On the evening of 17 May 1966 Deng Tuo, one of China‘s most prominent Communist propagandists, committed suicide by overdose of sleeping tablets as an act of protest against charges levelled against him during the Cultural Revolution.

Following the tradition of Chinese political suicides, which dated back to the loyal minister Qu Yuan in the third century BC, Deng wrote two letters: one addressed to his family, and one to his work unit, stating his loyalty to the Party and Chairman Mao, and denouncing his detractors (Cheek, 1997, p. 283).

Deng Tuo was a staunch believer in Communism and Marxism-Leninism. He had joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1930s and had served in the Communist-controlled areas during World War II and the Chinese Civil War (ibid., p. 8).

Born in Fujian province in 1912, Deng belonged to a family of Qing Dynasty scholar-officials. His education reflected that of the Chinese imperial elite, and he spent his early years studying traditional Confucian texts and practicing calligraphy (Hamrin & Cheek, 1986, p. 95).

Anti-Rightist Campaign, 1957 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1920s, however, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China (ROC), he was influenced by the radical leftist thought that became popular among a section of the Chinese intelligentsia following the Communist Revolution in Russia and the May 4th movement.

In 1930 Deng joined the CCP. Because of his pro-Communist activities he spent time in jail in Shanghai, Fuzhou and Kaifeng. As a fervent Communist, his works were based on his belief in Marxism and historical materialism, as evidenced by his 1937 treatise “A History of Famine Relief in China” (ibid., p. 95).

Deng Tuo served in the Jin Cha Ji (Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei) Border Region under prominent CCP leaders like Nie Rongzhen and Peng Zhen (Cheek, 1997, p. 9). In 1944 Deng edited the first Selected Works of Mao Zedong. “The thought (sixiang) of Comrade Mao Zedong represents the Chinese proletariat and their political party,” Deng wrote in his introduction. “Historical practice has fully demonstrated that Comrade Mao Zedong’s thought is the only correct thought” (Hamrin & Cheek, 1986, p. 96).

Deng was appointed chief editor of the Jin Cha Ji Daily, and after the victory of the Communists in the Civil War he became the chief editor of the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the CCP (ibid.). He authored numerous essays, many of which appeared in the collections “Evening Chats at Yanshan” and “Notes from a Three-Family Village”.

Throughout his career, Deng proclaimed his faith in Marxism-Leninism and Mao’s leadership. As late as 1961, he told students that under the socialist system “the interests of the nation, of the collective, and of the individual are unified.” However, in 1956 the relationship between Mao and Deng began to deteriorate (ibid., pp. 96, 103).

In the late 1950s Mao launched the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), an economic programme aimed at overtaking the West, but which resulted in a famine that killed an estimated 45 million people. The abject failure of Mao’s ideological vision weakened his leadership position.

At the Cadres’ Work Conference in January 1962 Mao made an unprecedented self-criticism. The erosion of Mao’s power allowed party members to debate economic and social policies more freely. Deng Tuo, too, criticized the Great Leap Forward. This exacerbated Mao’s dissatisfaction with Deng (ibid., p. 106).

In 1963 Mao’s radical faction, led by his wife Jiang Qing, was striking back against the critics. Deng soon became a target of Maoist attacks (ibid., p. 108).

In 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, newspapers such as the Beijing Daily and People’s Daily began to publish “criticisms” of Deng Tuo. Having been himself an editor for regime publications for decades, he knew that if Party newspapers had received official approval to print such articles, his downfall was near. The same year Deng was purged and his ideas were branded ‘anti- socialist’ and ‘anti-Party’ (Cheek, 1997, pp. 282-283).

Deng Tuo was a CCP loyalist, a regime supporter, and a Marxist-Leninist. Despite his criticism of the Great Leap Forward, he never publicly questioned Mao Zedong’s thought or leadership. Nevertheless, even he could not escape the fate of so many Chinese intellectuals who were persecuted by the state.

