Political Oppression before the Cultural Revolution



The Communists mercilessly eliminated their enemies.  While, in the countryside, they were using 'Speak Bitterness' meetings to destroy the power of the landlords, elsewhere they were using anti-movements and the Laogai to destroy their political opponents and break the power of local gangsters.  Dangans and propagandists were used to persuade and blackmail ordinary people into compliance.

Suddenly – for reasons which are unknown and still debated – Mao opened up the regime to criticism; within two months the 'Hundred Flowers Campaign' was halted, and those who had been foolish enough to criticise the government were punished.

For a variety of reasons, and with the exception of Tibet, racial minorities within China were treated differently.  Although there were periods of violent suppression during the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, the Communist government generally treated the racial minorities more leniently, giving them limited liberties and a certain amount of regional autonomy.


The following websites will help you complete the task:


The Hundred Flowers:

Detailed account


Repression of political opposition

a.  Anti-movements, 1951-52

Campaigns against such as waste, corruption, sabotage and fraud, designed to find and defeat China’s ‘class enemies’; accompanied by informants and denunciations, ‘labelling’, the suppression of opposition parties and ‘re-education’

b.  Shanghai and Canton

Using local knowledge, the government executed some 70,000 triad gangsters in Canton, and 30,000 in Shanghai

c.  Dangans

Everybody had a dangan (information file) – if it contained anything negative, you could not get a job or a house

d.  Gao Gang and Rao Rashi

In 1954, Mao suddenly claimed that two of his leading officials (Gao Gang, governor in Manchuria; and Rao Rashi leader in Shandong) were traitors – the fall of two such important men terrified people

e.  10,000 Laogai

Mao’s system of 10,000 Laogai (prison camps) housed at any one time 10 million prisoners who were dehumanised until they broke; perhaps 25 million died there


The Hundred Flowers campaign, 1957

a.  Mao’s ‘Handling Contradictions’ Speech

In February 1957, Mao invited constructive criticism of the regime

b.  ‘Let 100 flowers bloom’, May 1957

Mao treated dissident writer Hu Feng leniently, and indicated asked intellectuals to contribute to a debate about the country’s future: "let a hundred schools of thought contend."

c.  Campaign halted, July 1957

There was an explosion of criticism, much of it aimed at bad officials, but some at Party policy and at Mao himself; the campaign suddenly stopped

d.  Anti-rightist movement

Instead, all those who had obeyed Mao and contributed their ideas found themselves labelled; cadres who had spoken out were sent to remote villages to do manual work as a punishment

e.  Mao consolidated his power

The effect was to rid Mao of anyone who would dare to criticise him, even when he asked them to


The Hundred Flowers campaign – interpretations

a.  Jung Chan – a trick

The modern Chinese writer Jung Chang, who contends that Mao was a monster, believes that it was a trick to draw out his opponents so he could destroy them

b.  Lee Feigon – anti-bureaucracy

The American revisionist Lee Feigon believes that it was a ploy to take power from the officials, and give it to the politicians

c.  Jonathan Spence – confused attitudes

The British historian Jonathan Spence believes it arose out of the confusion amongst the Party leadership about how China should develop

d.  Li Zhisui – a gamble

Mao’s doctor, Li Zhisui, declared the campaign a gamble that went wrong because it was based on the idea that opposition had been destroyed already

e.  Michael Lynch – China’s destalinisation

British lecturer Michael Lynch suggests that the campaign was an attempt to copy Khrushchev’s destalinisation campaign in Russia


Why were minority groups treated differently?

a.  Cross-frontier nations

Many national minorities lived across China’s border regions (e.g. Mongolians); there was a danger that they would want to secede

b.  6% of the population, 60% of the land

Although they only constituted 6% of the population, the minorities inhabited sparsely populated areas, and therefore had the capacity for migration and settlement

c.  Access to natural resources

Many of the areas inhabited by the regions were rich in natural resources, which China wished to exploit

d.  Propaganda

Throughout the period, Chinese propaganda showed Han Chinese Communists mixing happily with the minorities, conferring on them the benefits of housing, education, radios, medicine etc.

e.  ‘Civilising’ the barbarians

Many Han Chinese thought that the minorities, with their colourful customs and dress, were barbaric and childish, and felt a racist/paternalistic responsibility to ‘civilise’ them


Treatment of minority groups

a.  National minorities, 1949-57

Copying Soviet policies, ‘Visit the Nationalities’ teams were sent out which eventually identified 54 official minorities; these were given limited liberties and regional autonomy – e.g. their own religion and culture, political autonomy

b.  Great Leap Forward, 1958-59

After the 100 Flowers Campaign revealed that some Minorities wanted separation, policy changed to assimilation – communes were imposed; resistance (e.g. in Tibet) was ruthlessly suppressed

c.  Pluralism, 1959-66

With the failure of the Great Leap Forward, the years 1959-66 witnessed a return to ‘special identity’ policies

d.  Cultural Revolution, 1966-71

Another period of violent assimilation – e.g. 6,000 of Tibet’s monasteries were destroyed, and Mongolian leader Ulanhu was put on trial for ‘national splittism’ … by encouraging people to learn Mongolian

e.  Shadian Incident, 1975

Although there was a general return to pluralism after 1971, violence could still flare up – e.g. in 1975, during a campaign make Muslims work on Friday, the Army closed mosques, burned Korans, and killed 1,000 Hui Muslims in Shadian (in Yunnan Province)



Read the following passage by Edgar Snow (an American journalist whom modern historians accept was an important eyewitness, but criticise for his romanticised and sometimes inaccurate account) and write answers to the questions which follow:

Edgar Snow, The Other Side of the River, 1963
It would be simpler to write this story if one could merely affirm that 'millions went to concentration camps and thousands were executed'.  Such reports were published abroad but, as usual, lacked any documentation.  In China the aim of rectification is not to kill but to make the wrong-thinker see his moral error, to repent, and to seek unity with the Party...

Despite the external view that the entire period was a fiasco, it must be noted that it was not the end but the beginning of a most intensive campaign to win the adherence of intellectuals to the Party.  By 1961 this apparently had helped to increase overall Party membership by thirty per cent, and doubled its percentage of 'intellectuals'.

Explain how the Communist Party controlled the Chinese people.

Does this source prove that the Hundred Flowers Campaign was a success?

How far do you agree with the claim that the Hundred Flowers Campaign was a trick to draw out Mao's opponents so he could destroy them?