Socialists Always Hated Free Speech: A Look at Mao’s Silencing of Dissent

By Stuart Clayton Lee

May is being coined Communism Awareness Month by Liberty Hangout so I thought it’d be appropriate to revisit a dark time in world history. Unfortunately this experience will not be a fun time travel adventure, rather, we’re going to go back to a time that can only be described as immense suffering. I have decided to visit Communist China in three essential parts, The Hundred Flowers Campaign, The Great Leap Forward, and The Cultural Revolution. Hopefully after revisiting these events we can begin to learn something important about communism. I only hope that someone on the left stumbles upon this. As George Santayana famously quoted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana).

What happens when a plan you have doesn’t go your way? An appropriate response might be to change your methods or possibly make major changes? Mao had a different idea. His ideas didn’t conform to reality, so he made reality conform to his ideas.

In 1956, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party decided to encourage free speech and intellectual criticism. To quote Mao himself, the idea of this campaign was to “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend” (Mao Zedong, 1956). This campaign was also pushed by China’s premier, Zhou Enlai, who really emphasized the importance of China’s intellectuals. To quote Zhou directly, “Without this criticism the government will not be able to function as the People’s Democratic Dictatorship. Thus the basis of a healthy government lost.…We must learn from old mistakes, take all forms of healthy criticism, and do what we can to answer these criticisms.” (Zhao Enlai).

Obviously at first there was little criticism, seeing as how an authoritarian government out of nowhere just calls for more criticism. If someone who’s been mean to you for a while just starts acting nice to you randomly, wouldn’t you get suspicious? It’s a similar situation for the intellectuals of China at that time. Eventually though, criticism started flowing as millions of letters started to hit the fly at the communist party. This led Mao to immediately kill the campaign in 1957, as well as intellectuals who were put into re-education camps, publicly discredited, and executed in some cases. Roughly 300,000 people were labeled rightist by the end of 1957. One of these intellectuals was Ai Qing, a famous Chinese poet. After being labeled a rightist, he was denounced, had his possessions taken, and was exiled to Shihezi. There he was one of the hundreds of thousands who were victims to “Reform through Labor”. He was publicly humiliated and attempted suicide many times during this period. This is just one story from a campaign of misery and sorrow.

So how is this event significant? There is of course historical significance, but what does this mean from a political standpoint? What does this have to say about communism? I believe the Hundred Flowers Campaign is a perfect example of communism’s complete incompatibility with criticism. When you have to enforce your ideas through force and desire no criticism, one must ask, how good are these ideas to begin with? Why is it that some of the most famous examples of far left countries such as the USSR, China, and Cuba all have an authoritarian government to back this economic system up?

I remember getting into a discussion with a Leninist I know. We were talking about the problems with the political compass test and he was complaining that it goes off the context of American politics. He supports freedom in the US, so the test puts him at bottom left, but if we lived in a socialist country, then things change. He would be perfectly supportive of an authoritarian socialist state and even identifies as someone in the top left quadrant.

Why is this? Is it possible that communism wouldn’t survive if these authoritarian governments allowed for free speech? Could skepticism alone kill communism? Perhaps this is why the left in America is so adamantly opposed to free speech. Yet this is all speculation, however, it is a speculation after looking at history.

Another way of looking at this historical event could be another example of a collective political powerhouse having a plan that goes wrong. What made Mao decide to push this campaign to begin with? What future did he envision? Little criticism but lots of support from intellectuals? Was Mao trying to gain more legitimacy? Either way the plan failed, but what’s significant here is that this is another example of a failed government program, this time with fatal consequences. Unfortunately as time went on in Communist China, these plans became even more fatal. Are there connections to be made within our own governments that involve failing plans? I’ll let you be the judge.

It’s at this point in the article that I’d like to pay some respects to those who we’ve lost to this campaign and those who have suffered as a result of it. I wouldn’t consider myself very patriotic at all considering I’m an anarcho-capitalist, however, I can’t help wishing these intellectuals would have lived in the United States where they would’ve had more freedom to speak than in Communist China. Maybe not the amount of freedom we’d like, but comparing the freedom we have here to the freedom they had in Communist China is like comparing a woolly mammoth to a spider.

We can, however, live for those who have been lost. Openly criticize the communist ideology as much as possible. These ideas aren’t only logically and empirically incorrect, but are fatal, and we wouldn’t have to speak up against it as much if those who did in Communist China were still alive.

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Santayana, George. “Quotes About Doomed To Repeat It (12 quotes).” (12 quotes). N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2017.

Meissner, Daniel. “Free Daisies Anyone? I Promise I Won’t Take Any of Them Back………The Hundred Flowers Campaign.” N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2017.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Hundred Flowers Campaign.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., n.d. Web. 12 May 2017.

King, Gilbert. “The Silence that Preceded China’s Great Leap into Famine.” Smithsonian Institution, 26 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 May 2017.

“The Hundred Flowers campaign.” Chinese Revolution. N.p., 21 Aug. 2015. Web. 12 May 2017.

“Hundred Flowers Campaign.” Hundred Flowers Campaign – New World Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2017.