In this article, we shall briefly examine the policies and methods of “brainwashing” during the early years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).


The Origins of Communist Thought Control

After the end of the Long March in 1936 the faction of the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong established its headquarters in the city of Yan’an, in Shaanxi province. Yan’an remained the capital of the Communist-controlled area until 18 March 1947, when Guomindang troops occupied it during the Civil War (Dillon 2010, chapter 10).

As a forerunner of the People’s Republic, Yan’an is interesting not only with regard to social and economic policies, but also to the attitude of the Communist leadership, and in particular of Mao himself, towards culture (see Teiwes, 1979, p. 15).

Since Mao’s philosophy was based on Marxism-Leninism, he regarded the world as being made up of different classes with opposing interests, with the minority classes – the feudal landlords and the bourgeoisie – being the exploiters that had to be eliminated, and the majority class, that of the workers and peasants, being the revolutionary classes. From this ideological premise Mao derived his belief that culture reflected the class consciousness of those who produced it: there was the “bad” culture of feudalism and the bourgeoisie, and the “good” culture of the “masses”.


Mu Shiying: Craven A and Other Stories.

Yu Dafu: Breeze of a Spring Evening and Other Stories.

Aris Teon: Memories of Taiwan.

Feng Menglong: The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers: A Tale From Ancient China.

In a speech from 7 September 1937, Mao stated:

We stand for active ideological struggle because it is the weapon for ensuring unity within the Party and the revolutionary organizations in the interest of our fight. Every Communist and revolutionary should take up this weapon.

“But liberalism rejects ideological struggle and stands for unprincipled peace, thus giving rise to a decadent, Philistine attitude and bringing about political degeneration in certain units and individuals in the Party and the revolutionary organizations…

A Communist should have largeness of mind and he should be staunch and active, looking upon the interests of the revolution as his very life and subordinating his personal interests to those of the revolution; always and everywhere he should adhere to principle and wage a tireless struggle against all incorrect ideas and actions, so as to consolidate the collective life of the Party and strengthen the ties between the Party and the masses; he should be more concerned about the Party and the masses than about any private person, and more concerned about others than about himself. Only thus can he be considered a Communist.

“All loyal, honest, active and upright Communists must unite to oppose the liberal tendencies shown by certain people among us, and set them on the right path. This is one of the tasks on our ideological front (Mao Zedong. Combat Liberalism, 1937).

Mao’s bellicose language exemplifies his radical vision of Communism as a relentless struggle not only for economic and social reforms, but also for the very minds of the people. Consequently, Mao rejected the idea of the intellectual as an independent creator of art or knowledge for their own sake. In his famous speech at the Yan’an forum on literature and art, Mao explained:

“Our aim is to ensure that revolutionary literature and art follow the correct path of development and provide better help to other revolutionary work in facilitating the overthrow of our national enemy and the accomplishment of the task of national liberation. In our struggle for the liberation of the Chinese people there are various fronts, among which there are the fronts of the pen and of the gun

“[D]oes not Marxism destroy the creative mood? Yes, it does. It definitely destroys creative moods that are feudal, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, liberalistic, individualist, nihilist, art-for-art’s sake, aristocratic, decadent or pessimistic, and every other creative mood that is alien to the masses of the people and to the proletariat. So far as proletarian writers and artists are concerned, should not these kinds of creative moods be destroyed? I think they should; they should be utterly destroyed. And while they are being destroyed, something new can be constructed …

[W]rong styles of work still exist to a serious extent in our literary and art circles and that there are still many defects among our comrades, such as idealism, dogmatism, empty illusions, empty talk, contempt for practice and aloofness from the masses, all of which call for an effective and serious campaign of rectification.

Intellectuals who want to integrate themselves with the masses, who want to serve the masses, must go through a process in which they and the masses come to know each other well. This process may, and certainly will, involve much pain and friction, but if you have the determination, you will be able to fulfil these requirements …

“I believe that in the course of the rectification movement and in the long period of study and work to come, you will surely be able to bring about a transformation in yourselves and in your works, to create many fine works which will be warmly welcomed by the masses of the people, and to advance the literature and art movement in the revolutionary base areas and throughout China to a glorious new stage” (Mao Zedong. Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, 1942).

