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Debates on the Democracy Movement withing the CCP Leadership

As early as mid-1978, several months before the Third Plenary Session of the CCP Central Committee in December (that was perceived as a clear signal for big economic reforms), debates had already started on the political course of the post-Mao era. It was in summer 1977 that Deng Xiaoping was seen returning into active politics, almost a year after Mao's death and the downfall of the Gang of Four. The radical Maoists had been driven from power in a sort of coup d'état led by Mao's designated successor Hua Guofeng and Mao's "bodygard" Wang Dongxing. 

The question now arose how to deal with Mao's political heritage. The Great Helmsman had issued numerous "supreme directives" concerning almost every issue of politics, and he had condemned and refuted many other political ideas and practices. At first, the new Party Chairman Hua Guofeng and his group proclaimed strict loyalty towards Mao: "We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave", was a slogan propagated by Hua and others who consecutively became known as the "whateverists" or the "whatever faction", while the reformers around Deng raised their own slogan "seeking truth from facts", meaning one had to put reason and scientific research above ideology.

This dispute raised issues in 1978 that today sound rather absurd, such as the question whether everything that Mao had once decreed, had still to be followed to the letter? Or whether it was allowed to consider some smaller or bigger modifications now? Was ist permitted at all to raise criticism of Mao, at least view him in a more nuanced way (e.g. concerning his close relationship with members of the deposed Gang of Four)? Should all the numerous statues, portraits, slogans and other public manifestations reminding of the Great Leader remain in place forever? And could Mao's guideline - everything must serve the proletariat - continue to be the only permitted way of expression for journalistic work and artistic creativity?

And what should happen to the millions of victims of Maoist policies during the Cultural Revolution and earlier political campaigns? Which ones of the politicians that had fallen victim to Mao's purges, had the right now to be rehabilitated and return to active politics, as it had already happened with Deng Xiaoping? And how should the hundreds of thousands of medium-level cadres and party officials be treated, who still remain in prison camps or were exiled to remote rural areas to be "re-educated" through manual labor? And what about those mainly young people who in April 1976 had turned the mourning for the deceased Prime Minister Zhou Enlai into a protest against the Maoist system?

The first issue of the revived monthly "Chinese Youth", the cover (showing Party Chairman Hua Guofeng in the center) symbolizing the "Four Modernizations"

The Dispute on the Rehabilitation of the 1976 Tiananmen Movement

For months there have been disputes between old party cadres still loyal to Mao, and "reformers" consisting mainly of politicians persecuted during the Cultural Revolution who have been recently rehabilitated. In November 1978 an open conflict erupts around the planned reappearance of the monthly magazine "Chinese Youth" (Zhongguo Qingnian 中国青年) that had been forced to cease publication twelve years ago. The first issue of this revived journal had already been printed and prepared for distribution, when politbureau member Wang Dongxing ordered its confiscation.

What had happened to this periodical published by the Communist Youth League (and supposedly supported by the reformer and Deputy Party Chairman Hu Yaobang)? The "crimes" that the magazine is accused of are serious: The first issue contained a positive account of the Tiananmen Revolt of 1976 that are officially still considered a "counterrevolutionary incident". Moreover, a commentary entitled "Getting rid of superstition - turning towards science" calls the thoughtless cult of Mao a "modern superstition".

Shortly after, some pages from the banned magazine get posted on the Xidan Wall (not called "Democracy Wall" yet). Nevertheless, a few days later, "Chinese Youth" is eventually delivered to bookshops and subscribers. Everyone can feel now the dynamics of the political developements, all of a sudden nothing seems to be taboo any more. Official media (including "Chinese Youth") demand to "unfold democracy", and there is more and more open criticism of the remaining Maoists in the Chinese leadership.

In mid-November, the Beijing Committee of the CCP under the new mayor Lin Hujia (林胡加) decides to fully rehabilitate the Tiananmen events (where Mao and the future Gang of Four had been attacked). The incident is now officially named a "revolutionary action". Activists still detained or under house arrest were to be released immediately. All the major party papers proclaim this political turnaround on their front pages. This also serves as a starting signal for the grass-roots democracy movement that follows. People now dare to openly pronounce their opinions on Mao, his policies and his remaining followers, not only at Beijing's Xidan Wall, but also in many other cities who are caught in this development.

