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Human rights in China

Dai Huang, labelled a ‘rightist’ for doubting Mao, dies at age 88

A liberal Communist Party member for 72 years, veteran journalist did not live to witness the fulfilment his youthful aspirations – freedom and democracy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 February, 2016, 6:50pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 August, 2016, 10:43am

Veteran Chinese journalist Dai Huang, who was sent for two decades of hard labour as a “rightist” for doubting the supreme authority of Mao Zedong, died on Friday afternoon of a heart failure. He was 88.

Dai was hospitalised four months ago with pneumonia and suffered two cardiac arrests during his stay there, his daughter Dai Weiwei said. His condition worsened about a week ago, she said.

Dai joined the Communist Party 72 years ago as an idealistic 16-year-old, attracted by the then underground party’s early vision of social equality and democracy.

Even as his health deteriorated rapidly in hospital, he only talked about the fate of the country and his bitter disappointment that his youthful aspirations for freedom and democracy had not been realised.

“His mind could not be at rest. He was heartbroken that he was never able to see what he clamoured for his whole life – democracy and freedom – become reality,” his daughter said. “Those meant everything to him. But even when he died, he never managed to see what he went after.”

READ MORE: Daughter of journalist in ‘lingering shadow’

Wanting to fight corruption, one-party rule and the lack of rights and civil liberties, Dai became an underground member of the Communist Party in 1948 when China was still reeling from the Japanese invasion. Like many idealistic young people, he detested the corrupt Kuomintang government and was determined to dedicate his life to fight for a world of freedom and equality under a new regime.

He secretly wrote for clandestine party newspapers and braved bullets as a war correspondent for the Xinhua news agency when the communists were fighting the ruling KMT during the civil war. He also reported for Xinhua from the front line during the Korean war and Vietnam’s war of independence against the French.

In 1957, during the Communist Party’s “rectification” movement, Dai gave a speech on opposing the “deification” of Mao and the special privileges enjoyed by high-ranking cadres and was branded an “anti-party” element and a “rightist”.

For his doubts, he was sent in 1958 to do forced labour in the countryside. His first wife divorced him and his younger daughter was given away for fostering.

It wasn’t until late 1978, when liberal party leader Hu Yaobang cleared millions of political victims of false charges, that Dai Huang was able to return to his job at Xinhua. Although his label as a rightist was scrapped, he was never compensated for his 22 years of exile in hard labour, his daughter said.

Two years ago, he told the Post that Hu’s achievement stretched beyond the party’s vindication campaign by encouraging independent thinking and allowing people to have alternative views of Mao.

“He corrected what was wrong and restored things back to order. The vindication campaign was only part of that,” Dai, then 86, said in a written reply. “If China didn’t have Hu Yaobang – a leader who had the courage and spirit to say, ‘If I don’t go to hell, who will? – China’s ‘reform and opening’ would have been delayed.”

READ MORE: The man who questioned Mao – Hu Yaobang’s colleagues look back

In his later years, Dai felt betrayed by the party to which he entrusted his youthful dreams and was despondent that his lifelong struggles have not resulted in a democratic China. A journalist with a strong sense of justice, he often expressed frustration that China was still under one-party rule and that the Chinese people still did not enjoy many rights and freedoms, particularly press freedom which was particularly close to his heart.

“In the name of communism, Mao touted peace, democracy, equality and fraternity – that’s why we joined the party,” Dai sighed in an interview in 2011. “Doesn’t any of that count now?”

READ MORE: The taste of betrayal - veterans count the cost of lives sacrificed

Even in his 80s, he was still bothered by injustice. Dai, former People’s Daily chief editor Hu Jiwei, former Xinhua deputy director Li Pu and He Fang, a liberal party elder formerly with the foreign ministry, cosigned a petition in 2010 calling for the release of dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was jailed for 11 years on subversion charges. Hu, Li and now Dai have passed away since but Liu remains in jail.

Dai paid a heavy price throughout his life for his insistence on “speaking the truth”, said Dai Weiwei, who was born five days after her father was sent away during one of his banishments to the countryside. She was 14 when he was released.

“He was a particularly simple and straightforward person and had piercing observation. Even when he was nearly 90, he still had a burning heart,” she said. “The saddest thing is, his youthful aspirations were never realised.”