54 years on from Mao’s “hundred flowers speech”, China remains unfree

Liu Xiaobo is undoubtedly one of those flowers that Mao beckoned from the ground and like his predecessors, he too was weeded out. Yet as any gardener is aware, some plants will not be eradicated, writes Kate Allen, director of Amnesty UK.

Kate Allen is the director of Amnesty International UK (@AmnestyUK)

It is 54 years since China’s Chairman Mao Zedong made the infamous “hundred flowers speech”, often misquoted as the thousand flowers speech, calling for many ideas from many sources.

In it, he called for a new dawn of freedom to criticise and debate. He proposed a pluralism of political and social voices, in stark contrast to the suppressive autocracy that had gone before.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) ushered in this variety of views and solutions to national policy issues, launched under the slogan:

“Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.”

If it sounds utopian even now, imagine the ecstasy that must have been felt by Mao’s contemporaries in 1957.

A great many Chinese intellectuals took up the invitation to put forward their views; in return for their efforts, they met with a violent and extensive suppression.

“Let a thousand flowers bloom” has come to be used in the west as shorthand for drawing enemies into the open and flushing out dissidents. Whether or not it was a deliberate ruse, is disputed, but what is clear is that many of the individuals who put forward views which did not meet with Mao’s approval, were executed.

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there; assessing China’s subsequent record on freedom of expression a stark progress might be anticipated since Mao’s death nearly four decades ago. Not so.

The Chinese government remains one of the strictest in the world in terms of denying its citizens the right to freely express their thoughts. It regularly jails individuals for peacefully expressing their views or advocating democratic reform. Censorship is prolific, with the internet firewall now arguably a more invasive barrier than the more famous wall that has sliced through Northern China for more than two millennia.

The Chinese authorities use vague regulations to tightly control publication of politically sensitive material, including references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, human rights and democracy. The authorities maintain a tight control over the reporting of news on the internet, restricting licenses to only large, government-backed websites. Many social media sites remain blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

This week, the professional networking site Linkedin was added to the list, the first victim of China’s increased censorship clampdown in the wake of calls on the internet for pro-democracy demonstrations.

Twitter may be officially blocked in China, but is widely accessed and used, particularly by human rights defenders and their supporters who often use the social networking platform to quickly organise protests in support of human rights activists who are detained or tried in court. One such user is activist Cheng Jianping, who is thought to be the first Chinese citizen to become a prisoner of conscience on the basis of a single tweet, after she retweeted her fiancé’s tweet which made a satirical suggestion that the Japanese pavilion at the Shanghai Expo be attacked.

She was sentenced in November, without trial by an independent court, to a year in a re-education through labour camp for “disturbing social order”.

Cheng’s conviction is testament to the pervasive nature of China’s repression of online discussion and is a bad blow to one of the few bastions of uncensored expression in China. There are more traditional methods of repression that can be pointed to, and more renowned. In December last year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, the first time that the prize was awarded to a Chinese citizen in its 100-year history. Yet the Nobel laureate was unable to attend.

Liu Xiaobo is currently serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” for his part as the leading author behind “Charter 08”, a manifesto calling for the recognition of fundamental human rights in China.

Liu Xiaobo is undoubtedly one of those flowers that Mao beckoned from the ground and like his predecessors, he too was weeded out. Yet as any gardener is aware, some plants will not be eradicated. The hardiest varieties seem impervious to attempts to tame and conquer. Human rights defender Mao Hengfeng has been sent back to a labour camp just two days after her release on medical parole.

She was detained for demonstrating outside Liu Xiaobo’s trial. You can find out more about her case and call for her release here.

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