The "Third Plenary Session" of the Party Central Committee (official photo)

The Big CCP Reform Conference

When the CCP Central Committee met for their legendary "Third Plenary Session" in December 1978 to debate mainly on economic reforms, people at Beijing's Democracy Wall were already discussing much more radical changes such as abolishing the monopoly on political power held by the Communist Party, freedoms of expression and the media, human rights and the question of whether or not the "West" (as Europe and the US were called) did not possess a better political system than China. And there was a group of high-ranking party politicians who not only sympathized with the dissidents of the Democracy Wall, but who took up some of their viewpoints to fuel debates within the Communist Party.

A "work conference" preceding the official plenary session (from November 10 till December 15, preparing the formal agenda) also came under some influence from the Democracy Wall that geographically was just a few hundred meters away from the conference venue, as several observers later comment: Off the stage "people are discussing everyday the latest news from the Xidan Wall," writes the historian Yang Jisheng ("The era Deng Xiaoping", p. 137), "the posters from the Xidan Wall and the debates at the conference on the emancipation of the minds get intermingled, ... inspire each other". Party Chairman Hua Guofeng and Wang Dongxing who lead the Maoist traditionalists, are - according to Yang - losing control on the contents of the debates at this work conference, more and more "forbidden" subjects become openly discussed now.

It was also during this work conference that the 1976 Tiananmen protests get rehabilitated (on November 14) and Deng Xiaoping makes his encouraging remarks on critical big-character posters and free expression of opinions (on November 26 and 28). On December 13, reports the reformist economy expert Yu Guangyuan (于光远) who also helps to draft Deng Xiaoping's speeches, Deng asked him to include such a positive remark on the Democracy Wall into the official discourse he is preparing for the Third Plenary Session, probably to take account of the new liberal mood among many delegates who would like to see more political reforms. But the speech eventually held by Deng did not contain such remarks (according to a personal interview with Yu Guangyuan cited by Ezra Vogel: Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. 2011, p. 254).

The (other) speech held by Deng earlier at the preperatory work conference apparently did contain some paragraphs on the Democracy Wall and the issues of democracy and open debates in general. Yu Guangyuan writes in his book (Deng Xiaoping Shakes the World. 2017, pp. 139-140) that Deng Xiaoping has asked him to prepare some critical remarks on Beijing municipal officials who wanted to prosecute people who had written critical posters:

On the day after the text was finalized, Deng Xiaoping asked me to come to his home. When he saw me, he said: "Yu Guangyuan, it is really absurd, that the Beijing municipal authorities want to open a case to investigate people who wrote their views on the 'Xidan democracy wall'. In my speech, when I speak of the problem of 'creating files' on people to criticize, I will depart from the speech text to interpose a few remarks." He assigned me to draft some remarks on my own and cite some instances. 

Speaking on "democracy", says Yu Guangyuan (p. 144), Deng is using this term in a new and different way. The subheading in Deng's speech is called "Democracy is a Major Condition for Emancipating the Mind". Deng is also referring to the rehabilitation of the 1976 Tiananmen protests when he says:

The masses should be encouraged to offer criticism. There is nothing to worry about even if a few malcontents take advantage of democracy to make trouble. We should deal with such situations appropriately and have faith that the overwhelming majority of the people are able to use their own judgement. One thing a revolutionary party does need to worry about is its inability to hear the voice of the people. The thing to be feared most is silence.

It seems to be clear therefore that Deng Xiaoping really held a positive attitude towards people expressing critical opinions on the party and its leaders, and that he perceived democracy and democratic participation in a broader sense than traditional communist doctrine did. And Deng was not alone with this in the leadership's inner circle, as seen from a remark on the Democracy Wall by Deputy Party Chairman (and acting Head of State) Ye Jianying (叶剑英) quoted by Yu (p. 140):

In the speech he delivered at the closing ceremony, Ye said unequivocally that the Central Work Conference was a good example of giving full play to inner Party democracy and the "Xidan democracy wall" was a good example of giving full play to democracy outside the Party.