Mao’s cultural policies in the Yan’an era already contained all the elements that would determine China’s “thought reform” campaigns after 1949, and which would lead to insurmountable conflicts between the Communist regime and the intelligentsia.


Rectification, Thought Reform, Brainwashing

The CCP had an ambivalent and contradictory attitude towards the Chinese intelligentsia, especially regarding individuals who had studied abroad and had been exposed to “capitalist” society. On the one hand, the Communists realized that the support of intellectuals was necessary and beneficial for the regime. On the other hand, they viewed them with suspicion, as vehicles of ideas that could challenge Communist orthodoxy.

On 1 December 1939 the CCP Central Committee issued a “Decision on the Absorption of Intellectual Elements”. Section 3. iii stated:

“Intellectuals and semi-intellectuals who are useful in various degrees and who are basically loyal should be given appropriate work, trained adequately and led gradually to correct their weaknesses in the course of our sustained struggle, in order to enable them to remould themselves to adopt truly the point of view of the people and to get along harmoniously with the veteran Party members and other members of the cadre as well as with the Party members of worker and peasant stock” (Mu, 1963, p. 213).

Nearly a decade later, on 18 December 1948, the Central Plain Bureau of the CCP issued a special directive urging Party members to “win over, unite with, reform and cultivate the intelligentzia” (Chen, 1960, p. 7).

This directive was more critical of Chinese intellectuals, highlighting the difficulty of incorporating people who had a landlord or bourgeois background.

Most of the intellectuals come from families of landlords, rich peasants, and the bourgeois and petty bourgeois classes, and have long been contaminated by bourgeois education. Though the possibility exists that the majority of them may lean towards the revolution, they generally look down on the workers and peasants and stay away from the masses. Therefore, to enable them ‘to serve the people’, and ‘to identify themselves with the workers and peasants’ . . . it is incumbent upon us to carry on propaganda among them and to return them ideologically” (Chen, 1960, p. 8).

It must be remarked that despite the CCP’s claim to represent a scientific and “correct” theory, one would struggle to find any objective criteria to define what Communist truth actually was. Ultimately, CCP orthodoxy was solely and arbitrarily determined by those in power, chiefly by Mao. Anyone could be accused of incorrect and reactionary viewpoints, which included vague concepts such as “ultra-democratism, absolute equalitarianism, idealism and individualism” (Chen, 1960, p. 10).

The Communist regime did not look upon the intelligentsia with the respect typical of traditional Chinese society. In Communist China, intellectuals were expected to follow the Party, embrace its ideology, and use their talent to propagate it (Cheek, 1997, p. 3; Chen, 1960, p. 8).


Mu Shiying: Craven A and Other Stories.

Yu Dafu: Breeze of a Spring Evening and Other Stories.

Aris Teon: Memories of Taiwan.

Feng Menglong: The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers: A Tale From Ancient China.

Consequently, the Communist regime was not satisfied with leaving intellectuals alone as long as they did not oppose the government. Nor did the CCP accept the notion that intellectuals could devote themselves to their field of expertise and remain “apolitical”. Rather, the CCP placed great importance on popular support, mass mobilization and thought control. Intellectuals could not be neutral, they had to speak and act as one with the Party. They needed to have the correct “political consciousness” (Chen, 1960, p. 9).

The vocabulary of propaganda developed by the Communists shows their determination to dominate the minds of men and engineer a new type of human being according to Party ideology. The regime talked about “thought struggle” (思想鬥爭) and “thought reform”, or “thought remoulding” (思想改造) (Chen, 1960, p. 10; Lifton, 1961, p. 4).

