Between 1949, when it came to power, and 1957, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) completed land reform and eliminated domestic opposition. As a result of the First Five-Year Plan, it had collectivized agriculture and advanced industries. Chairman Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) believed that most intellectuals supported his goals, but feared that there was resistance among the 100,000 or so “higher intellectuals” who had been Western trained. To arouse their enthusiasm Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai) decided in 1956 to embark on a campaign to “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools contend.” This term was borrowed from the Hundred Schools of Thought era of the late Zhou (Chou) dynasty, circa 500 b.c.e., when many philosophies developed. Its goal was to gain the intellectuals’ cooperation by permitting some debate and to allow them to question the competence of party cadres to direct science and technology. Cadres, too, were encouraged to criticize the system under which they worked.
The critics were encouraged by some liberalization in the Soviet Union after Nikita Khrushchev began de-Stalinization in 1956. Some were inspired by the May Fourth Movement and Intellectual Revolution in
China in 1919. Many, however, were inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideals and thought it their duty to point out where the party had deviated. Most sought to express their criticism within the limits of the system, such as the writer-journalist and CCP member Liu Binyan (Liu Pinyen), whose newspaper articles described the divergence between bureaucratic mismanagement and communist ideals. By 1957 university students, too, had become involved, led by those in National Beijing (Peking) University, whose predecessors had led the May Fourth Movement. They put up posters protesting the politicization of academic life on a Democracy Wall.
The leaders of the CCP were, however, unprepared for the extent and bitterness of the criticism by writers, scientists, and social scientists. In July 1957 Mao reversed himself, stating that intellectual freedom was only permissible if it strengthened socialism. He denounced those who had spoken out in the Hundred Flowers campaign as “rightists,” “counter-revolutionaries,” and “poisonous weeds.” Many senior CCP leaders had never endorsed the campaign and supported the crackdown. By the end of the year the anti-rightist campaign was in full swing, and more than 300,000 intellectuals had been condemned and sent to jail or labor camps, humiliated by public denunciations, and forced to make confessions. Their careers were ended. Countless bright students and young cadres never got a chance for a career as a result of their participation. Some were executed. The swing of the pendulum to severe repression was sharp and unrelenting. It reflected the insecurity of the CCP leaders and their fear of freedom.
See also Great Leap Forward in China (1958–1961).