In an anecdote that sounds a bit ludicrous, Yu Guangyuan mentions (p. 140) that he himself would have liked to have some first-hand knowledge of the Democracy Wall, but that he did not dare to go there himself "at my age", because he had heard that some party officials had been "roughed up" there. Only politburo member and party propagandist Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木), according to Yu's hearsay, insisted on a personal on-site inspection and once "went there at night to read big character posters by flashlight."

The Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee in December 1978 in Beijing (official photo)

The "Forum on Theory Work"

Sympathies for the Democracy Movement become even more evident during the "Forum on Theory Work" that lasted - with a long interruption - for more than two months. Commissioned by the party leadership, it started on January 18, 1979, and was organized by the Central Committee Propaganda Department and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who had invited some 160 high-ranking party journalists, legal experts, economists and scientists, both representatives of the reformers (who seem to be in majority during the first phase) and "conservative" Maoists. CCP Secretary General Hu Yaobang and Deng Xiaoping (at the and) are also among the participants. During the final stage of the conference (when Deng held his key address aligning the delegates to his "Four Basic Principles" and departing 180 degrees from the originally liberal mood at the forum), more than 200 additional delegates from provincial institutions and the PLA were added to listen and to debate Deng's speech.

Cheng Zhongyuan's book "Dramatic Years" (2008 edition) on the beginnings of the Chinese reform era

The debates are at first closely linked to the current political developments: how to deal with Mao's legacy and the Cultural Revolution as well as the negative repercussions of the other political campaigns of the 50s and 60s; the need for a serious "De-Maoization" (a term - "feimaohua 非毛化" - that never appears in the official media, but is widely used in the conference debates), the role of democracy and freedoms under socialism (and more generally), the cultural policies, the relation between Communist Party and state, the attitude towards the Soviet Union. The discussions seem to be quite controversial, including personal accusations among the delegates, as we can see from the account written by party historian Cheng Zhongyuan (in "Pivotal Years: China 1976-1981". Beijing 2008; published in Chinese). [The following quotes and references are all taken from the 2008 edition of this book. The names added in square brackets come from a slightly expanded edition partially available to the author. The background and publishing details of this other edition remain to be verified, but there is no doubt about its authenticity.]

One participant [Qi Zhenhai from the Research Institute on International Affairs at the Beijing Normal College] says "the question of democracy is one of the big issues that has never been resolved well by the socialist countries." High-ranking officials, he adds, should be democratically elected. Another delegate [Xing Bisi from the Philosophy Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Science] warns: "If China does not succeed to fully unfold democracy, the society could develop some envy for capitalist democracy" (p. 274). Others though caution against "democratic individualism", a term that Hu Yaobang has also used in his opening statement.

In a subchapter that Cheng Zhongyuan calls "The Flooding by False Ideas and the Errors of the Conference" (p. 291), he describes the group of Communist Party officials that show open sympathies towards the "Beijing Spring" movement:

Before the Forum on Theory Work had been convoked, a small group of people created unrest in several places. The main reason were problems left behind by the Cultural Revolution such as the question whether the "educated youth" sent to countryside could be allowed to return to the cities, economic demands or the reversal of wrongful convictions, arbitrary judgements and injustice. A few bad elements made use of these to instigate people to exaggerate things. There even were protest rallies in which state and party institutions were attacked and besieged. ... Moreover, a very small minority of bad elements propagated a bourgeois liberalization of the society, questioning and even rejecting the leading role of the Communist Party, the socialist system and the ideas of a dictatorship of the proletariat and the teachings of Mao Zedong. ... Even inside the Party and among the theoreticians (including participants of the Theory Forum) there is a small number of comrades who do not understand the true character of this ideological trend and its destructive potential and even support it directly or indirectly. During the Forum on Theory Work the flooding by false ideas has rather increased than decreased and spread out even more.

