of hypocritical, evil and ugly behavior and a gambling house which offered '10.000 times profit for one unit of capital." (pp. 117-118)

On victims of the Cultural Revolution: "...in Kwangtung Province alone nearly 40.000 revolutionary masses and cadres were massacred and more than a Million revolutionary cadres and masses were imprisoned, put under control, and struggled against." (p. 118)

On the opponents of democracy: "'What? You demand Democracy? You are reactionaries! Because you are reactionaries, we'll give you no democracy'.They talk loudly and fluently; and are fond of quoting Chairman Mao's passages in Connection with the people's democratic dictatorship." (p. 140)

On control through the people: "It would be superfluous to say that the Party leadership should listen carefully to the opinions of the masses; it would be equally superfluous to mention the rights of the masses of people to exercise revolutionary supervision over the Party leadership at various levels ... Therefore, we should not [be] afraid of the upright and honest opponents as long as they limit themselves by not making intrigues and conspiracies." (pp. 142-143)

What has become of "Li Yizhe"?

The pseudonym "Li Yizhe" has been formed from the names auf three main authors Li Zhengtian, Chen Yiyang und Wang Xizhe, but there haven a number of others who contributed to the manifesto, and even more (several dozens) in the informal group where the debates took place, and who assisted in writing the dazibao and distributing and mimeographing the text.

The group at first received some sympathy and tacit support from party cadres, but during 1974 most of the members have been arrested or otherwise reprimanded. In December 1974 the Propaganda Department of the CCP in Guangdong province drafted a lengthy official document to criticize the Li Yizhe dazibao, calling it a "malicious attack on the Great Leader Chairman Mao, Mao Zedong Thought and the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee under the leadership of Chairman Mao".

It is this official criticism that is distributed to party officials throughout the country (it is said that 100.000 copies had been printed), with the original text of the dazibao attached in full lenght. It can only be assumed that some influential people deliberately wanted the Li Yizhe manifesto to become known to a broader public.

In 1979 when the Reform and Opening policy was aready in full swing, the new party leadership decides to release the members of the Li Yizhe Group (after accusing them at first to be followers of the Gang of Four). A solemn rehabilitation ceremony is held in Guangzhou, presided by the provincial Party secretary Xi Zhongxun (the father of the later State President and CCP Chairman Xi Jinping) and widely reported in the official media. 

Some group members like the former Red Guard Wang Xizhe immediately join the Democracy Movement of the "Beijing Spring" and they participate in the publication of independent journals. Some of those not imprisoned at that time join the 1989 student protests. Wang Xizhe though spends 13 years in prison, upon his release he becomes a co-founder of the Chinese Democracy Party. Fearing a new arrest, he flees to Hong Kong in 1996 and eventually receives asylum in the United States. 

Li Zhengtian (after a brief episode) does not remain active in the civil rights movement and deliberately refrains from public political statements. He becomes a professor at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts (Guangzhou Meishu Xueyuan 广州美术学院), teaching, painting and calligraphing the words "democracy and legality" from the original title of the Li Yizhe manifesto. In 2010 he appears as the co-author of a comprehensive account and documentation of the history of the Li Yizhe Group. The book cannot be be published in Mainland China, and comes out in one of the small independent publishing houses in Hong Kong (Chen Jilu, Li Yizhe u.a.: Li Yizhe Shijian [The Case of Li Yizhe]. Zhongguo Jiaodian Chubanshe. Hong Kong 2010). The book unveils that besides the three main authors who have given the name to the group (and a fourth one who preferred to remain anonymous at that time), there were more than two dozen activists who have contributed.

One of these group members was the then 18 year old woman Gong Xiaoxia (Sasha Gong). She was put under house arrest, when the main activists were in formal custody, but she was later allowed to study in Beijing, in 1987 she receives a scholarship from Harvard University where she obtains a PhD in sociology. After becoming a US citizen she (unsuccessfully) runs in 2009 as a Republican Party candidate for the House of Delegates in Virginia and publishes her autobiography "Born American: A Chinese Woman's Dream of Liberty" (Nimble Books, 2009). In 2012 Sasha Gong becomes the China Branch Chief of the "Voice of America" Radio. In May 2017 though she is suspended from her post in a dispute over an interview with a well-known exiled businessman and critic of China.


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