It was clear that in Communist China there was no place not only for dissidents, but also for people who were non-political, or had no class consciousness. Shortly after they seized power in 1949, the Communists launched their first “thought reform” campaign. A nationwide “study” (學習) movement was launched to make the people familiar with the new state ideology, Marxism-Leninism, with the purpose of promoting the “self-education and ideological remoulding of the liberated people”.

In this unprecedented propaganda drive all sections of society, from intellectuals to housewives, from workers to peasants, were required to attend an extensive system of schools and newly-founded institutes where Communist ideology was taught (Chen, 1960, p. 10).


Legalist-Confucian and Communist Elements of China’s Brainwashing

During the Mao era, “thought reform” in China was carried out on a scale never before seen in the world. The extent of Chinese Communist propaganda methods was so unprecedented that the Western world coined a neologism to express it: “brainwashing”.

The term brainwashing was first used in 1951 by US foreign correspondent Edward Hunter in his book Brainwashing in Red China as a translation of the colloquial Chinese expression xinao (洗腦, literally: “wash brain”).

Hunter was the first Westerner to write about the phenomenon of Chinese “thought reform” during the early phase of CCP rule. He interviewed both Chinese and non-Chinese victims of brainwashing who came across the border from China into the British colony of Hong Kong (Lifton, 1961, p. 3; Singer & Lifton, 2003, p. 55).

According to Lifton (1961) thought reform was so effective that Western missionaries who had been forced to confess to being spies were confused about what they believed even after they had left Communist China and had arrived in Hong Kong. One of the most shocking and, from a Chinese point of view, egregious feature of thought refom methods was the practice of persuading young Chinese students to publicly denounce their parents, an act that violated the most sacred precept of traditional Chinese society: filial piety (Lifton, 1961, p. 6).

Totalitarian propaganda was by no means unique to Chinese Communism, quite the contrary. The Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin had paved the way for totalitarian practices that would later spread throughout the Communist bloc. As Alan Wood wrote in 2005:

“Everyone, not just workers and peasants, had their part to play in the plan. Even creative writers were to be, in Stalin’s phrase, ‘engineers of human souls‘ and a new literary/ political formula called ‘Socialist Realism’ was introduced as a yardstick against which all kinds of artistic endeavour were to be measured.

Censorship controls were reinforced to ensure that authors wrote only in such a way as to enhance and glorify the victory of socialism. Gone were the independent literary groupings of the 1920s, replaced in 1934 by the Union of Soviet Writers, a kind of literary closed shop whose members assembled novels and stories full of compulsory optimism and positive heroes

“Not only literature, but all other forms of artistic, intellectual and even scientific activity were subject to ideological requirements … [E]ven well-known photographs and official paintings were doctored by Stalin’s censors to brush out or paint over representations of disgraced or condemned public figures” (Wood, 2005, pp. 36-37).

In the book To Win the Minds of Men: The Story of the Communist Propaganda War in East Germany (1958), Pete Grothe wrote about propaganda in the Soviet satellite state of East Germany:

“Not only are all events, past and present, led down the Party line, but every conceivable means of communication is utilized to publicize these events. The press, radio, television, movies, literature, drama; the school system, rallies, person-to-person agitation, justice system, and even art, architecture, and music — all are used to express the Communist viewpoint. No sphere of intellectual activity or organized endeavor which might influence public opinion is overlooked by the SED [=Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, the Communist Party of East Germany]

“The purpose of Communist propaganda in East Germany, as, indeed, in every Communist country, is clear: to change the very consciousness of man. The purpose is to atomize the individual thinking of 17,000,000 East Germans and to grind them into one species-homo sovieticus — ‘The New Man.’

The New Man’ will parrot slogans when they should be parroted; he will do what should be done; he will say what should be said; he will think what should be thought; and he will feel what should be felt” (Grothe, 1958, p. 38).

In China, thought reform was even more pernicious and far-reaching than in other Communist countries.

This might in part be explained by what Timothy Cheek (1997) has described as the “structural similarities between the Leninist and Confucian-Legalist state” (Cheek, 1997, p. 3).

