Ignorant of history

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2007, 12:00am

This month marks the 50th anniversary of a tragic event in Chinese history: the launching by Mao Zedong of the anti-rightist campaign in which hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were dubbed 'rightists' and purged. And this explains, to a large extent, the chaotic state of China's legal system today.

Deng Xiaoping was Communist Party secretary in the 1950s, and was in charge of carrying out the purge. Ironically, more than 20 years later - after he became China's leader - he was also the man who brought about the rehabilitation, often posthumously, of the great majority of the campaign's victims.

The anti-rightist campaign came on the heels of the Hundred Flowers Movement, when people were encouraged to openly criticise the party.

The country's intellectuals, assured that there would be no reprisals, let loose such a barrage of criticism that Mao was taken aback. Despite the party leaders' pledge, there was a merciless crackdown. Mao justified the Hundred Flowers Movement as a deliberate trick to 'lure snakes out of their holes'.

The party took aim at the legal profession, which had opposed the politicisation of the legal process, asked for greater judicial autonomy and safeguards for the accused. It also raised other issues, such as the presumption of innocence and party interference in judicial matters.

At that time, the party could not tolerate any questioning of its control of Chinese society - in particular, the court system - and it cannot do so today. The trend, in the early 1950s, towards the establishment of an independent judicial system was reversed.

The onslaught on the judiciary was so severe that the legal system was effectively dismantled. Some judges were declared 'rightists' and purged; others were sent to the countryside for 'reform through labour'. Judicial power was exercised by political cadres and the police. In 1959, the Ministry of Justice was eliminated. The government institutionalised a system of administrative punishment as an alternative to the court system. The police could send individuals to labour camps without trial for up to four years.

This system of 're-education through labour' continues today and is a black mark on China's international reputation. To this day, anyone in mainland China can be arrested by the police and sent to a labour camp without formal charges, without the benefit of a lawyer and without a trial.

Admittedly, the justice system has serious problems, what with confessions extracted through torture, closed hearings, denial of a defendant's right to meet his or her lawyer, and the like. But as long as re-education through labour remains on the books, the police have, in every case, the option to take it to court or simply send a suspect to a prison camp, without even going through the motions of a trial.

All the problems of the justice system today can be traced back to the anti-rightist campaign. The problem then, and now, is that the party has always been prone to ultra-leftism. It is always safer for a party member to lean to the left rather than to the right. After all, there has never been an anti-leftist campaign.

Mainland newspapers never talk about leftism as a problem. They do, however, use the term 'ultra-left', as though being left is always correct, although it is possible to go too far. However, it is always wrong to be a rightist.

The party knows that today's problems in the justice system stem from the 1957 campaign. In fact, the whole movement remains so sensitive that party officials are afraid to allow any public discussion of it. This year, the General Administration of Press and Publications has banned all books and articles about the campaign. Ten years ago, during the 40th anniversary, it did the same thing.

But this simply means that the party has not learned from its experience. Unfortunately, as philosopher George Santayana has warned us, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Even more unfortunately, since the communists insist on a monopoly of power, it is the 1.3 billion people who will suffer.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator