The Hundred Flowers campaign (baihua yundong) was a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) program that encouraged China’s intellectuals to submit different ideas, opinions and suggestions – even criticism of the party and its policies. It was launched by Mao Zedong in May 1956 with the phrase “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”.
The purpose and meaning of the Hundred Flowers campaign have been intensely debated by historians and academics. Many have interpreted it as a ‘Beijing Spring’, a period of liberalisation and ideological relaxation endorsed by Mao himself.
Within a year, however, Mao Zedong abandoned his new-found tolerance for dissenting ideas and opinions. Those who had voiced criticisms of the CCP and its government were themselves targeted, most notably during the Anti-Rightist campaign (1957).
Today, historians remain divided whether the Hundred Flowers campaign was an error of judgement or a deliberate ploy to coax dissidents into the open. Mao himself claimed it was the latter, suggesting he had “enticed the snakes out of their caves”.
The seeds of the Hundred Flowers campaign were laid by China’s premier, Zhou Enlai. A rational figure more tolerant of criticism and dissent than Mao, Zhou believed that China’s artists and intellectuals had been unfairly silenced by the revolution.
In January 1956, Zhou told the CCP Central Committee that intellectuals had much to offer the nation if they were encouraged and given some freedom. He was supported by several other CCP leaders, including culture minister Zhou Yang and Liu Shaoqi.
It was Liu Shaoqi who first used the classical phrase, suggesting in March 1956 that China should “let one hundred flowers bloom, to develop something new from the old”. At this stage, however, the movement was nothing more than an internal debate among CCP leaders.
This began to change in April 1956 when the debate attracted the interest of Mao. Over time, the Chairman came to support the Hundred Flowers idea.
It is doubtful Mao placed any value on the contributions or criticisms of intellectuals, who he regarded as relics of the old order. His true motives, however, are uncertain and continue to be debated by historians.
Some argue that Mao was prepared to tolerate a period of liberalisation and free thought to promote socialism, to present it as a reasonable ideology that listens to the people, even those who do not agree.
Some believe his support for the Hundred Flowers was a defensive move. Panicked by events in Hungary and the Soviet Union, Mao wanted to minimise the chance of a democratic counter-revolution in China.
Some also interpret the Hundred Flowers as evidence of Mao’s complacency, following the end of the Korean War, the progress of the First Five Year Plan (1953-57) and the relative prosperity of the mid-1950s.
Mao’s explanation, offered in 1957, was that he supported the campaign as a ruse, to draw ‘Rightists’ and counter-revolutionaries into the open.
“Let a hundred flowers bloom”
Whatever his reasons, Mao took control of the campaign and hauled it into public view. On May 2nd 1956 he gave it a classical slogan: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”.
The campaign was publicly launched on February 27th 1957, in a rambling speech on the “correct handling of contradictions among the people”. In this speech, Mao praised the unity of China and the achievements of the nation.
Mao also welcomed criticism of CCP policy and ideology. “Can Marxism be criticised?” Mao asked. “Certainly it can. Marxism is scientific truth and fears no criticism. If it did, and if it could be overthrown by criticism, it would be worthless”.
For much of the next three months, Mao worked hard to ensure these dissenting flowers would blossom. He assured writers they would not be punished or marginalised for speaking their mind. The Hundred Flowers movement would change the nation, Mao promised, “as gently as a breeze or a fine rain”.
Criticisms flood in
Despite Mao’s assurances, the first months of the Hundred Flowers campaign yielded only a gentle wave of public criticism and comment, most of it on minor issues. There was little significant criticism of Mao, the government or the CCP.
This began to change in late spring 1957 after Mao all but demanded suggestions and criticism from his people. Leading academics took the bold step of speaking critically about government policies. This uncorked the genie and unleashed a torrent of public comment.
Millions of letters began pouring into government offices, venting criticisms about everything from the lateness of public transport to Mao’s personal conduct. As in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, some of the strongest criticism came from China’s university students in Beijing.
According to one writer, these students “protested CCP control over intellectuals, the harshness of previous mass campaigns such as that against counter-revolutionaries, the slavish following of Soviet models, the low standards of living in China, the proscription [banning] of foreign literature, economic corruption among party cadres [and] the fact that Party members enjoyed many privileges which made them a race apart”.
The CCP response
CCP propaganda suggested that the Hundred Flowers produced an inflow of mild and moderate criticism. In reality, the government came under siege from critics and letter writers.
While some accepted the criticisms at face value, Mao himself dismissed most of them as self-serving, ridiculous or irrelevant. A June 1957 editorial drew a line under the Hundred Flowers campaign, while Mao’s earlier speech on “correctly handling contradictions” was republished – after being edited to suggest that not all contradictions could be tolerated.
The Hundred Flowers gave way to a new purge called the Anti-Rightist movement, initiated in the summer of 1957. Between 300,000 and 550,000 individuals were identified as Rightists, most of them intellectuals, academics, writers and artists. The majority were publicly discredited and lost their jobs, while a smaller number were forced into labour camps for ‘re-education’.
As with the earlier Suppression of Counter-revolutionaries and Antis campaigns, thousands were also driven to suicide. What had begun in early 1956 as a promise of liberalisation and tolerance, finished in late 1957 with persecution, coercion and brutality.
A historian’s view:
“It was a year before the intellectuals gained courage to respond to [Mao’s] call, first with strongly expressed criticisms of the patterns imposed in education, then with broader criticisms of the overall socio-political system. In terms of the education system there were bitter complaints about the mechanical copying from the Soviet Union, the narrowness of programs of teaching, the neglect and repression of the social sciences, and the fact that Marxism-Leninsm was upheld as orthodox doctrine, to be accepted without question… Wider social criticism focused on the authoritarian role of the party in all decision-making, the increasing gulf between party and non-party professionals, and the various abuses of privilege of the new political elite”.
1. The Hundred Flowers campaign was a period in 1957 where Mao and the CCP encouraged Chinese citizens, particularly writers and intellectuals, to voice opinions and criticisms of the party and the government.
2. This movement began with Zhou Enlai, who hoped encouraging Chinese intellectuals would benefit the government. It was quickly taken over by Mao, for reasons that are unclear and debated by historians.
3. Mao laid the groundwork for the Hundred Flowers campaign in mid-1956, with speeches that claimed contradictions were harmless and Marxism could be subject to criticism. He formally the campaign in early 1957.
4. It took months for people to submit honest criticisms, however, when they came in the spring of 1957, these criticisms were both voluminous and scathing of the party, the government and Mao Zedong himself.
5. Mao responded by calling a halt to the Hundred Flowers campaign (June 1957), revising and republishing his earlier speeches and ordering an Anti-Rightist campaign to suppress those who had criticised him and the government.