Confucianism stressed self-cultivation and morality based on family ideology and social hierarchies. In “The Great Learning”, a chapter from the Confucian classic “The Book of Rites”, we read:

“The ancients who wished clearly to exemplify illustrious virtue throughout the world would first set up good government in their states. Wishing to govern well their states, they would first regulate their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they would first cultivate their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they would first rectify their minds. Wishing to rectify their minds, they would first seek sincerity in their thoughts. Wishing for sincerity in their thoughts, they would first extend their knowledge. The extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. For only when things are investigated is knowledge extended; only when knowledge is extended are thoughts sincere; only when thoughts are sincere are minds rectified; only when minds are rectified are our persons cultivated; only when our persons are cultivated are our families regulated; only when families are regulated are states well governed; and only when states are well governed is there peace in the world. From the emperor down to the common people, all, without exception, must consider cultivation of the individual character as the root. If the root is in disorder, it is impossible for the branches to be in order” (quoted in: De Bary, Chan, & Watson, 1960, p. 115).

Although Mao Zedong was in many respects an anti-Confucian, his notion of Communist propaganda echoes the Confucian emphasis on sincerity, knowledge, and self-cultivation. Mao replaced the Confucian “truth” of filial piety with the new truth of Marxism-Leninism, but he demanded the same sincerity, self-cultivation and individual commitment.

Yet while Confucianism regarded self-cultivation as a voluntary act, Mao’s regime used tools of cruel coercion to compel people to “remould themselves”, and thus followed in the footsteps of China’s autocratic Legalist tradition, which he admired and publicly praised.


The Chinese Intelligentsia and Thought Reform

What was the attitude of Chinese intellectuals towards the Communists on the eve of their victory in the Chinese Civil War?

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s there were pro-Communist and pro-Guomindang intellectuals, but there were also many who supported neither Party.

According to Theodore Chen, prior to the Communist takeover a group of college professors were asked about their opinion on the regime change. One of them said:

“We intellectuals have gone through three phases in out thinking. At first, most of us supported the government, recognizing its many faults, but hoping it would reform. Then we became increasingly discouraged with reform prospects, but saw no feasible alternatives. Though the present government, we felt, was bad, what might take its place would be even worse. During this second phase intellectuals were uncertain and bewildered. Then came the present, third phase. We have become so completely convinced of the hopelessness of the existing government that we feel that the sooner it is removed the better. Since the Chinese Communists are obviously the only force capable of making this change, we are now willing to support them as the lesser of two evils. We ourselves would prefer a middle course, but that is no longer possible (Chen, 1960, p. 1).

It is not possible to know how many intellectuals shared this view, but it is certainly consistent with the well-documented, widespread dissatisfaction of many Chinese with the Guomindang regime.

As we have already remarked, such “non-ideological” standpoint was considered unacceptable by the Communists. Unaware of what would soon happen, and driven by their growing discontent with the existing government, a section of the intelligentsia was willing to give the Communists a chance (Lifton, 1961, p. 245).

Upon seizing power, the Communists began setting up special schools and “revolutionary universities” aimed at reforming the thought of intellectuals. Students of these propaganda centres included former Guomindang members, professors, and people who had studied and lived in the West. (Lifton, 1961, p. 247).

The “study movement” and “revolutionary” schools were only a prelude to the massive thought reform campaign that swept the Chinese intelligentsia in 1951. “Ideological reform,” Mao said, “first of all the ideological reform of the intellectuals, is one of the most important conditions for a country’s all-out complete democratic reform and industrialization”. The Ministry of Education summoned three thousand university professors and personnel of the Beijing and Tianjin area to launch a “study campaign” aimed at “the reform of the teachers” ideology and of higher education (Lifton, 1961, pp. 245-246).

Premier Zhou Enlai delivered a five-hour-long speech to the assembled academics, setting an example by performing a self-criticism of his own “social relations” – self-criticism was an integral part of what intellectuals were expected to do to reform themselves.