From the discussion contributions cited by the authors, it becomes quite clear who the "very few" (in reality probably more numerous and certainly not insignificant) sympathizers of the Democracy Movement are: They are liberal journalists like Hu Jiwei (胡继伟, chief editor of the "People's Daily"), leading economist Yu Guangyuan (于光远), Yan Jiaqi and Su Shaozhi (严家其、 苏绍智, Marxist theorists from the Chinese Academy of Social Science) and other party officials close to this reformist group often supported also by CCP Secretary General and chief propagandist Hu Yaobang, while the "conservative" party faction at the Theory Forum is headed by Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木, President of the Academy of Social Science) und Deng Liqun (邓力群, Vice President of the Academy).

The progress of the debates gets recorded every day in informal briefing papers (jianbao 简报) that are distributed to all the participants. But at the end of the conference all written documents have to be handed back to the organizers in order to avoid leaks on the controversial stances to the public outside, they are kept in classified party archives up to this day. This also includes an apparently very factual and balanced analysis "Xidan Minzhuqiang pouxi 西单民主墙剖析" (Analysis of the Xidan Democracy Wall) presented to the Forum by the two "People's Daily" reporters Fan Rongkang (范荣康) and Yu Huanchun (余焕春). Their investigation was not only printed in the daily briefing papers, but also in the internal information bulletin of the "People's Daily" (Renmin Ribao Neican 人民日报内参), and therefore widely circulated among high-ranking officials all over China.

It is known that some of the party elders also praised the Democracy Wall activists at that time. Zhou Enlai's widow Deng Yingchao (邓颖超) is quoted to have said that everybody who wanted to know what democracy really meant should go to see the Xidan Wall, and Deng Xiaoping had also commended critical posters at the beginning.

Following the outline given by party historian Cheng Zhongyuan, one can see how profound the sympathies were that some of the reformists harbored for the cause of the "Beijing Spring" democracy activists. Even the minister of the party's Propaganda Department (and future CCP Secretary General) Hu Yaobang is portrayed in the book as someone adopting a wavering attitude towards the Democracy Movement. [Quotes again from the 2008 edition, pp. 292-297, with names and a few details from the slightly expanded version added in square brackets.] 

As early as January 11, in his closing remarks at a conference convoked by the Minister of Propaganda, in the view of currents of such erroneous ideas, Hu Yaobang has called on the participants to remain vigilant toward persons who had possibly sneaked in and showed extreme discontent with the socialist system. In his opening remarks to the Forum on Theory Work, he insisted strongly on the issue of "democratic individualism", which he explained from four different points of view. At that time though, his explanation of the problem and his perception of the dangers generated by it, were not yet sufficient. After the start of the Theory Conference, Hu Yaobang asked for a report by Anhui First Secretary Wan Li to be printed in a briefing paper (on January 23). Speaking of "petitioners" and authors of big-character posters, the report emphasized again that "at the same time as unfolding democracy, the legal system and discipline have to be respected." In early February he ordered another report by the Shanghai Municipal Committee on recent demonstrations, rail blockades and attacks on municipal offices to be submitted to the Theory Forum for debate. Some comrades [such as Cao Zhi from the Research Department of the Central Committee Organization Ministry] also held that we should stand by the two principles: one, unfolding democracy, and secondly, opposing troublemakers. But a majority of the participants of the Theory Forum did not realize this and did not pay sufficient attention to the fact that such a current of erroneous ideas could become a serious obstacle for implementing the Four Modernizations, they clearly lacked such vigilance. And there were some who actually directly or indirectly supported this current to a variable extent.

After the beginning of the Theory Forum, some of the statements that had been made in the debates were leaked to get widely known to the outside public. But there were also some ideas from the Xidan Democracy Wall and the society in general that found their way into the Theory Conference. In the theory debates and concerning some precise issues, some opinions did pop up that questioned, weakened or even negated the leading role of the Communist Party, the socialist order and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, vilified or completely rejected Mao and the Mao Zedong Thought. In the debate on the delimitation of the period of socialism, some [e.g. Su Shaozhi] said that "we should not believe that our economic system was a socialist one," and such a viewpoint did certainly not serve the consolidation and construction of socialism. Around the Spring Festival, one comrade [Yu Guangyuan] published an article on "The Disappearance of the State after the Victory of the Proletarian Revolution," propagating it also in a conference speech and in an extensive printed version. Hu Yaobang, after reading this article, just added four characters: "Cannot accept this way." ...

Some comrades have clearly understood the issue of the Xidan Democracy Wall. One [Li Pu from the Xinhua News Agency] said in his analysis: "At the Democracy Wall we observe three tendencies: The first, constituting the majority, can be seen as correct. A second, a very small minority, completely opposes socialism and Marxism-Leninism and prefers to hit out against Chairman Mao. For them, socialism is worse than revisionism, and revisionism worse than capitalism. They envy the West and would rather let Jimmy Carter solve the problems. Besides them, there is another extremely tiny group who still mourns after the Gang of Four." ... In any case, there were a few who held the Xidan Democracy Wall in high esteem and actively supported it.

... A "People's Daily" staff member [Su Shaozhi] said: "Has the emancipation of thought not been enough yet, or already too much? And how about the evaluation of the Xidan Democracy Wall? And the views expressed by the masses on unfolding democracy? We hold that the emancipation of thought has not gone too far, but that it has not yet gone far enough. The Xidan Democracy Wall is a good thing, a milestone of socialist democracy, one could say. Of course we cannot support some phenomena like the letter to Jimmy Carter, but it sounds a bit too harsh to speak of a tendency of 'democratic individualism.' The Central Committee should adopt a positive attitude towards the Democracy Wall."

Two comrades [The Forum participants Fan Rongkang and Yu Huanchun from the "People's Daily" wrote a long contribution and] spoke together on February 14 on the topic "An Analysis of the Xidan Democracy Wall". They enumerated many facts, coming to the conclusion that the main tendency of the Democracy Wall was a healthy one proving that the young people analyzed problems strictly according to the principles of Marxism-Leninism, that they courageously handled the truth and contributed their forces on implementing the Four Modernizations. The authors also pointed out that the Democracy Wall had caused many problems to be resolved. Nevertheless it seems that their viewpoints have approached those who used the Democracy Wall to propagate erroneous ideas and create unrest.

After the collective presentation [by Fan and Yu], a passionate debate emerged among the group members [of group one] present, leading to a clear consensus: The Xidan Democracy Wall was a vivid example of democratic life in China that was widely noted in China and abroad. The issues debated at the Democracy Wall, the proposals and criticisms raised there, made it necessary to support it. In a resolution, the steering group of the Forum was prompted to transmit this viewpoint to the Central Committee. [The specific content of the proposal was: "The Workers' Cultural Palace should become a place where people could freely express their opinions. Inside the park, a space for putting up dazibaos should be set aside, a location for discussions and controversial debates, a site for people to express their personal opinions. This could also strengthen the close ties between the party and the masses. Important party and state officials could alternately show up there to listen to the opinions and demands of the people, and to directly explain the difficulties and problems of China. At the same time they could clarify contradictions. The tiny minority of troublemakers would be led to the right path this way.]

It is the attitude towards the Xidan Democracy Wall that shows the weaknesses of those responsible for ideology and theory, and their loss of judgement and combative spirit in the face of erroneous ideological tendencies. ... (pp. 295-297)

Such a plan to move the Democracy Wall to the "Workers' Cultural Palace" just next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and to establish - with official consent - a kind of "Speakers Corner" like the one in London's Hyde Park, has been confirmed by other authors as well. But the project was eventually rejected, among others by Beijing's mayor Lin Hujia who belonged to the more conservative faction of the Party. The final result of this debate was that the Beijing authorities "moved" the dazibao wall from the Xidan intersection to the much more distant Yuetan Park, several kilometers west of the center, with restricted access and compulsory controls of the contents of posters before they could be made public. And a Chinese "Hyde Park" of free speech had to remain a distant fantasy.


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