Give us your thoughts, Mao Zedong asked China’s citizens in 1956. How shall we reform this most promising of republics? “Our society cannot back down, it could only progress . . . criticism of the bureaucracy is pushing the government toward the better.” China’s best and brightest minds in the arts and sciences could make vital contributions toward improvement, as long as they were “constructive” (or “among the people”), rather than “hateful and destructive” (or “between the enemy and ourselves”).
The Hundred Flowers Movement – the gathering of intellectual thought – bloomed first in 1956. Named for the poetic theme “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend,” Mao was looking for a way to promote socialist ideology through new forms in the arts and new cultural institutions. His hidden agenda? Root out all dissent. Entice those who disagreed with his program to expose themselves and their non-party-line thinking. Then, spring the trap.
Much skepticism greeted the Chairman’s introduction of a neutral “suggestion box.” Mao even accelerated the process by announcing in the spring that criticism was now “preferred.” The trap began closing in the summer of 1957. Those prominent individuals who had been brave enough to register criticism of Mao’s policies were condemned to prison labor camps and, in many cases, executed. Over 550,000 people were branded “rightists’ and sentenced to death by starvation, hard physical labor, and suicide. Across the People’s Republic, many individual rights were lost and Maoist orthodoxy would rule, unquestioned in any significant way until the time of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
An exhibit by artist Wang Xu, Archibald Prize winner for 2013, will open this weekend at the Verge Gallery in Sydney, Australia. Wang was born in China and trained in brush and ink painting in Beijing. He emigrated to Australia shortly after the Tiananmen Square uprising. “While enjoying a life of personal security in Australia,” Wang says, “I am still deeply affected by the terrible social and political injustices that continue to occur in China.”
In 2009 and 2012, Wang interviewed and filmed more than 140 survivors of Mao’s Hundred Flowers campaign. The survivors are now in their 70s and 80s and have never received acknowledgement or compensation for their sufferings. “Self-portrait (interviewing Maoist victims)”, a work of oil and acrylic on board, will be on display at the gallery. The 8′ x 12′ panel includes 30 portraits of Hundred Flowers victims, and a depiction of Wang holding a video camera.
One issue of conflict in Mao’s 1957 campaign made the headlines this week in the Wall Street Journal. Ilham Tohti, an economics professor in Beijing and a moderate, articulate voice for the minority Uighurs in China’s troubled Xinjiang region, was sentenced to life imprisonment and the government seizure of all his property. WSJ reporter Josh Chin quoted Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang: “It’s a shocking verdict, extremely harsh even by China’s standards. By handing down a life sentence, the government is burning its one and only bridge to moderate Uighurs in China. This will only exacerbate the heightened Han-Uighur tensions.” In the days before Tohti’s conviction, a series of explosions in the Xinjiang region killed six and injured 54. Police response left forty more dead in the ongoing and violent separatist movement.
Thank you, Wang Xu, for documenting and giving voice to those who dared to speak up and lost almost everything, and those who spoke up and whose voices are lost forever.