All university members throughout the country, from college presidents to freshman students, were required to study Marxism-Leninism, examine their own past from the standpoint of their new “class consciousness”, and criticize themselves as well as others during public sessions. In an attempt to openly defy and subvert traditional Confucian thought, young students were encouraged to publicly denounce their elderly professors for their ideological mistakes.

Individuals’ self-criticism followed a pattern that, though in theory voluntary, was carefully crafted by the Communist Party: first, one had to denounce one’s past, including one’s own family; second, one had to lay out the path towards personal improvement under the guidance of Marxism-Leninism; third, one had to pledge to work hard to overcome one’s remaining ideological errors. Prepared “confessions” were an essential component of the Communist brainwashing strategy (Lifton, 1961, p. 246).

It is important to emphasize the fact that Communist thought reform campaigns went beyond anything previous Chinese regimes had ever attempted.

In imperial China, there was a clear separation between the rulers and the ruled. Emperors governed behind closed doors, with scholar-officials acting as a link between the monarch and the majority of the population. The masses of the peasants were not affected by imperial power in the tyrannical way that some may assume. Quite the contrary.

Between the Tang and the Qing dynasties China’s population increased fivefold, while the number of government officials remained largely unchanged. Imperial China was an agrarian state which did not have the means nor the incentive to control the population through a vast modern bureaucratic apparatus (Chow, 1994, p. 71).

Chinese dynasties rather ruled through a combination of state coercion and self-policing through Confucian ethics and the family system.

Direct coercive action was largely confined to the suppression of anti-dynastic rebellions and of popular organizations deemed potentially dangerous.


On a day-to-day basis, however, rural communities were supposed to police themselves through the so-called baojia system. The following document issued in 1708 explains how the baojia system worked:

Each household is given a placard on which the official seal is affixed.The names and number of adult males are written on it. In case anyof them go away, their destination is recorded; in case any come intothe households, the places from which they come are ascertained.It is forbidden to take in strangers and suspicious characters, unlessa thorough questioning of them has been made. Every ten householdsset up a p’ai-t’ou [placard-head], every ten p’ai a chia-t’ou, and everyten chia a pao-chang…. Hostels keep registers for the purposeof checking [the guests] and paper placards are also given to templesand shrines. At the end of each month, the pao-chang submits a kan “chieh [willing bond], giving assurance that everything has been wellin the neighborhoods, which [kan-chiek] is sent to the official con-cerned for inspection. Whoever fails to comply will be punished” (Hsiao, 1960, pp. 44-45).

During the Qing Dynasty, the baojia system was placed under the authority of the Board of Revenue for purposes of taxation and surveillance. One of the most important functions of the baojia was law-enforcement. Each member of a baojia was required to report to the baojia head any person guilty of a crime, and the baojia head would then report the crime to local authorities. Failure to do so would bring punishment on the entire 10-household unit, thus increasing the pressure on individuals to comply with the law (Hsiao, 1960, p. 45).

The pervasiveness of the Confucian family system and the requirement for self-policing of rural communities were two of the most unique characteristics of traditional Chinese society. Imperial rule was ideologically omnipresent, yet at the same time laissez-faire, as local communities were largely left to themselves as long as they did not cause trouble.

As the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen remarked in the 1920s:

“Since the Ch’in dynasty [Qin Dynasty, 221 – 206 BC.], the aim of China’s emperors has been first to protect their own throne that they might continue to keep the empire in their own family and that their heirs might reign in peace forever. So any activities of the people which seemed to endanger the throne were repressed as strongly as possible; if anyone started a rebellion, not only he himself but his nine degrees of kindred were punished, the sternest measures being employed to prevent a popular revolution. These absolute monarchs simply wanted to keep their thrones forever. In other words, as long as the people did not offend against the throne, they could do anything else without any interference on the part of the government

“During the Manchu dynasty each province had a viceroy or governor at the top, below him taotai and prefects, and in the lowest rank various assistant magistrates and subordinates. The people had little direct relation to the emperor beyond paying him the annual grain tax— nothing more. Consequently, the political consciousness of the people has been very weak. The people did not care who was emperor. As soon as they had paid their grain tax they considered their duty as citizens done. The emperors wanted only the grain tax from the people and were not interested in anything else they did” (Sun, 1927, pp. 197-198).

The Guomindang regime that followed the Qing Dynasty tried to establish a more pervasive form of state control and even launched mass campaigns such as the “New Life Movement”. Yet those campaigns and propaganda were limited in scope, and intellectuals were, just like in the Qing era, left alone as long as they did not openly challenge the state. There is no indication that the Guomindang ever attempted to “reform the thought” of non-political writers such as Mu Shiying or Lin Yutang.

The Communists, by contrast, wished to “mobilize the entire Chinese population in support of Communist policy”, and the intellectuals played a decisive role in Beijing’s propaganda. Most intellectuals, faced with indoctrination and intimidation, caved, wrote confessions and pledged unconditional loyalty to the regime (Houn & Hou, 1961, p. 2).

The effects of the thought reform campaign were devastating. The following excerpts from Theodore Chen’s work on thought reform may provide a sense of the personal ordeal intellectuals had to go through:

“Chi Hsien-lin, another intellectual, said:

“Before liberation, the professors were free to teach anything they liked, in any way they liked. They were university professors and respected figures in society. . . . Things are different today. Intellectuals, like other labourers, all work for the collective well-being of the people. They must have plans and organization. They teach according to outlines of instruction. If anything wrong is found in their work, they have to face criticism and self-criticism.

“Wu Ching-ch’ao, wrote about his experience as follows:

“After I joined the ranks of the peasants, I came to realize that the land reform is a bitter struggle which heightens my consciousness. The first step of the agrarian reform is to organize a broad anti-feudal united front to wage a class struggle against the landlords. . . . Between the two battle fronts, where do you stand? . . . Whom do you support? Whom do you oppose? . . . Every person must make an unequivocal answer.

“Huang Chia-te, an editor who had studied in the United States, found it wise to state his position as follows:

“I had blindly worshipped the ‘material civilization’ of European and American imperialism and especially the ‘science’ and ‘culture’ of American imperialism. . . . Not until the ‘Resist-America, Aid-Korea’ campaign was underway did I awaken . . . to realize the decadent nature of American imperialism and the ugliness of American cultural aggression. . . . The criminal use of bacteriological weapons in Korea and the Northeast further proves that the American imperialists are the deadly enemy of the Chinese and of all the peace-loving peoples of the world.

“Another, T’eng Ta-ch’un, wrote:

“I now understand that to hate America and to love the Soviet Union are two sides of the same coin. After I began to hate America, I naturally came to see that the Soviet Union is lovable and worthy of respect and admiration. As a matter of fact the Soviet Union is giving us unreserved guidance with its own revolutionary and constructive experience, Soviet specialists are selflessly helping us, and the Soviet Union is unconditionally lending us support in world affairs. I feel ashamed that I have in the past stood on the same ground with the reactionary elements.

“This is how Yü Te-yüan expressed himself on May 19, 1952.

“I feel extremely grieved to realize how much harm has been done to the people because of my failure to use faithfully the ideology of the proletariat as a yard-stick in my work. . . . Henceforth I will redouble my efforts to study Marxism-Leninism and the thought of Chairman Mao, with the hope of reforming fundamentally. I will steadfastly hold to my position with the working class in order to serve the people better” (Chen, 1960, pp. 1-3).

Hu Weihan, one of the graduates of North China University, a large “revolutionary university” near Beijing, was interviewed by Robert Jay Lifton in the mid-1950s. Hu recalled that initially the atmosphere at the university was relaxed. Students made friends and opened up to each other, and they were enthusiastic about giving their contribution to the new regime. However, as time went by, the university authorities intensified their propaganda efforts, pushed students to confess their past “crimes” and to criticize other students. Friendship and comradeship gave way to suspicion and fear:

“Criticisms gave rise to countercriticisms, and group harmony gave way to tense antagonisms. The descriptions of past and present attitudes which students had so freely offered each other during the first days now came back to haunt them. Previously quiet students suddenly became ‘activists,’ stepping up the pace of criticism and intensifying the emotional tone within the group.

“Some of these activists identified themselves as members of the Communist Youth Corps or of the Communist Party itself, thus emerging from an underground status. Their regular attendance at Party and Youth Corps meetings gave them a channel to the school hierarchy which, in terms of real power, superseded Hu’s authority as group leader.

“When Hu realized this, he became increasingly uncomfortable — aware that he was being informed on, but never quite sure just when and by whom. He also noted that the authorities had begun to shift students about from one group to another in order to make most effective use of activists, always keeping in his group one or two who could exert strong influence. And his experience with his own thought summary increased his apprehension. Although it was fully orthodox in form and content, he had made it somewhat terse. He was strongly criticized by an activist who accused him of concealing details, and the interested presence of all three cadres convinced him that the faculty was showing special concern about his personal progress.

“From this point on, pressures steadily mounted, and Hu lived in an atmosphere of criticism, self-criticism, and confession much like the prison environment of the Western subjects. Not only ideas, but underlying motivations were carefully scrutinized. Students were taken to task for failure to achieve the correct ‘materialistic viewpoint,’ ‘proletarian (or ‘people’s’) standpoint,’ and ‘dialectical methodology’ — and the reasons for these failures were analyzed even more carefully than in prison reform …

Hu began to sense that the cadres were antagonistic to him, and he feared that, should he make one false move, they might well label him a ‘reactionary’ — dangerous accusation for anyone. He found himself in the paradoxical position of still retaining his general faith in the Chinese Communist movement, while feeling increasingly trapped in his personal thought reform experience” (Lifton, 1961, pp. 259-261).

The treatment reserved to intellectuals was so oppressive that in 1956 Zhou Enlai publicly admitted that the regime had been too harsh and pledged a more conciliatory policy as long as nothing was said or done against the “interests of the people” (Houn & Hou, 1961, p. 5).

This new policy was first announced on 26 May 1956 by Lu Dingyi, the director of the Propaganda Department of the CCP’s Central Committee, at a meeting of members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the All-China Federation of Literary and Art Circles. Lu proposed the famous slogan: “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend”, a classical reference to the proliferation of religious and philosophical schools during the Zhou dynasty (circa 1045–221 BC).

Mao publicly supported the policy in speeches that he made to the Supreme State Conference on 2 May 1956 and on 27 February 1957. The speech was later published with the title “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People”.

In the spring of 1957 articles denouncing government policies, bureaucracy, maladministration and corruption began to appear on Chinese newspapers. Students and intellectuals started to vent their frustration and resentment by criticizing the Communist regime and even Mao Zedong himself.

The Communist leadership was shocked by the vehemence and extent of criticism, which exposed how the apparent popular consensus of the previous years had been extorted by terror.


The regime reacted with the usual brutality, accusing its critics of being ideological enemies who were attempting to stage a reactionary coup. The Party struck back by launching the “Anti-Rightist Campaign”. Those who had dared criticize the government were subjected to public vilification, thought reform or reform through labour. According to estimates, between 400,000 and 700,000 intellectuals lost their jobs and were sent to the countryside or factories during the campaign (Dillon, 2010, chapter 11).


The first decade of the People’s Republic of China established a pattern of thought control through coercive measures or the threat thereof. Drawing upon Stalinist methods and Confucian-Legalist traditions, Mao launched a series of campaigns aimed at “remoulding” people’s minds. More than anything, the thought reform process was a policy of submission of the individual to the absolute personal leadership of Mao, who arbitrarily set the criteria of “correct” thought.


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